The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard

BOOK: The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard
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Copyright © 2014 by Patrick Hicks

The first chapter of this novel appeared, in a slightly different form, in

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to:
Steerforth Press L.L.C., 45 Lyme Road, Suite 208, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress

ISBN 978-1-58642-221-9



This London
A Harvest of Words
Finding the Gossamer
The Kiss That Saved My Life

For the Unknown

What have you done? Hark, thy brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.

—Genesis 4:10


he records show that some 710,000 souls died at the small concentration camp known as Lubizec. But to call Lubizec a “concentration camp” is incorrect because it was not designed to hold people as if they were common criminals or a threat to the Nazi state. No, it is more historically accurate to call this tiny area of barbed wire and train tracks an “extermination camp” or, if we are being more honest with ourselves, a place of overwhelming mass murder. Lubizec was a factory of death with one purpose: the swift and unrelenting slaughter of human beings. It was a place of mass annihilation, and it rested far beyond the frontier of mercy.

What remains of the camp today is on the southeastern border of Poland, and there is practically nothing left aside from a cement memorial where the gas chambers once stood. Few people visit Lubizec not only because it is so remote, but also because there is a serious misunderstanding about what happened there. Auschwitz is remembered because survivors managed to limp away from that wicked place and bear witness, but hardly anyone knows about Lubizec because it was an extermination camp. Of the 710,000 souls that entered its gates, only forty-three survived to talk about what they saw. This lack of survivorship is almost certainly why the world isn’t as familiar with the camp as it should be. We simply don’t have the stories to make it real. It is also very difficult to imagine 710,000 people and then see each of them being dead. How has this influenced the world? What might their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have gone on to do? Although these murders continue to echo into our future, the scale of this crime is, for most of us, simply beyond comprehension.

Even in the immediate aftermath of World War II, little was known about this place deep in the woods. Auschwitz was preserved
by the Russians as proof of genocide, and the entire world became aware of it when newsreels and testimonies were released to the public. Lubizec, however, was plowed into the ground by the Nazis after the startling events of March 1943. The rebellion and escape surprised everyone, including the commandant, and it was decided to level the buildings and pretend that the place never existed. We have no photos of Lubizec, and this has made it a footnote in history books rather than a focal point. There are rumors of Nazi scrapbooks and some related photographic materials floating around but, as yet, nothing has been authenticated and determined to be from Lubizec itself. Much of what we do know comes from Chaim Zischer’s chillingly blunt,
The Hell of Lubizec
(1954). Zischer writes about the murder of his family with such clinical detachment we quickly feel it was the only way for him to write about what he saw, and in fact, shortly before his death in 2009, he found it impossible to believe he was the last eyewitness to the camp. He was worried that Lubizec would be forgotten about, and it has to be admitted the writing of this book is partly prompted by Zischer’s passing.

It is indeed odd to realize that Lubizec has now slipped into history, entirely and completely. There is no one left who saw carbon monoxide being channeled into the gas chambers, there is no one left who saw people being herded off the trains towards an engine that was ready to crank into a higher gear, and there is no one left who saw the commandant walk through the camp with his infamous ledger and pack of cigarettes. When we think of places like Lubizec, we are used to seeing black-and-white photos, which offer us comfort that such events took place long ago, deep in the past. But if we try to view this camp in color and allow ourselves to feel the sandy dirt beneath our shoes, to see the swastika flapping like blood on a pole, to see the guards strutting around in their charcoal-gray uniforms, if we do this, we might feel the camp lift itself out of the pages of history.

One thing is certain. All across the planet we are losing our eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and this book is an attempt to make Lubizec feel real (or as real as words can make anything feel). In
so doing, the author hopes to remind people of these extermination camps and give voice to the voiceless. Little is known about Lubizec, but by talking about this one single camp perhaps a larger discussion may arise about other death camps like Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka, which aren’t lodged in the public imagination as fully as they should be. Perhaps this book will act as a doorway into somewhere else, and in that dark, terrible space, maybe we will be provoked to remember anew.

So how did this little spot in Poland become a site of mass murder?

This is where we shall begin.

It started when a huge drum of barbed wire was tossed to the ground—it wobbled like a monstrous coin to a stop. Hammers and crosscut saws were brought out of trucks. Men shouted and laughed as they marked off camp boundaries with little flags. They set up a phonograph and put the needle down onto some classical music. Fence posts were pounded into the sandy ground.

Lubizec was built five kilometers from the sleepy village that gave it its name and it was also near a major rail line, which meant it was secluded enough to keep prying eyes away but close enough to rail traffic to bring victims in. From the very beginning it was a place of secrets. It was a place hidden deep in the woods.

The first commandant was a doughy man named Wilhelm Fischel. He had the trees leveled, he built a series of guard towers, and on October 24, 1941, he accepted his first shipment of prisoners. They were mostly Polish men who refused to accept German rule over their country, and they were forced to build barracks for the SS who, at that time, were living in olive-drab tents. Other buildings sprang up, a latrine was dug, and rail tracks from the village of Lubizec were extended into the camp itself. Fischel had a small clapboard office built for his private use, and he made sure the SS had a bar stocked with excellent beer imported from Munich. All the while, more and more prisoners were stuffed into Lubizec and the food supply was kept intentionally low.

As they died off, Fischel had them buried outside the barbed-wire perimeter in a massive trench. Space inside the camp became an increasing problem as more prisoners were packed in. Fischel solved the problem by ordering each of his guards to shoot five prisoners a day. He didn’t care how these selections were made as long as it kept the numbers down.

Things got much worse in April 1942 when it was decided by the higher-ups in Berlin that Lubizec would cease to be a concentration camp and it would become, instead, a death camp. Fischel began to drink more heavily around this time. He sat in his office and showed absolutely no interest in running the camp. He got sloppy with vodka and didn’t care how his guards went about the killing—they usually hauled prisoners off the trains and began shooting them as if they were scurrying rabbits. Women clutched their children as guards opened up their guns, and as the sun grew hotter and hotter, and as sweat began to prickle everyone’s scalp, the guards decided to let the new transports die of thirst in the railcars instead. It was easier this way. They kept the doors bolted shut while they waited in the shade. When the cries finally stopped, that’s when they rolled open the doors.

BOOK: The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard
4.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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