By Thomas Kues
In 2005, historians Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband published a volume entitled What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany (John Murray, London). The book contains a number of recent interviews with Germans as well as Jews of German nationality deported to ghettos and “death camps”. One of the latter is Ernst Levin, born in Breslau (Wroclaw) in 1925. In January 1943 he was deported to Auschwitz, where he worked in the Buna-Werke in Monowitz (Auschwitz III). The most interesting part of the Levin interview, however, does not concern Mr. Levin himself, but a friend of his in Breslau (pp. 74-75):
“Just about four weeks before I went on my transport, there was one transport before mine and a friend of mine named Helmut went on that transport. That transport wound up in Treblinka. In a place near Treblinka, there was also a contingent of Germans working, one of whom we had known. Helmut wrote a letter and gave it to this man and said: ‘Send it to my Ernst.’ I got this letter. I never knew who sent it or how they got it out. He told me in this letter that he was near Treblinka and ‘hier ist ein Lager, wo die Menschen chemisch behandelt werden.’ [here is a camp were the people are being treated with chemicals.] It is amazing that even at that time he wouldn’t say that they were gassed. Isn’t that amazing? I was thinking, ‘what the heck does he mean?’ I guess he eventually was gassed. He certainly didn’t survive.”
What is especially striking about the letter’s reported content is the wording “chemisch behandelt” (“chemically treated”). According to official historiography, the alleged mass killings at Treblinka were carried out using engine exhaust gas. Obviously no ordinary person would connect exhaust gas with chemicals. The early war-time and post-war claims about killings with steam and vacuum on the other hand are impossible to connect with the concept of “chemical treatment”. From Levin’s statement it is clear that his friend Helmut did not write that the deportees died from the “chemical treatment” (otherwise Levin would have easily drawn the conclusion that the phrase referred to mass killings using some chemical agent).
Since the reported message from the Breslau Jew Helmut is only fragmentary, it is as good as impossible to draw any conclusions from it. It is possible, though, that “chemisch behandelt” is a reference to a part of a delousing procedure. The Ostarbeiter Galina K., who worked in a transit camp near Hannover during the war, has testified that she and the other worker prisoners “smeared heads, armpits and genitalia [of the Ostarbeiter deportees] with a chemical solution” (Janet Anschutz, Irmtraud Heike, “Medizinische Versorgung von Zwangsarbeitern in Hannover: Forschung und Zeitzeugenberichte zum Gesundheitswesen”, in: Gunter Siedburger, Andreas Frewer, Zwangsarbeit und Gesundheitswesen im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Einsatz und Versorgung in Norddeutschland, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, Zürich, New York 2006, p. 52).
The statement that Helmut was sent to Treblinka, but then ended up “near Treblinka” can be taken to imply that he was transferred from the “death camp” to either the labor camp Treblinka I or to some labor detail in the Treblinka-Malkinia area. It should not be excluded though, that the letter could have been sent from Treblinka II. The phrase “near Treblinka” could possibly refer to the village of Treblinka, which was located some four kilometers to the north of the “death camp” Treblinka II, or to the railway station, which was located about 1 km to the north of it. The phrasing “hier ist ein Lager” (here is a camp), while not unequivocal, also fit this interpretation. What speaks against such an interpretation is the claim that Helmut gave the letter to a German working “near Treblinka”, a claim which, however, Levin appears to contradict himself (“I never knew who sent it or how they got it out”).
That at least some of the inmates in the Aktion Reinhardt “pure extermination camps” were able to send letters to the outside world has been revealed by Jules Schelvis. In his study Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp (Berg Publishing, Oxford 2007), Schelvis briefly mentions (p. 139) Walter Poppert, a German Jew who was deported from Westerbork (a collection camp in the Netherlands) together with his wife on May 8, 1943. At Sobibór, Poppert was foreman of the Waldkommando (wood-cutting detail) a fact which he mentioned himself in a postcard dating from August 1943 (p. 112, 141). Orthodox historians often maintain that the Dutch Jews who arrived at Sobibór had to write postcards which were sent to their relatives in the Netherlands as part of the overall “deception”. However, this is supposed to have happened at their arrival, before the vast majority of them supposedly were led to the gas chambers. Poppert’s postcard on the other hand was sent 3 months after his arrival to the camp. In other words: the SS allowed an inmate in a top secret “extermination camp” to communicate with the outside world!