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Escapes from Belzec Transports

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Last Update 9 August 2006


This subject has never been described in great detail. However, we could say that it was a very frequent form of Jewish resistance during Aktion Reinhard. When deportations to the Belzec death camp began, most of the victims believed the trains were really taking them to the Ukraine to work. Even when the first escapers from the trains or directly from Belzec came back to the ghettos (like Lejb Wolsztejn from Zamosc ghetto, Mina Astman from Zolkiew, or three boys whose names are not known, who returned to the Lublin ghetto in March 1942), other Jews could not believe it was possible to kill thousands of people in so short a time. Only after several months, as the transports continued and became more frequent, did people start to think about how to save their lives. Some of them tried to hide in bunkers inside the ghettos; others tried to escape from the ghettos and survive on the "Aryan side". For those who found themselves in the trains, the only way left to try to survive was to jump out of the train – it was the last act of resistance available to them. In autumn-winter 1942, hundreds of people tried to jump out of the trains going to Belzec. Today the old Polish inhabitants of the villages located on the railway line from Lublin to Belzec, especially those close to Belzec, still remember the "jumpers". Most of them were killed by the guards on the trains. Some were killed by the fall. Seriously wounded people very often died only after lying beside the railway line for several days, either because the Poles or Ukrainians were afraid to help them, or because they were killed by the policemen who patrolled the railways. Some jumpers were denounced by local collaborators. Only very few jumpers survived.
People tried to jump out of the trains even when the transports had already reached Belzec village. In autumn 1942 a very famous incident took place when a group of deported Jews broke down the wall of their cattle car and started to jump out as the train was passing between the houses of the village. Very quickly SS members of Belzec camp staff and German policemen from Tomaszow Lubelski organised a hunt for them. Many people from this transport were killed before the eyes of the Polish inhabitants of Belzec. It is not known if anyone from this group survived.
People also jumped off the death trains on the railway lines to Sobibor and Treblinka. Here we present two excerpts from the memoirs of people who survived because they jumped off a train, and an account by someone who witnessed "jumpers".

Excerpt from the memoirs of Mila Szternzys:

The mass resettlements of Jews began in 1942 and on 18 October 1942 the Germans ordered all Jews to go to Izbica. We walked for about 5 hours from Zolkiewka to Izbica. We all gathered in front of the cinema, and we were divided by groups according to the towns we came from (Zamosc, Zolkiewka, Turobin, Krasnystaw, Piaski...). I remember it was very cold and raining that day. Later the Germans ordered us to get on the train.
They ordered: 'The inhabitants of Zolkiewka must go to the train!' The whole group ran to the train, and then the Germans changed the order and sent another group, and so we were tormented until the evening. In the meantime they shot at us. I remember killed victims, rain, blood, crying and screaming. That was when the Rabbi Feldhendler and his wife and daughter were killed. My family and I went to the train. They were cattle cars for animals and on the floor was chlorine. The air was stifling and we were huddled in this cattle car, some people were dying, some already dead and we stood on their bodies and this chlorine stung our eyes. We had no food and water and I stood close to the wall. Through the hole in the wall of the cattle car I could gather one spoon of rainwater and to drink a little of it. I was able to write a letter to Mr Krol (our neighbour from Zolkiewka) and I threw it out of the train.
After three hours the train started in the direction of Belzec – we knew exactly where we were going. The men pulled out the grate in the window. People started to jump out of the train. My brother had already jumped out, and my mother told me: 'Jump out, my child, you have so many girlfriends, they will help you!' I jumped out after the second railway station (Zawada) and I was lucky because I landed in the ditch. Others were less lucky – they jumped out exactly under the next train, or were sometimes killed by the German bullets (the Germans shot at us). I got a bullet in my thigh but I did not feel it. I had sprained both legs and I could not walk. Luckily, I found a man with a big heart who was called Marcin Szewc. He drove by with a horse and wagon and he found me. When he asked me what had happened, I lied, saying I was a Pole and the Germans wanted to deport me to Germany for slave labour but I had escaped them. Mr Szewc took my hands and put me on his wagon and took me to his home.

The author of these memoirs lost in Belzec death camp her parents Szmul Frydrych, born in 1899 and Pesa Frydrych, born in 1898, her sister Ruchla, born in 1928, and her brother Abram Frydrych, born in 1935. Although Marcin Szewc realised Mila Frydrych-Szternzys was Jewish, he helped her to get well, and when she had recovered he smuggled her to a village near Zolkiewka where she survived the war. In 2004 she is living in Brazil.

Excerpt from testimony by Franciszek Wloch (Yad Vashem Archives, 03/1132):

Rawa Ruska
Rawa Ruska
At the beginning of the deportations to Belzec, the people wore their clothes and they still had valuables which they used mainly to pass them through the train windows to pay for water which was bought from the staff at the railway station. It was possible to talk with them. The Jews who worked at the railway station warned them that about 22 km away there was a death camp. The people in the cattle cars did not believe this and they laughed at them and told them the Germans were taking them to work...
Several months later the transports arrived in much worse condition. The windows were closed with barbed wire, there were guards not only at the end of the train but also at the beginning, behind the locomotive. There were also transports with chlorine on the floor of the cattle cars. In the winter the people were naked and they looked like skeletons. In empty cattle cars which went back through Rawa Ruska, we found cut out holes through which the people threw out the children or tried to jump out. Several or even dozens of bodies of these desperate people were found on the railway line every day. The whole railway line was also covered by fragments of bank-notes and valuables. It sometimes happened that somebody jumped out of the transport successfully. Naked people died mainly because it was cold.
Rawa Ruska Station
Rawa Ruska Station
I don’t know of a case where the local population, Polish or Ukrainian, rescued this escaper. The local people helped only by giving them pieces of bread. The Germans gave special orders that everybody should denounce encounters with these naked people.
Franciszek Wloch was a Pole who during the war lived in Rawa Ruska, 22 km from Belzec death camp. Rawa Ruska was one of the last railway stations where transports deporting Jews to Belzec and, from the beginning of 1943, to Sobibor, stopped. Wloch worked at the railway station in Rawa and could thus observe these transports. In 1943 he met Maria Korman, a Jewish woman who had escaped from a transport, and rescued her. After the war he married her and in 1957 they emigrated to Israel.

Excerpt from the memoirs of Janett Margolies:

On the Road to Death
On 8 November 1942, when I was busy carrying my belongings to another house, I noticed that there suddenly was a panic and shooting. Understanding that this was an Aktion, I ran into another house with other neighbours to hide in the cellar, which had a special hiding place. (...)
After a short time, the Germans forced their way in, and together with the Jewish police, chased us out of the cellar, taking from us our rings, watches, and money. 'It isn't needed anymore.' I was severely beaten up, und later found myself near Kazimierzowska Street.
There were already many people there. More victims were continuously brought in. Dead bodies were lying on the streets. Shooting was heard all the time. The staff of the Gestapo, headed by Miller (Müller ?), stood in the wheat mill on the Baron-Hirsch Street. In a small area in the mill, one thousand people were squeezed together, one close to the other. Suddenly we were told to sit down, which naturally was impossible. But when a few received blows to their heads with riffle butts, and the blood started to flow, all dropped to the floor, one on top of the other. This position was intolerable. The watchmen continued the beating. The dead and the living were mixed together. People were sitting on dead bodies, and walking over them. The watchmen kept changing continuously because they could not stand the stale air.
We were forced to sit this way for two days without water or food. In the meantime, the Judenrat members and the police pulled out their friends, replacing them with other victims. The figure had to be exact. At the end of the second day, we were led outside into the street, divided into groups of ten, and led the railroad station. I said goodbye to the known streets, to the visible cemetery, trying to walk fast, in order not get hit over the head. We were surrounded tightly by the Jewish and Ukrainian police, with the Gestapo and the SS, led by Storm Trooper Miller (Müller ?) himself. The Christian people were standing on the sidewalks, looking eagerly toward the marching crowd. Their looks were indifferent, often even smiling...
On the way, a policeman came close to me, whispering quietly into my ear to join the younger ladies in the wagon. When we arrived at the railroad station, the men were separated, and we were pushed toward the railroad cars. I did observe where the young were concentrated, joining them in the wagon, which was closed and sealed.

A Jump into Life
We were eighty women. The small windows were high up, with bars and thorny wire. Once inside, we found out that somebody had smuggled in a file to cut bars. I started to organize a crew. Standing on top of the others, we started to work. The train continued to run. When the job was finished, and the bars cut, each candidate, legs through the window, then hold on with their hands, later with only one hand, and with a strong swing, jump into the direction of the running train.
I stood watching the jumping. Most of them were killed on the spot. Some were killed by trains coming from the opposite direction. Others were shot by Gestapo watchmen. Those who succeeded were later caught by special railroad watchmen. Of all the Tarnopol train jumpers, I think that I was the only left alive.
I took quite a while to decide to jump, or not to jump. I realized fully, how hopeless the situation looked. (...) I decided to jump. Already hanging outside the wagon, I got tangled up in the thorny wire. Being scared, I cried out loudly, feeling that I was falling down. A shot was heard over my head. It was a watchman. Luckily he missed. At the same moment I noticed a locomotive running straight toward me. With my last strenght, I rolled over downwards into a depression. All this lasted just a few seconds. I was saved, but badly injured, bleeding from my head and hands. I tore out a little frozen grass, putting it on my wounds. I succeeded in stopping the bleeding. Later I wiped it off my face, bringing myself to order.

Janett Margolies, a Jewish woman from Tarnopol (Eastern Galicia), survived the war. From 1941 until 8 November 1942 she was in the Tarnopol Ghetto, where she survived several "actions". On 8 November 1942 about 2,400 Jews from Tarnopol were deported to the Belzec death camp. When the Germans captured Tarnopol, about 18,000 Jews lived in the town. The first deportation from Tarnopol ghetto to Belzec was organised on 31 August 1942 – about 5,000 people were deported on this occasion. Only a small group of young men was selected and sent to Janowska labour camp in Lwow.
Before this first deportation hundreds of the local Jews had already been shot during pogroms or mass executions. The Jews remaining in Tarnopol very soon obtained information about Belzec. People in the ghetto received letters from Lwow recounting the fate of their relatives. The next deportations from Tarnopol were organised on 30 September and 5 October 1942, when 1,200 Jews were deported to Belzec. The last deportation from Tarnopol to Belzec was on 8 December 1942, when 1,400 Jews were sent there.

The memoirs of Janett Margolies were published under the title "Between Cruelty and Death" in: "Alliance for Murder. The Nazi-Ukrainian Nationalist Partnership in Genocide."
The ghetto in Tarnopol survived until 23 June 1943, when the last Jews there were executed. The chief of the Gestapo, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Müller, bore overall responsibility for the mass murder of the Jews of Tarnopol and Brzezany county. In 1966 he was tried in Stuttgart (Germany) and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Excerpt from the testimony of Yakov Gurfein:

Rawa Ruska
Yakov Gurfein in 1961
"One morning, in the middle of January 1943, they woke us up. We saw that we were surrounded by SS men who were stationed around the ghetto. They ordered us to line up in the courtyard, allowed each one to take a blanket, and led us on foot to the Zaslaw camp (from Sanok ghetto). At Zaslaw they put everyone into one hall and kept us there for three days and two nights. They didn't give us any food or drink. They didn’t allow us to go outside for our personal needs. We relieved ourselves inside this hall. Everything. In front of each other, women and children and men together.
On Friday morning they put us into railway waggons. In the morning we heard that a train was arriving and we saw that there were ten railway waggons. At the railway entrance SS men stood with dogs, and they commanded us to get into them, to crowd into these waggons. We didn't resist and we boarded the train. We no longer had any strength left. Very simply, we wanted it to end quickly. After so many years we did not have the strength to resist any more.
We were 1,300 souls. And we were lucky. I counted the people in our waggon - there were 103 of us. This was a French freight waggon, and there was a notice on the door: 8 horses or 40 people. I read French. When they put us in all together into the waggons, there was no place to stand or sit. Some of the people sat on the floor, some stood, and then every hour we exchanged positions. We relieved ourselves in the corner of this waggon. There were women and children and old people together. They closed the door. The windows were already shut, and also secured with barbed wire. I was in that waggon from Friday morning until 2 o'clock the next morning. They gave us neither food nor drink. They didn't even allow us to bring snow into the waggon. We wanted to quench our thirst with snow; even this they forbade, and they shot into the waggon ahead of us because someone had brought a little snow into it.
Towards noon the train moved. We could notice through the aperture in the windows that the train was travelling in the direction of Przemysl - after that in the direction of Jaroslaw. We knew that they were exterminating the Jews of the surroundings in the camp at Belzec*. We decided that if the train turned to the right in the direction of Rawa Ruska, we would try to burst out of the train. To the right was in the direction of Belzec, and left in the direction of Krakow.
We still had only a spark of hope that perhaps they were transferring us to Plaszow that was a labour camp near Krakow. (We knew it because) they announced, day and night, that they needed the trains for their victory. We couldn't understand that nevertheless they found the time to transport the Jews for extermination all the time and to use trains for them. On every train there was an inscription: Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg (Wheels must roll for the sake of victory).
At that time I didn't believe that the programme was to destroy the Jewish people, despite the fact that I had heard reports from Belzec. We received reports, but the spark of hope, nevertheless, still flickered in our hearts and we hoped that, perhaps, despite this, some miracle would occur. They kept promising day and night that they were stopping the deportations, the exterminations. For from the moment that we saw that the train was going in the direction of Belzec*, it turned in the direction of Rawa Ruska, some spark was ignited.
We managed to force the window open and several of the people in the train jumped out. We saw someone jumping and some spark was kindled within people who wanted to save themselves. Each time a person jumped out, we heard shots. On each waggon there was an SS man with a machine gun. At approximately 2 o'clock in the morning - this was beyond Jaroslaw - my mother pushed me from the waggon and told me to jump. I jumped from the waggon. As I said, we wanted to die more quickly. There nevertheless was an impulse. I wouldn't have jumped, if my mother hadn't pushed me forcibly. I left behind, inside, my mother and my brother. I hid in the snow. They halted the train and began to shoot in my direction. I crossed to the other side of the track and dug myself into the snow; I remained in the snow for two hours until I heard the train moving.
I didn't see my mother after this, nor any members of my family.

* The deportees could not know that the extermination camp Belzec was liquidated by then, and that the train was heading somewhere else (Sobibor via Izbica?).
Based on the transcript of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Excerpt from the memoirs of Ruta Wermuth:

Ruta Wermuth
Ruta Wermuth
"In September 1942, the entire population of the (Kolomyja) ghetto were ordered to gather in the yard of the Judenrat, allegedly to be registered. Some 5,000 people presented themselves. In the manner commonly used by the Germans by way of "selection", approximately 300 were chosen and sent to the right – which meant life. All others, surrounded by Ukrainian militia and SS men with specially trained dogs, were herded in the direction of the railway station.

...The column moved slowly towards the railway station. Apart from the sound of the scraping of thousands of feet, it was amazingly quiet. From time to time a child would cry, to be quickly silenced by its mother. There were only a few children and elderly men and women. Always amongst the weakest of the ghetto inmates, many of the youngest and eldest had perished earlier. The ghetto had been closed in early spring, and terror, hunger and disease had prowled there ceaselessly.

...It was a long journey to the railway station, situated on the outskirts of the town. We waited in vain for a miracle to happen... We came to the station buildings, but we were driven on further, to the ramp, where a very long train with many cattle wagons was waiting. The doors of the wagons were already open, ready for loading. There was an odour of chlorine, which had been abundantly sprinkled within the wagons. Obedient to this point, at the sight of the train the column wavered, then with a final cry of despair, broke and dispersed. Did I scream too? If so, it was subconsciously, joining in the anguish of all around me.
Suddenly we heard shooting. An additional detachment of Ukrainian militia ran towards the ramp. Like the Gestapo, they carried long whips. The SS and militia began to attack the crowd, who were already deranged with fear. The nightmare began.
Barking dogs, cracking whips, the guttural orders of Germans and the vulgar shouts of Ukrainians: "Vorwärts, los, los, schnell, schnell!" and "Go on, you damned Jewish pigs!", the screaming voices all merging into a single yell. Attempting to avoid the beating, people quickly helped each other to climb the high steps of the cattle wagons for the assumed safety of the wagons' interiors. Wave by wave, driven on, insulted and cursed, the people rapidly filled the wagons.
When it was so full that it seemed impossible than any more could be crammed in, a drunken Ukrainian militiaman climbed into the wagon and began swinging his whip and shooting in all directions. As a result, people standing near him pushed themselves further into the wagon in order to avoid the lashing whip. Into the space thus created, another group was forced, to the accompaniment of shouting and shooting. This method of filling the wagons had been long established.

...The screaming and yelling did not cease until late afternoon, when the train finally moved. To where? There was no doubt – ultimately to death.
I was in one of those wagons, along with my parents. We were still together. My parents probably thanked God that I often lost consciousness, because what was taking place inside the wagon exceeded the most vivid conception of purgatory.
How long did it last? Hours? Eternity?

Whenever I recovered consciousness I was still there – in hell. In a wagon that could hardly contain 50 or 60 people, some 200 had been packed. (...) Cries, stench, and the acrid odour of chlorine...
Through the screams and the drumming of the wheels we could hear shooting. In a moment of awareness, I realized that we were standing naked, pressed to the side of the wagon. With their intertwined arms, my parents had created a kind of shelter. It was thanks to this that I was still alive. I noticed that everybody was naked, although I remembered that we had all entered the wagon fully clothed. It was so hot that people had somehow managed to undress themselves in the midst of the crowd. Those standing in the middle were probably already dead, but were unable to fall down.
Suddenly, I felt a breath of fresh air. There was now more room around us. My mother whispered in my ear:"Do you hear me dear? If you understand what I say, just nod. Some young people managed to make a hole in the side of the wagon and they are jumping out, one by one. We have decided to do the same. First Papa will jump, then you, and finally me. The train is going through the forest now. Its night. If you make it, try to hide in the forest. Don't be afraid. We will find you afterwards..." I nodded that I understood. Before I realised what was happening, strong arms took me up and pushed me out of the wagon through a narrow hole. I was suspended for a moment, held by my armpits, choked by the blast of fresh air. I became more aware. Not for long. The arms that held me opened and I fell into a dark abyss...

Alliance for Murder. The Nazi-Ukrainian Nationalist Partnership in Genocide. Ed. by B. F. Sabrin. New York 1991
Thomas Sandkühler: "Endlösung" in Galizien. Der Judenmord in Ostpolen und die Rettungsinitiativen von Berthold Beitz 1941-1944. Bonn 1996.
Transcript of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Session 21; 1 May 1961. (District Court Sessions, Volume I)
Ruta Wermuth: Spotkalam Ludzi ("I Met People"), Poznan 2002.

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