Interview with SS-Guard Franz Suchomel

← Der Gasmann - Lorenz Hackenholt


It should be noted that Suchomel was (falsely) promised anonymity in exchange for this interview. Any claim that he was coerced into this testimony, or that he was inventing a fantasy to share with the world for some reason, is therefore quite ridiculous.

Lanzmann (Interviewer): Are we ready?
Suchomel: Yes. We can begin.
Lanzmann: How's your heart? Is everything in order?
Suchomel: Oh, my heart -- for the moment, it's all right. If I have any pain, I'll tell you. We'll have to break off.
Lanzmann: Of course. But your health, in general, is...
Suchomel: The weather today suits me fine. The barometric pressure is high; that's good for me.
Lanzmann: You look to be in good shape, anyway. Let's begin with Treblinka. I believe you got there in August? Was it August 20 or 24?
Suchomel: The eighteenth.
Lanzmann: The eighteenth?
Suchomel: I don't know exactly. Around August 20, I arrived there with seven other men.
Lanzmann: From Berlin?
Suchomel: From Berlin.
Lanzmann: From Lublin?
Suchomel: From Berlin to Warsaw, from Warsaw to Lublin, from Lublin back to Warsaw and from Warsaw to Treblinka.
Lanzmann: What was Treblinka like then?
Suchomel: Treblinka then was operating at full capacity.
Lanzmann: Full capacity?

Suchomel: Full capacity! The Warsaw ghetto was being emptied then. Three trains arrived in two days, each with three, four, five thousand people aboard, all from Warsaw. But at the same time, other trains came in from Kielce and other places. So three trains arrived, and since the offensive against Stalingrad was in full swing, the trainloads of Jews were left on a station siding. What's more, the cars were French, made of steel. So that while five thousand Jews arrived in Treblinka, three thousand were dead in the cars. They had slashed their wrists, or just died. The ones we unloaded were half dead and half mad. In the other trains from Kielce and elsewhere, at least half were dead. We stacked them here, here, here and here. Thousands of people piled one on top of another on the ramp. Stacked like wood. In addition, other Jews, still alive, waited there for two days: the small gas chambers could no longer handle the load. They functioned day and night in that period.

Lanzmann: Can you please describe, very precisely, your first impression of Treblinka? Very precisely. It's very important.
Suchomel: My first impression of Treblinka, and that of some of the other men, was catastrophic. For we had not been told how and what...that people were being killed there. They hadn't told us.

Lanzmann: You didn't know?
Suchomel: No!
Lanzmann: Incredible!
Suchomel:But true. I didn't want to go. That was proved at my trial. I was told: "Mr. Suchomel, there are big workshops there for tailors and shoemakers, and you'll be guarding them."
Lanzmann: But you knew it was a camp?
Suchomel: Yes. We were told: "The Fuehrer ordered a Resettlement program. It's an order from the Fuehrer." Understand?
Lanzmann: Resettlement program.
Suchomel: Resettlement program. No one ever spoke of killing.
Lanzmann: I understand. Mr. Suchomel, we're not discussing you, only Treblinka. You are a very important eyewitness, and you can explain what Treblinka was.
Suchomel: But don't use my name.
Lanzmann: No, I promised. All right, you've arrived at Treblinka.

Suchomel: So Stadie, the sarge, showed us the camp from end to end. Just as we went by, they were opening the gas-chamber doors, and people fell out like potatoes. Naturally, that horrified and appalled us. We went back and sat down on our stuicases and cried like old women. Each day one hundred Jews were chosen to drag the corpses to the mass graves. In the evening the Ukrainians drove those Jews into the gas chambers or shot them. Every day! It was in the hottest days of August. The ground undulated like waves because of the gas.

Lanzmann: From the bodies?
Suchomel: Bear in mind, the graves were maybe eighteen, twenty feet deep, all crammed with bodies! A thin layer of sand, and the heat. You see? It was a hell up there.
Lanzmann: You saw that?
Suchomel: Yes, just once, the first day. We puked and wept.
Lanzmann: You wept?

Suchomel: We wept too, yes. The smell was infernal because gas was constantly escaping. It stank horribly for miles around. You could smell it everywhere. It depended on the wind. The stink was carried on the wind. Understand? More people kept coming, always more, whom we hadn't the facilities to kill. The brass was in a rush to clean out the Warsaw ghetto. The gas chambers couldn't handle the load. The small gas chambers. The Jews had to wait their turn for a day, two days, three days. They foresaw what was coming. They foresaw it. They may not have been certain, but many knew. There were Jewish women who slashed their daughters' wrists at night, then cut their own. Others poisoned themselves.

They heard the engine feeding the gas chamber. A tank engine was used in that gas chamber. At Treblinka the only gas used was engine exhaust. Zyklon gas...that was Auschwitz. Because of the delay, Eberl, the camp commandant, phoned Lublin and said: "We can't go on this way. I can't do it any longer. We have to break off." Overnight, Wirth arrived. He inspected everything and then left. He returned with people from Belzec, experts. Wirth arranged to suspend the trains. The corpses lying there were cleared away. That was the period of the old gas chambers. Because there were so many dead that couldn't be gotten rid of, the bodies piled up around the gas chambers and stayed there for days. Under this pile of bodies was a cesspool three inches deep, full of blood, worms and shit. No one wanted to clean it out. The Jews preferred to be shot rather than work there.

Lanzmann: Preferred to be shot?

Suchomel: It was awful. Burying their own people, seeing it all. The dead flesh came off in their hands. So Wirth went there himself with a few Germans and had long belts rigged up that were wrapped around the dead torsos to pull them.

Lanzmann: Who did that?
Suchomel: SS men and Jews.
Lanzmann: Jews too?
Suchomel: Jews too!
Lanzmann: What did the Germans do?
Suchomel: They forced the Jews to...
Lanzmann: They beat them?
Suchomel: ...or they themselves helped with the cleanup.
Lanzmann: Which Germans did that?
Suchomel: Some of our guards who were assigned up there.
Lanzmann: The Germans themselves?
Suchomel: They had to.
Lanzmann: They were in command!
Suchomel: They were in command, but they were also commanded.
Lanzmann: I think the Jews did it.
Suchomel: In that case, the Germans had to lend a hand.
Suchomel: The new gas chambers were built in September 1942.
Lanzmann: Who built them?

Suchomel: Hackenhold and Lambert supervised the Jews who did the work, the bricklaying at least. Ukrainian carpenters made the doors. The gas-chamber doors themselves were armoder bunker doors. I think they were brought from Bialystok, from some Russian bunkers.
Lanzmann: What was the capacity of the new gas chambers? There were two of them, right?

Suchomel: Yes. But the old ones hadn't been demolished. When there were a lot of trains, a lot of people, the old ones were put back into service. And here...the Jews say there were five on each side. I say there were four, but I'm not sure. In any case, only the upper row on this side was in action.

Lanzmann: Why not the other side?
Suchomel: Disposing of the bodies would have been too complicated.
Lanzmann: Too far?
Suchomel: Yes. Up there Wirth had built the death camp, assigning a detail of Jewish workers to it. The detail had a fixed number in it, around two hundred people, who worked only in the death camp.
Lanzmann: But what was the capacity of the new gas chambers?
Suchomel: The new gas chambers... Let's see... They could finish off three thousand people in two hours.
Lanzmann: How many people at once in a single gas chamber?
Suchomel: I can't say exactly. The Jews say two hundred. Imagine a room this size.
Lanzmann: They put more in at Auschwitz.
Suchomel: Auschwitz was a factory!
Lanzmann: And Treblinka?
Suchomel: I'll give you my definition. Keep this in mind! Treblinka was a primitive but effective production line of death. Understand?
Lanzmann: Yes. But primitive?
Suchomel: Primitive, yes. But it worked well, that production line of death.
Lanzmann: Was Belzec even more rudimentary?

Suchomel: Belzec was the laboratory. Wirth was camp commandant. He tried everything imaginable there. He got off on the wrong foot. The pits were overflowing and the cesspool seeped out in front of the SS mess hall. It stank... in front of the mess hall, in front of their barracks.
Lanzmann: Were you at Belzec?

Suchomel: No. Wirth with his own men... with Franz, with Oberhauser and Hackenhold...he tried everything there. Those three had to put the bodies in the pits themselves so that Wirth could see how much space he needed. And when they rebelled - Franz refused - Wirth beat Franz with a whip. He whipped Hackenhold too. You see?

Lanzmann: Kurt Franz?
Suchomel: Kurt Franz. That's how Wirth was. Then, with that experiment behind him, he came to Treblinka.
Suchomel: "Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous,
at the world,
the squads march to work.
All that matters now is Treblinka.
It is our destiny.
That's why we've become one with Treblinka
in no time at all.
We know only the word of our commander,
we know only obedience and duty,
we want to serve, to go on serving,
until a little luck ends it all. Hurray!"
Lanzmann: Once more, but louder!
Suchomel: We're laughing about it, but it's so sad!
Lanzmann: No one's laughing.

Suchomel: Don't be sore at me. You want history -- I'm giving you history. Franz wrote the words. The melody came from Buchenwald. Camp Buchenwald, where Franz was a guard. New Jews who arrived in the morning, new "worker Jews," were taught the song. And by evening they had to be able to sing along with it.

Lanzmann: Sing it again.
Suchomel: All right.
Lanzmann: It's very important. But loud!
Suchomel: "Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous,
at the world,
the squads march to work.
All that matters now is Treblinka.
It is our destiny.
That's why we've become one with Treblinka
in no time at all.
We know only the word of our Commander,
we know only obedience and duty,
we want to serve, to go on serving,
until a little luck ends it all. Hurray!"
Satisfied? That's unique. No Jew knows that today!
Lanzmann: How was it possible in Treblinka in peak days to "process" eighteen thousand people?
Suchomel: Eighteen thousand is too high.
Lanzmann: But I read that figure in court reports.
Suchomel: Sure.
Lanzmann: To "process" eighteen thousand people, to liquidate them...
Suchomel: Mr. Lanzmann, that's an exaggeration. Believe me.
Lanzmann: How many?
Suchomel: welve thousand to fifteen thousand. But we had to spend half the night at it. In January the trains started arriving at 6 A.M.
Lanzmann: Always at 6 A.M.?
Suchomel: Not always. Often. The schedules were erratic. Sometimes one came at 6 A.M., then another at noon, maybe another late in the evening. You see?
Lanzmann: So a train arrived. I'd like you to describe in detail the whole process during the peak period.

Suchomel: The trains left Malkinia station for Treblinka station. It was about six miles. Treblinka was a village. A small village. As a station, it gained in importance becaose of the transport of Jews. Thirty to fifty cars would arrive. They were divided into sections of ten or twelve or fifteen cars and shunted into Treblinka Camp and brought to the ramp. The other cars waited, loaded with people, in the Treblinka station. The windows were closed off with barbed wire so no one could get out. On the roofs were the "hellhounds," the Ukrainians or Latvians. The Latvians were the worst. On the ramp, for each car, there stood two Jews from the Blue Squad to speed things up. They said: "Get out, get out. Hurry, hurry!" There were also Ukrainians and Germans.

Lanzmann: How many Germans?
Suchomel: From three to five.
Lanzmann: No more?
Suchomel: No more. I can assure you.
Lanzmann: How many Ukrainians?
Suchomel: Ten.
Lanzmann: Ten Ukrainians, five Germans. Two, that is, twenty people from the Blue Squad.
Suchomel: Men from the Blue Squad were here, and here they send the people inside. The Red Squad was here.
Lanzmann: What was the Red Squad's job?
Suchomel: The clothes! To carry the clothes taken off by the men and by the women up here immediately.
Lanzmann: How long was it between the unloading at the ramp and the undressing, how many minutes?
Suchomel: For the women let's say an hour in all. An hour, an hour and a half. A whole train took two hours. In two hours it was all over...
Lanzmann: Between the time of arrival...
Suchomel: and death...
Lanzmann: was all over in two hours?
Suchomel: Two hours, two and a half hours, three hours.
Lanzmann: A whole train?
Suchomel: Yes, a whole train.
Lanzmann: And for only one section, for ten cars, how long?

Suchomel: I can't calculate that, because the sections came one after another and people flooded in constantly, understand? Usually, the men waiting who sat there, or there, were sent straight up via the "Tunnel." The women were sent last. At the end. They had to go up there too, and often waited here. Five at a time. Fifty people...sixty women with children. They had to wait here until there was room here. Naked! In summer and winter.

Lanzmann: Winter in Treblinka can be very cold.

Suchomel: Well, in winter, in December, anyway after Christmas. But even before Christmas it was cold as hell. Between fifteen and minus four. I know: at first it was cold as hell for us too. We didn't have suitable uniforms.

Lanzmann: But it was colder...
Suchomel: ...for those poor people...
Lanzmann: the "Tunnel."
Suchomel: In the "Tunnel" it was very, very cold.
Lanzmann: Can you describe this "Tunnel" precisely? What was it like? How wide? How was it for the people in this "Tunnel"?
Suchomel: It was about thirteen feet wide, as wide as this room. On each side were palisades this high...or this high.
Lanzmann: Walls?

Suchomel: No, barbed wire. Woven into the barbed wire were branches of pine trees. You understand? It was known as "camouflage." There was a Camouflage Squad of twenty Jews. They brought in new branches every day from the woods. So everything was screened. People couldn't see anything to the left or right. Nothing. You couldn't see through it. Impossible.
Lanzmann: Treblinka, where so many people were exterminated, wasn't big, was it?

Suchomel: It wasn't big. Sixteen hundred feet at the widest point. It wasn't a rectangle, more like a rhomboid. You must realize that here the ground was flat, and here it began to rise. And at the top of the slope was the gas chamber. You had to climb up to it.
Lanzmann: The "Tunnel" was called the "Road to Heaven," wasn't it?
Suchomel: The Jews called it the "Ascension," also the "Last Road." I only heard those two names for it.
Lanzmann: I need to see it. The people go into the "Tunnel." Then what happens? They are totally naked?
Suchomel: Totally naked. Here stood two Ukrainian guards. Mainly for the men. If the men wouldn't go in, they were beaten with whips. The men were "driven" along. Not the women. They weren't beaten.
Lanzmann: Why such humanity?
Suchomel: I didn't see it. Maybe they were beaten too.
Lanzmann: Why not? They were about to die anyway.
Suchomel: At the entrance to the gas chambers, undoubtedly.

Suchomel: In the "Tunnel," the women had to wait. They heard the motors of the gas chambers. Maybe they also heard people screaming and imploring. As they waited, "death panic" overwhelmed them. "Death panic" makes people let go. They empty themselves, from the front or the rear. So often, where the women stoof, there were five or six rows of excrement.

Lanzmann: They stood?
Suchomel: They could squat or do it standing. I didn't see them do it, I only saw the feces.
Lanzmann: Only women?
Suchomel: Not the men, only the women. The men were chased through the "Tunnel." The women had to wait until a gas chamber was empty.
Lanzmann: And the men?
Suchomel: No, they were whipped in first. You understand? They always went first.
Lanzmann: They didn't have to wait?
Suchomel: They weren't given time to wait, no.
Lanzmann: And this "death panic"?

Suchomel: When this "death panic" sets in, one lets go. It's well known when someone's terrified, and knows he's about to die; it can happen in bed. My mother was kneedling by her bed...
Lanzmann: Your mother?

Suchomel: Yes. Then there was a big pile. That's a fact. It's been medically proved. Since you wanted to know: as soon as they were unloaded, if they'd been loaded in Warsaw, or elsewhere, they'd already been beaten. Beaten hard, worse than in Treblinka, I can assure you. Then during the train journey, standing in the cars, no toilets, nothing, hardly any water ... fear. Then the doors opened and it started again, "Bremze, bremze!" "Czipsze, czipsze!" I can't pronounce it, I have false teth. It's Polish: Bremze or czipsze.

Lanzmann: What does bremze mean?
Suchomel: It's a Ukrainian word. It means "faster." Again the chase. A hail of whiplashes. The SS man Kuettner's whip was this long. Women to the left, men to the right. And always more blows. No respite. Go in there, strip. Hurry, hurry! Always running.
Lanzmann: Running and screaming.
Suchomel: That's how they were finished off.
Lanzmann: That was the technique?
Suchomel: Yes, the technique. You must remember, it had to go fast. And the Blue Squad also had the task of leading the sick and the aged to the "infirmary," so as not to delay the flow of people to the gaschambers. Old people would have slowed it down. Assignment to the "infirmary" was decided by Germans. The Jews of the Blue Squad only implemented the decision, leading the people there, or carrying them on stretchers. Old women, sick children, children whose mother was sick, or whose grandmother was very old, were sent along with the grandma, because she didn't know about the "infirmary." It had a white flag with a red cross. A passage led to it. Until they reached the end, they saw nothing. Then they'd see the dead in the pit. They were forced to strip, to sit on a sandbank, and were killed with a shot in the neck. They fell into the pit. There was always a fire in the pit. With rubbish, paper and gasoline, people burn very well.
Suchomel: At that time, in say, January, February, March, hardly any trains arrived.
Lanzmann: Was Treblinka glum without the trains?

Suchomel: I wouldn't say the Jews were glum. They became so then they realized...I'll come to that later; it's a story in itself. The Jews, those in the work squads, thought at first that they'd survive. But in January, when they stopped receiving food, for Wirth had decreed that there were too many of them... There were a good five to six hundred of them in Camp 1.

Lanzmann: Up there?

Suchomel: Yes. To keep them from rebelling, they weren't shot or gassed, but starved. Then an epidemic broke out, a kind of typhus. The Jews stopped believing they'd make it. They were left to die. They dropped like flies. It was all over. They'd stopped believing. It was all very well to say...I...we kept on insisting: "You're going to live!" We almost believed it ourselves. If you lie enough, you believe your own lies. Yes. But they replied to me: "No, chief, we're just reprieved corpses."

Zitat aus Claude Lanzmann: Shoah - An Oral History of the Holocaust.
Pantheon Books; New York, 1985.

This work was kindly loaned to Nizkor by the League for Human Rights of B'nai Brith Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

Andreas Jordan, März 2008

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