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Surry en Suze Polak

"we only spent a few hours in Sobibor"
On 10 March 1943, in Westerbork, the sisters Surry and Suze Polak from The Hague were put on a transport to Sobibor. ‘We only spent a few hours in Sobibor,’ they stated in 1947. They did see how the people who had difficulty walking were hauled on to tippers and driven into the camp via a narrow-gauge rail. What the Polak sisters did not know at that time was that those tippers were driven to the camp’s Lager III, where the occupants were shot immediately.

The same train on which they had arrived took the Polak sisters and about thirty other women - including Cato Polak, Sophia Huisman, Bertha Ensel, Judith Eliazar and Jetje Veterman - to Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp, where they saw that the men were shackled. After that they went to a Majdanek subcamp in Lipowa, to the so-called Flughafen-Lager. ‘In Flughafen we had to do slave labour. We hauled stones and built barracks.’ They were also put to work sorting clothes and personal possessions of victims. In late October 1943 they and a group of other Dutch women were taken by automobile to the town of Milejow, where they worked in the marmalade factory. Early November there were rumours about shocking events that had taken place in Lublin and the surrounding area. ‘We knew that something was up, that something bad was happening. We were told to stay inside the barracks all day. The guard said we were going to be burned. At that time we didn’t know about the gas chambers yet.’ The women in the marmalade factory were lucky, because on 3 November Himmler had announced Aktion Erntefest, and had ordered all the Jews in the camps Trawniki, Lublin-Majdanek and a few smaller camps to be shot. During the operation a total of more than 42,000 Jews were killed. Himmler had probably decided on the massacre for fear of more irregularities in the camps, after the uprising and escape on 14 October in the heavily guarded Sobibor. Also, in early August the prisoners in extermination camp Treblinka had already revolted.

"had we been able to speak Polish we would have escaped"
Shortly after the massacre Surry and Suze were taken to the camp near Trawniki, together with a group of men and women. ‘The barracks in Trawniki were hermetically sealed when we arrived. The people who had been in the camp had all been shot.’ The girls had to get food, while the men were ordered to burn the bodies, among other things. The slave labourers were told over and over that they themselves would also be shot at the final roll call. ‘When all the bodies were burned, the men were indeed shot.’ Death was the dominant theme of the sisters’ stay in the camp. ‘One morning there were hundreds of German refugees. They were all shot. A few were hiding in the camp. When these people were found and shot, we had to remove them. Occasionally we would find bodies when we emptied out the barracks.’

When the sisters Polak worked in Trawniki, two Polish girls managed to escape from the camp. ‘Had we been able to speak Polish we could have done the same. Now there was no point.’ There was tension between the Dutch and the Polish Jews in the labour camp. The Polish girls ‘called us anti-Semites. We did not know the Jewish language, and therefore we could not be Jews.’ The Dutch girls were also annoyed at the hypocrisy of the Polish Jews, who professed to be very devout. But ‘we almost never got anything from them. Only if they saw you were on the brink of death, then they might give you something, but if they saw you were doing OK, then they were terribly jealous.’ Suze and Surry also observed that there was a big difference between the Jews from the ghettos and the Jews from the cities. ‘The Jews from Warsaw were very different. Those people were more cultured.’

"we were terribly skinny"
After about seven months the sisters were returned to the concentration and extermination camp Lublin-Majdanek because the Red Army was advancing. Here the Polak sisters worked on the land and in the laundry for a while. When the Soviet army closed in on this camp also, the crematoria were blown up and the prisoners had to march west to Auschwitz, together with the retreating Wehrmacht soldiers. ‘As we left the camp there were aeroplanes everywhere, flying low. The soldiers walked in the middle, we were on the outside.’ Along the way there was friction between the SS and the Wehrmacht. ‘They argued and they shot at each other’ every two minutes. During the death march to Auschwitz many prisoners were not spared: ‘many were killed along the way.’ If it had been up to the SS all prisoners would have been killed, but the Wehrmacht successfully opposed the mass murder plan. Eventually the women went to Birkenau, and the men were taken to Auschwitz. ‘We were considered a privileged transport, because we had shielded the Huns.’

On arrival the women were allowed to wash up and they were given plenty of food. Their heads were not shaven, but they were given a number. In the camp Suze and Surry first carried sods, later they were assigned to the Scheisskommando and they had to empty the buckets with faeces. The sight of the gas chambers filled them both with dread. At night they heard ‘the screams of the people who were carried off’. When the Russian front approached Auschwitz, both sisters were put on transport and imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen, further to the west. Here they had to cut wood and haul soup kettles. However, the supply of food was totally insufficient. ‘When we were put on transport again, we had to go into the transport barracks. We all slept on the floor. You would have to get up at least ten times every night. It was very difficult to find your spot again in the dark. We were all terribly skinny and even the slightest touch was incredibly painful, so people were screaming all the time. Many died in Bergen-Belsen, not from being beaten, but from hunger.’

"the German women were scared to death of us"
After some time Suze and Surry were again put on transport, this time to the southeast. ‘We stopped for days. They didn’t know where to take us anymore. On the way we encountered countless transports. There was nothing to eat and we were terribly thirsty. Along the way an awful lot of people died. You would be lying between people who had died of spotted fever.’ Via Raguhn in the east of Germany the train travelled through Czechoslovakia for days and eventually stopped north of Prague in Theresienstadt. More than 88,000 of the total of over 140,000 mainly Czech and German Jews who had been imprisoned in this so-called Altersghetto, had been taken to death camps when the Polak sisters arrived there. About 34,000 people died inside the ghetto itself. Both Polak sisters survived and were liberated by the Red Army on 8 May 1945. After the liberation Surry became ill with spotted fever and she was taken to the hospital barracks. The sisters had a low opinion of the Russian nurses. ‘The Russians treated us badly. The Russian nurses, for example, were rude. If you asked for something you wouldn’t get it. They just threw bread at you. There were doctors who couldn’t even tell the time. If you asked them what time it was, they didn’t know.’ In the former ghetto the period of mild revenge had come for the former prisoners. ‘German women had to do the dirty work. There were no water pipes, only a pump. We made them do everything; we made them run for the smallest things. They were all scared to death of us.’ After Surry had recovered the Polak sisters were taken to the Netherlands by the French army.

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