Mark Forstater : I Survived a Secret Nazi Extermination Camp

I Survived a Secret Nazi Extermination Camp

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Witness to Evil

In May 2010 I visited Majdanek Concentration Camp, just outside Lublin, Poland. It was the first time I had been to a concentration camp. Majdanek was a smaller version of Auschwitz. It was opened as a concentration camp to which ovens were added, which transformed it into an extermination camp. At least 80,000 people died there, including Polish soldiers and patriots, Soviet POWs, and 50,000 Jews.

I went to Lublin to research my family's roots. My paternal grandparents had left the city in 1904 to emigrate to Philadelphia. I wanted to see where they had come from. I had begun a genealogy chart and wanted to fill in the missing relatives. I had no idea who they were or what they did.

Majdanek is now a Polish State Museum and there was a small selection of books (mostly in Polish) held by a wire mesh against the Museum's admission desk. I was attracted to a book called BELZEC. As I was looking at it, my young Polish guide told me that Belzec was the extermination camp where the Jews of Lublin had been transported and killed. Probably my grandfather's sister, nieces, nephews and cousins, the ones who had not been lucky enough to leave Poland, had been murdered there.

I took the book back to my hotel and read it that night. I had never heard of Belzec, although I was aware of its sister death camps of Treblinka and Sobibor.

Belzec remains the unknown death camp, mainly because it had so few survivors. No records were kept and its entire existence was a secret, since all orders setting it up were given verbally with nothing committed to writing. The Nazis understood they were perpetrating a profound crime- the industrial murder of innocent men, women and children- and they did everything to keep this crime hidden. Camps like Belzec were placed deep in the countryside with few neighbours to see what was happening.

The book told me the bleak, bare facts about Belzec but it also had a detailed witness statement made in 1946 by the only post-war survivor of the Camp. Rudolf Reder, a Jew from Lvov, was transported by freight train to Belzec in August 1942. Almost everyone who was brought to Belzec was killed within two hours of arrival, but Reder's engineering skills enabled him to survive for four months. Somehow he managed to inform the Nazis that he could be useful – and he became indispensable.

The tank engine which produced the carbon monoxide gas that killed the victims needed to be maintained and repaired. The Nazis and their Ukrainian helpers who ran the camp seem to have been unable to fix anything so Reder became a really useful Jew.

Reder's job gave him access to all parts of the camp so that he was witness to the incredible and barely believable horrors that the Nazis perpetrated on their enemies. He saw things that were so horrible and inhumane that they etched themselves into his memory.

After four months working there, he was sent to Lvov to collect some steel plates for the camp. After loading the truck, three of his Nazi guards went off for a drink, leaving one behind to guard him. After an hour, Reder heard snoring, and realised his guard was deep in sleep. Slowly exiting the truck, he walked behind it looking as if he was checking the tarpaulin, and then made a quick escape into the dark streets of his former home town.

After his escape, he managed to hide for 18 months until the war ended, when he could emerge into the light of day. Reder eventually emigrated to Canada and died there in 1970. He lost most of his family in the camps. Only his daughter Zofia survived, and I eventually tracked her existence to a house in Wembley in the 1960s. However the trail then went cold and I have not been able to trace any other relatives.

In 1946, a Jewish Historical Commission in Cracow started to gather evidence for Nazi war crimes, and Reder dictated his story to this commission.

When I read his account I was shattered. The living hell that the Jews were subjected to was unbearable and unspeakable, and the fact that my relatives might have been the people he was describing, made it all very personal. I decided to do everything possible to make sure that this story should never be forgotten.

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