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Ursula Stern

Ursula Stern

"it went without saying that we would fight"
On the run from the national socialists, the Stern family from Essen, like other German Jews, had settled in the Netherlands. Here 16-year-old Ursula Stern was betrayed and arrested at the Utrecht address where she was in hiding; she was taken to the police station as a ‘punishment case’. By way of the prison on the Amstelveenseweg in Amsterdam and the SS concentration camp in Vught she was taken to the Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Westerbork. From here she was put on a transport, on April 6th, to a destination still unknown to her and the other deportees. Initially she thought she would be taken to Auschwitz, but the final destination turned out to be Sobibor. On arrival dozens of girls and men were selected, as usual, to work in the camp. ‘We were selected right away,’ Ursula stated in 1947. The elderly and disabled were immediately hauled on to tippers and removed, while the others were directed to a large barracks where they had to hand over all their luggage. ‘In a speech the Germans told the people who were going to the gas chamber not to think they could be idle,’ Ursula remembers. The SS also said that the train for Ukraine was waiting and that they would be transported there ‘to work, but first they were to bathe’. Ursula and the others who had been selected to work in the camp waited for half an hour and were then brought into the camp.

The gas chambers were in Lager III, which was hermetically sealed off from the other sections of the camp. Ursula and others were put to work in the sorting barracks in Lager II, some 300 metres away. In spite of the strict isolation of the gas chamber section it soon became clear what was happening there. Ursula heard, for example, that the people who had to work in this section of the camp were also gassed after a while, but that many did not wait for that moment and took their own lives. Ursula and many others around her were also convinced they would not be leaving the camp alive, but ‘it also went without saying that we would fight when they would come to shoot us,’ she remembers.

"from the notes inside the rucksacks we knew the children’s transport arrived from Vught"
The work in Lager II included sorting the clothes and possessions that the victims had been told to leave behind in the undressing area. On Fridays there was often a transport from the Netherlands, as Ursula could tell by the goods she had to sort. She remembers ‘that the children’s transport arrived from Vught, we could tell by the rucksacks. We only knew it was a Vught transport from the notes inside the rucksacks that said what these people had been told in Vught, namely that they were going to Riga.’ On 6 June 1943 the Jewish children up to the age of four and their mothers had left Vught, one day later the older children up to age 17 with their fathers or mothers. The transports - consisting of some 1270 children - went via Westerbork to Sobibor, where the victims were gassed almost immediately in Lager III.

The work in the sorting barracks enabled the prisoners to supplement their miserable diet of bread, coffee and soup with the articles of food they found in the luggage after the arrival of a transport. The prisoners came from various countries. There were Poles, Russians, Germans and Belgians, French and Dutch nationals. According to Ursula relations between the Dutch prisoners were good, but there were frictions, for example between secular Dutch Jews and the religious Polish Jews.

"I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone"
Ursula occasionally also worked in the Waldkommando, the work detail that cut down trees outside the camp in the forest, and sawed them into pieces. The wood was needed to burn the bodies from the gas chambers, among other things. The men in this detail also dug wells, and when these had to be reinforced with concrete rings after a while, the Germans also designated women to help. After the decision was made to build a Lager IV for the storage of captured Russian ammunition, Ursula worked on the construction of barracks in this new section of the camp.

Apart from the select group of people that made up the underground committee, almost no-one knew that plans were being made for an uprising and escape from the camp. Ursula was one of the very few who knew what was going on, but even she did not know exactly when the uprising was to take place. ‘I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone,’ she said after the war, ‘because several earlier attempts had already failed.’ The plan was to get as many SS as possible into barracks or workshops and kill them there in a one-hour period. Roll call would then take place as usual, and in order to fool the Ukrainian guards, the Soviet POWs - who had been brought to the camp in September 1943 - were to appear at roll call dressed in German uniforms. They were to march the prisoners to the gate, supposedly to work outside the camp. As it was impossible to reach the prisoners in the isolated Lager III, they were not included in the plans for the uprising and escape. Ursula kept mum about the plans as she had been ordered, and did not even tell her friend Selma Wijnberg, who was sick in the barracks with typhoid fever and feared she was going to die. ‘I did not tell her my secret,’ Ursula recounts, ‘because I was afraid she would let something slip in her fever.’ As it turned out later, Selma also knew about the impending uprising and she had also been able to keep silent.

"I climbed over the fence"
The uprising and escape on 14 October 1943 did not go completely according to plan. The prisoners did succeed in killing a number of SS, but during roll call things went wrong. Suspicious because roll call was earlier than normal, the prisoners, who knew nothing about any escape plan, did not see any familiar SS and therefore would not line up in the usual fashion. One Ukrainian guard who came running tried to restore order. Someone yelled: ‘Man, the war is over!’ and in the ensuing chaos the guard was killed by the prisoners. Shortly after that the SS came into action and a gunfight broke out with the armed prisoners. The Ukrainian guards also emptied their rifles into the fleeing prisoners. One group of women ran back to the barracks in a panic, while Ursula ran with the largest group towards the main gate. Other prisoners tried to climb over the barbed wire fencing, but walked into the minefield on the other side and were blown up.

Ursula did manage to escape via the barbed wire. ‘I climbed over the fence, there were mines around the camp, bullets came from all sides and this caused many more people to fall. I heard mines exploding everywhere, but I didn’t look around.’ Together with a Polish girl she fled into the forest and after wandering around for a while the Polish girl found her husband again. He was with the partisans ‘and we joined them too’.

"it was worse than the camp"
Ursula had survived the extermination camp and she was free, but she was still in a war zone and far from safe. Despite the permanent threat of being put to work in Lager III, and despite the continuous violence against the prisoners, as an Arbeitshäftling she had at least had a roof over her head. Nevertheless she was able to declare after the war: ‘That time after the liberation was not easy at all, for me it was worse than the camp, it was horrible’. According to her the Polish partisans she had joined ‘were really the storm troops for the Russians; it was a totally organized army with generals etc. and the groups were constantly given orders to carry out’. The living conditions in Poland after the camp could be brutal. ‘It was incredibly cold. For six months, from October to March, we slept in ice, snow and rain.’ But Ursula got through it and did not even get sick during this period. She and Saartje Wijnberg from Groningen were the only deportees from Westerbork to Sobibor to survive the death camp. After living in the Netherlands for a while Ursula Stern emigrated to Israel, where she died in 1985 as Ilona Safran.

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Read the 1964 testimony of Ursula Stern

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