Hitler’s Berlin Bunker: Then & Now

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Adolf Hitler greeting Colonel-General Ferdinand Schoerner inside the Führerbunker, April 1945.

There are few stories as enigmatic as the last days in the Berlin Bunker. Historians cannot agree on what exactly occurred 8.5 metres below the Reichs Chancellery garden, providing for some intriguing theories. As I was in Berlin exactly 71 years to the month of Hitler’s death, I thought I’d see what remains. The answer is ‘not a lot’, but with a little detective work, some maps, some old photos and a splash of imagination its possible to find yourself standing on the spot where the final death throes of the Thousand Year Reich were played out.

Following the failure of the last German offensive in the West, a dispirited Hitler returned to Berlin on 16 January 1945 aboard his private train, the Führersonderzug.

Hitlers train

As the long train wound its way through the devastated capital Hitler reportedly looked out at the ruins from his Pullman carriage, both surprised and depressed by the grim sights that greeted him. He needed no more than to look out the window to see the reality of his military failure.

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The bomb destroyed spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church today.

Arriving at Grunewald Station at 9.40am, Hitler climbed down from the Führersonderzug for the last time and was driven in a convoy of armoured Mercedes to the Reichs Chancellery, passing through bomb-damaged streets whose gutted and roofless apartment buildings and shops bore silent witness to the final collapse of the Third Reich.

A huge Soviet winter offensive began just two days later. By the end of the month the Soviets were only seventy miles from Berlin. Hitler continued to live in his apartments in the Old Reichs Chancellery until mid-February before moving into the Führerbunker to sleep. Until mid-March 1945 Hitler also continued to take his meals in the New Reichs Chancellery and to hold his military situation conferences there inside his enormous study. The grand hallway outside was still intact, though the artworks and priceless tapestries had been removed to protect them from the bombing.

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The bomb-ravaged Reichs Chancellery in May 1945

Although Hitler continued to come up from the Führerbunker into both Chancelleries, to continue working in his study and used some of the building’s other rooms, he did not see the vast amount of damage that had been caused to both buildings by British and American aerial bombing. Staff officers visiting the Reichs Chancellery for meetings had to take long and circuitous routes to reach Hitler’s study, as corridors had been reduced to rubble by direct hits. Soon the Reichs Chancellery would start to come under artillery and rocket fire from the advancing Red Army.

ADN-ZB/Archiv Berlin Der sogenannte "Führerbunker" im Garten der im II. Weltkrieg zerstörten Reichskanzlei. Links der Eingang, in der Mitte der Bombenunterstand für die Wache. Aufn. Juli 1947

A view of the Führerbunker’s emergency exit (the concrete cube on the left) in the ruined Old Reichs Chancellery Garden in 1947.

IMG_2603The same view in April 2016. The emergency exit and conical guard tower would stand about halfway into the current road. The remains of the Führerbunker still exist below the road and pedestrian path. The Vorbunker or Upper Bunker has been removed. 

Because of the constant bombing raids and air raid alerts Hitler decided to move his headquarters underground into the Führerbunker beneath the Old Reichs Chancellery gardens in mid-March 1945. Although now safe from aerial attack, the Führerbunker was completely inadequate for use as a military headquarters as it was too small to accommodate sufficient staff or visiting generals attending conferences. It came to be described by many who visited it during the last weeks of the war as a fetid hole in the ground or a ‘concrete coffin’.

HitlerOne of Hitler’s last public appearances – congratulating Hitler Youths who had been awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class fighting the Soviets in East Prussia. A stooped and exhausted Hitler is pictured walking to the ceremony in the Reichs Chancellery Garden on 21 March 1945. Other leading ‘Bunker’ personalities in the photo are, third from left Hitler Youth Leader Artur Axmann, 4th from left SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison at the Bunker, 5th from left SS-Obergruppenführer Julius Schaub, Hitler’s adjutant.

Hitler March 1945

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The Führerbunker had its genesis in air raid shelters built under and adjoined to buildings on Wilhelmstrasse and Vossstrasse in 1935. When the New Reichs Chancellery complex was completed in January 1939 it included more air raid shelters. One was the Vorbunker, or Upper Bunker. Architect Leonhard Gall submitted plans in 1935 for a large reception hall cum ballroom to be added to the Old Reichs Chancellery. Completed in 1936, the Vorbunker had a roof that was 5.24 feet (1.6 m) thick, the bunker’s thick walls partially supporting the weight of the large reception hall overhead.

Reichs Chancellery

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A Nazi eagle salvaged from the Reichs Chancellery in 1945, and now displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Some idea of the scale and style of the New Reichs Chancellery can be derived from one of two surviving Nazi-era ministry building in Berlin – Hermann Goring’s Air Ministry on Wilhelmstrasse. The other is Dr. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry.

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There were two entrances into the Vorbunker; one from the Foreign Ministry garden and the other from the New Reichs Chancellery. Both led to a reinforced steel gas proof door leading to a set of small rooms.

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This photo is of the interior of the SS bunker beneath Hitler’s house, the Berghof, on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria. It hints at the look of the Berlin bunker.

On the left was the Water Supplies/Boiler Room, to the right the Airfilters Room. Moving forward there was a middle Dining Area with a Kitchen to the left, which was where Hitler’s cook/dietician Frau Constanze Manziarly prepared the Führer’s meals. There was also a well-stocked Wine Store. To the right of the Dining Area was the Personnel/Guard Quarters. Moving forward again, there was a Conference Room in the middle and on the left two rooms that originally housed Hitler’s physician Dr. Theodor Morell and, following his dismissal in April 1945, Dr. Goebbels’ wife Magda and her six young children. To the right of the Conference Room was a room used for guest quarters, two storerooms and then a stairway set at right angles connecting to the Führerbunker that was 8.2 feet (2.5 m) lower than the Vorbunker and west-southwest of it. Steel doors could close off the Vorbunker and Führerbunker from one another and the SS closely guarded all entrances and exits.

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Beneath this nondescript patch of grass was the connecting staircase between the Vorbunker (Upper Bunker) on the right, which was constructed beneath the Reichschancellery and the deeper Führerbunker (left)

Hitler’s Führerbunker, or Lower Bunker, was built in 1942-43 28 feet (8.5 m) beneath the Old Reichs Chancellery Garden 131 yards (120 m) north of the New Chancellery at a cost of 1.4 million Reichsmarks. It was deep enough to withstand the largest bombs that were being dropped by the British and Americans over the city.

Designed by the architectural firm Hochtief under Albert Speer’s supervision, the Führerbunker was one of about twenty bunkers and air raid shelters used by Hitler’s inner circle, bodyguards and military commanders in the region of the Reichs Chancellery. Many cellars in the surrounding buildings were also utilised as auxiliary bunkers during the Battle of Berlin.

The Führerbunker suffered from noise caused by the steady running of aeration ventilators twenty-four hours a day and also had a problem with cool moisture on the walls as Berlin has a very high ground water level.

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Steel safes photographed inside the Vorbunker by an East German in 1987, when the authorities pumped out the upper bunker preparatory to destroying it.

Entry into the Führerbunker was via the Vorbunker, passing down the dogleg staircase, which led to a guarded door giving access to a long Hall/Lounge, where RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando sentries checked identity papers before permitting entry to the Führerbunker proper.

NATIONAL ARCHIVE WASHINGTON 242-HB-48400-89 HOFFMAN COLLECTION: Adolf Hitler with earliest members of his personal bodyguard unit, the SS Begleit Kommando: Bruno Gesche on Hitlers immediate left, Erich Kempka on Hitlers immediate right, Adolf Dirr, August Koerber, Franz Schaedle.
Hitler with some of his SS-Begleitkommando guards at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia

This was through double steel gas proof doors set into the bunker’s 7.2 feet (2.2m) thick protective wall. The Führerbunker was divided along a central corridor that gave access to an emergency exit staircase at the far end that led up to the surface in the Reichs Chancellery Garden.

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Another 1987 shot of the Vorbunker. This structure has now been erased, though the Fuhrerbunker remains intact 2.5m beneath.

This corridor was divided into two long rooms. The first of these on entering the Führerbunker was the Corridor/Lounge. A door on the left led to the Toilets and Electricity Switch Room. From the Toilets a connecting door led to the Bathroom/Dressing Room with Eva Braun’s Bedroom on the right of the Bathroom.

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View behind the Vorbunker looking towards the Führerbunker today. In 1945 you would have been standing inside the Old Reichs Chancellery.

A door connected the Bathroom with Hitler’s Sitting Room. To the right of this room was Hitler’s Study, dominated by a large painting of King Frederick the Great that Hitler would spend much time staring at as the Soviets fought their way into Berlin’s suburbs, hoping that he could emulate Frederick and turn back the Bolshevik horde with some final grand military gesture.

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A recreation of Hitler’s study in a German museum – this was where Hitler and his wife killed themselves.

A door connected Hitler’s Sitting Room with Hitler’s Bedroom. A door on the right of Hitler’s Study led back into the central corridor, this section called the Conference Room.

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Mark standing above Hitler’s suite of rooms that still exist 8.5 metres below ground.

The last three rooms on the left of the Führerbunker were not connected to Hitler’s suite and consisted of the Map Room where Hitler held most of his military situation conferences during the last weeks of the war, the Cloakroom and a Ventilation Room.

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The left side of the Führerbunker consisted, moving from the staircase connecting it with the Vorbunker to the emergency exit tothe Reichs Chancellery Gardens, of a series of rooms. First was the Generator/Ventilation Plant Room. This was connected to the Telephone Switchboard Room where SS-Oberscharführer Rochus Misch of the SS-Begleit-Kommando worked, Martin Bormann’s Office and the Guard Room. Hitler’s loyal valet SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz Linge lived here. Next were two rooms: Goebbels’ Office and the Doctor’s Room. The last two rooms on the right of the central Conference Room were Goebbels’ Bedroom and the Doctor’s Quarters. Parts of the two bunkers were carpeted and one section of this material was recently discovered in a British regimental archive. It reveals that the carpet had a floral pattern of yellow flowers and blue leaves on a fawn background. The rooms were furnished with expensive pieces taken from the Reichs Chancellery above and there were several framed oil paintings on the walls. But the interior, in keeping with Hitler’s other field headquarters, could not be described as anything other than Spartan and functional.

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Hitler viewing bomb damage inside the Reichs Chancellery, April 1945 (purportedly the last picture ever taken of Hitler)

On 16 April the Red Army commenced the operation to capture Berlin, assaulting the Seelow Heights, the last significant German defence line east of the city. The fighting was fierce, the Soviets suffering heavy casualties, but by the 19th they had broken though and there was now no longer a proper defence position left to protect the city.

On 20 April, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Soviet artillery came in range of the Berlin suburbs and opened fire. By the next evening T-34 tanks had arrived on the outskirts.

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Soviet T-34 that fought in the battle mounted on a plinth along the East-West Axis through the Tiergarten, Berlin.

As the Red Army began to close a ring around Berlin and began to fight through the city suburbs in several directions aiming for the nearby Reichstag building, efforts were taken to increase the protection afforded to the Reichs Chancellery and the Führerbunker.

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Severe battle damage on the Brandenburg Gate three minutes walk from Hitler’s bunker. When Hitler died, the Soviets were at the nearby Reichstag and very close to the Gate.

On 22 April 1945 Kampfgruppe Mohnke was formed out of all available elite guard units from across Berlin and sent to defend the government quarter, Sector Z (Citadel), from the Soviets. Its commander, 34-year-old SS-Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke had been one of the founding members of the SS-Stabswache (Staff Guard) in Berlin in 1934. A highly decorated WaffenSS field commander, by 1945 Mohnke commanded the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division.

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A Soviet heavy artillery gun from the battle preserved on Berlin’s East-West Axis near the Brandenburg Gate.

By 22 April the Germans defending Berlin were outnumbered virtually 10-1, German units had been severely degraded and worn down by almost continuous fighting since the start of the Soviet spring offensive in January. One hundred thousand Volkssturm, mostly consisting of older men above military age, Hitler Youth and foreign SS volunteers, was backing up the regular troops in the hopeless defence.

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With virtually no tanks, limited artillery and no viable Luftwaffe over the capital, the defence of Berlin would not last for long.

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The focus of the Soviet assaults was the Reichstag, abandoned since 1933, close to the Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker

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The repaired (though heavily scarred) Reichstag from the same angle today.

Hitler grasped at anything that he thought might turn the tide. When he observed the vulnerability of one of the Soviet flanks he gave orders for SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s Army Detachment to counterattack, refusing to accept that Steiner’s forces were severely depleted and simply not up to the task. When Hitler discovered at the afternoon situation conference in the bunker that Steiner had failed to attack he suffered a complete mental collapse and once he stopped screaming declared to his shocked audience that the war was lost. Later that day Hitler consulted SS-Obersturmbannführer Prof. Dr. Werner Haase on the best method to kill oneself. Haase suggested that he bite down on a cyanide capsule whilst simultaneously shooting himself in the head.

By the last week of April 1945 Hitler’s world had shrunk to a few grey concrete rooms deep beneath the Reichs Chancellery Garden in Berlin. Up above, Soviet artillery shells and rockets blasted the once immaculate Chancellery buildings into ruins. Huge sections of roof and walls had collapsed, while the remaining structures were shell- and shrapnel-scarred, fire scorched or windowless.

RC Damage

The Reichs Chancellery Garden, its trees blasted and stripped of their foliage and the lawn churned up by shell craters, was only passable between bombardments and Hitler’s RSD and SS-Begleit-Kommando guards were largely withdrawn from exposed sentry posts on the Chancellery roof and outside the bunker entrances. Each time another Soviet barrage went up the guards fled inside the bunker entrances, slamming the thick steel doors closed behind them. Hitler forbade smoking in the Führerbunker, so smokers had to go up to the Vorbunker to enjoy a cigarette. With their nerves on edge, many of the bunker inhabitants were smoking and drinking heavily. Some hardier souls would emerge into the shattered gardens to smoke or catch a few minutes of fresh air before Soviet shelling forced them once more into the dank subterranean bunkers, while Hitler’s dog Blondi was still walked in the garden by his handler.

berghof-hitler-blondi-view-hoffmannHitler & Blondi on the Obersalzberg

By 27 April 1945 Berlin was completely surrounded. The bunker had lost secure radio communications with the main German units fighting desperately in the ruins and had to rely on the telephone network for news. To all intents and purposes the last Führer Headquarters was blind and incapable of really commanding anything. Soviet troops were on the Alexanderplatz and would soon reach the Potsdamer Platz, where the bunker was located. Efforts were still being made to affect a linkup between the remnants of the 9th Army defending the city and General Wenck’s 12th Army that was attempting to fight its way into Potsdam.

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The famous Victory Column on the East-West Axis in 2016 (above) and 1945 (below)

Eine sowjetische Soldatin regelt an der Siegessäule den Verkehr - 1945 Fotograf: Jewgeni Chaldej - 01.01.1945-31.12.1945

As this last desperate attempt was being made SS-Brigadeführer Mohnke reported that enemy tanks had penetrated the nearby Wilhelmsplatz – they had been repulsed this time, but time was running out.

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Hitler RC

The following day’s news of Heinrich Himmler’s entreaties to the Western Allies reached the bunker. Hitler was incensed and ordered Himmler’s arrest for treason. He demanded to see SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s representative in the bunker, but he was nowhere to be found. An RSD snatch squad was dispatched that discovered Fegelein in his apartment with his mistress, drunk and with a suitcase of civilian clothes packed along with false identity papers. He was escorted back to the bunker, summarily sentenced to death by a court martial and shot in the Reichs Chancellery garden. By now, the Red Army was at the Potsdammer Platz and was evidently preparing to storm the Reichs Chancellery.

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The Brandenburg Gate 1945 and 2016

Berlin Adlon Hotel

Topside, the remaining men of Kampfgruppe Mohnke fought the Soviets around the Chancellery site from prepared positions and a multitude of other bunkers and cellars, as well as utilizing the remaining portions of the underground railway system that was still in German hands. The French SS of the Charlemagne Division in particular distinguished themselves as tank destroyers, knocking out dozens of Soviet T-34s with handheld Panzerfaust rocket launchers. Ironically, it was two Frenchmen who were the last soldiers to be decorated with Nazi Germany’s highest bravery award, the Knight’s Cross. Ammunition supplies were dwindling rapidly alongside the mounting casualties. The main Reichs Chancellery bunker had been transformed into an emergency casualty clearing station and refuge.

Knowing that the end was near seemed to make up Hitler’s mind concerning a personal matter. Just after midnight on 30 April Hitler married his longtime girlfriend Eva Braun in a simple ceremony inside the bunker. It was her reward for her years of loyalty to him. She was under no illusions – she had come to Berlin to die with Hitler.

Hitler and Braun

At 1am on 30 May Generalfeldmarschall Keitel reported to Hitler that all German forces that had been ordered to relieve the capital were either surrounded or had been forced on to the defensive. No relief of the government quarter could be expected. Later that morning the attacking Soviets managed to penetrate to within 1,600 feet (500m) of the Führerbunker, despite the fanatical resistance being put up by Hitler’s guard detachments. Hitler met with General der Artillerie Helmuth Weidling, the commander of the Berlin Defence Area. He informed the Führer that there was enough ammunition to sustain the defence for a maximum of twenty-four hours. Weidling asked permission for the remaining troops to attempt a breakout, but Hitler did not reply. Weidling returned to his headquarters at the Bendlerblock. At 1pm he received permission from Hitler for a breakout.

Hitler had lunch with two of his secretaries and his cook and then he bade farewell to his staff and the remaining bunker occupants, including Bormann and Goebbels. With his wife, Hitler went into his study and closed the door at 2.30pm. Differing accounts of what happened next have surfaced over the years. The officially accepted story is that at shortly after 3.30pm Heinz Linge, with Bormann right behind him, opened the study door and was met with the strong smell of burnt almonds, a signature of hydrogen cyanide. Again accounts differ in the details but according to Linge, Eva Hitler was slumped to the left of the Führer on a sofa, her legs drawn up. Hitler ‘sat…sunken over, with blood dripping out of his right temple,’ wrote Linge. ‘He had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65.’

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Hitler shot himself somewhere below this modern pavement. Due to the redevelopment of the area by the East Germans it is almost impossible to visualise how it looked in 1945. Red Army Bunker
A Red Army soldier inside Hitler’s study deep in the Bunker shortly after its capture. Flooding has occurred after the pumps were switched off, due to Berlin’s high water table.

Hitler’s adjutant Günsche then entered the room, surveyed the scene and left shortly afterwards to declare to those waiting outside that the Führer was dead. Preparations had already been made to dispose of the bodies of Hitler and his wife as Hitler had made sure that Günsche understood that on no account was his body to be found intact by the Soviets. A few hours before Hitler killed himself Günsche had telephoned the Reichs Chancellery garage and spoken to Hitler’s principal driver, Erich Kempka. Günsche ordered Kempka to bring over a large quantity of petrol. ‘I was…to ensure that five cans of gasoline, that is to say 200 litres, were brought along,’ recalled Kempka. ‘I at once took along two or three men carrying cans. More were following, because it took time to collect 200 litres of gasoline.’ The cans were left near the bunker’s emergency exit.

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Mark standing just outside the bunker’s emergency exit in April 2016, through which the bodies of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were brought outside to be cremated on 30 May 1945.

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The same view in 1945. Mark would be standing just in front of the doorway on the left

Bunker ExitCloser shot of the Bunker Emergency Exit, with an American officer passing Red Army sentries, showing the narrow metal staircase leading down to the Führerbunker. 

Hitler’s body was wrapped in a blanket and carried up the stairs to the bunker’s emergency exit by Linge, SSHauptsturmführer Ewald Lindloff and SS-Obersturmführer Hans Reisser of the SS-Begleit-Kommando, and SS-Obersturmbannführer Peter Högl, deputy commander of the RSD. Bormann carried Eva Hitler’s body upstairs. Once outside, the SS officers placed both of the bodies, still wrapped in grey blankets, into a shell crater and then doused them liberally with petrol. An attempt was made to light the petrol, but it was unsuccessful. Linge went back into the bunker and returned with a thick roll of papers. Bormann lit the papers and threw them into the hole, the petrol igniting with a whoosh. Others had joined them. Standing just inside the emergency exit door Günsche, Bormann, Högl, Linge, Lindloff, Reisser, Kempka and Goebbels raised their arms in the Nazi salute. But the party was soon driven inside as Soviet shells began to land in the Reichs Chancellery garden.

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Mark pointing at the shell hole where Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned in the Reichschancellery’s Wintergarten.

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The same place in May 1945. The shell hole is visible at the bottom left of the photograph.

BunkerAnother view of the shell crater where the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were burned.

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The shattered rear of the Reichs Chancellery facing on to the formal gardens above the Hitler’s lower bunker. This wall was directly behind the Bunker emergency exit. The Vorbunker (or Upper Bunker) was beneath this building.

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The same view looking the opposite direction in 2016. The Reichs Chancellery’s rear would have roughly corresponded with the modern pavement and dirt tracks beside the low wooden fence above.

Thirty minutes after the cremation of Hitler and his wife was begun, Günsche ordered Lindloff to go out and see how it was progressing. Lindloff reported that both bodies were charred and had burst open. He also said that they had been damaged by shellfire. During the afternoon, SS-Begleit-Kommando guards continued to add jerry cans of fuel to the burning hole in between the Soviet barrages.

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A closer view of the site of the shell hole where Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were burned.

At 4.15pm Linge ordered SSUntersturmführer Heinz Krüger and SS-Oberscharführer Werner Schwiedel to roll up the bloodstained rug from Hitler’s study, carry it up to the Reichs Chancellery garden and burn it. At 6.30pm Lindloff reported to Günsche that he and Reisser had disposed of the remains. It appears that from the remains later found by the Soviets some days later that the bodies of Hitler and his wife were burned beyond recognition and possibly damaged by shellfire, if indeed they were the mortal remains of the tyrant and his spouse.

Hitler's CorpseA Soviet ammunition crate said to contain the charred remains of Hitler. This is the only photograph that the Russians have released that claims to show Hitler’s corpse. No photographs from his autopsy have been made public. In contrast, there are numerous Red Army photos of Dr. Goebbels’ partially cremated body, both at the Bunker site and in a pathology laboratory.

Although Hitler was dead, the business of government continued as well as the defence of the remaining areas of the government quarter by Hitler’s bodyguard units and associated troops. Hitler’s Last Will and Testament had broken up the position of ‘Führer’ into three separate offices. Goebbels was named Reichs Chancellor; with Grossadmiral Dönitz appointed Reich President and Bormann made Party Minister.

Bormann    Reichsleiter Martin Bormann

But at this stage, only Dönitz could exercise any limited control from Flensburg in the north. Goebbels made it very clear that he and his wife Magda would emulate their beloved Führer and commit suicide when the time came.

On 1 May Chancellor Goebbels drafted a letter to the Soviets and ordered 47-year-old General der Infanterie Hans Krebs, Chief of the Army General Staff (OKH), to deliver it under a white flag of truce to General Vasili Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army which was occupying central Berlin. The letter informed the Soviet High Command of Hitler’s death, the appointment of Goebbels as Reich Chancellor and his offer of a cease-fire. When Krebs was sent packing with the clear instruction that the Soviets would only accept unconditional surrender, Goebbels knew that it was futile to continue. Later that day Vizeadmiral Hans-Erich Voss and almost a dozen other military officers arrived at the Führerbunker to say farewell to Goebbels as their supreme commander.

At 8pm that evening Goebbels instructed dentist SS-Sturmbannführer Helmut Kunz to drug his six children with morphine. Then Hitler’s personal physician, SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, crushed a vial of cyanide in each of their jaws, killing them.

Magda_Goebbels          Magda Goebbels

A little while later a subdued Goebbels pulled on his gloves and hat, and arm-in-arm with his wife, climbed the stairs to the bunker’s emergency exit and emerged into the Reichs Chancellery garden. His adjutant, 29-year-old SS-Hauptsturmführer Gunther Schwägermann, followed him. (Historical Footnote: at the time of writing in 2016 Schwägermann remains alive, aged 101. He is certainly the last living witness to the events in the Bunker, but has refused to give any interviews.)

Schwägermann went to collect more petrol to burn the Goebbels’ bodies while Goebbels and his wife went around the corner out of sight. Schwägermann said that he heard a pistol shot and came upon his master and Magda Goebbels dead. She had taken poison while Goebbels had shot himself in the head. Schwägermann ordered the SS-Begleit-Kommando sentry at the bunker emergency exit to shoot Goebbels again in the head to make sure – Schwägermann could not face doing so himself. The two men then poured petrol over the bodies and set fire to them. Unfortunately, there was insufficient petrol remaining to burn the bodies and the fire-blackened corpses remained easily recognizable to Voss when he was forced by the Soviets to identify them the following day. The shape of Goebbels’ head and jaw as well as his leg brace were unmistakable, along with the remains of his brown Nazi uniform and Golden Party Badge.

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Dr. Goebbels’ charred corpse

Between 1945 and 1949 the Soviets levelled the battle-damaged Old and New Reichs Chancelleries. A failed attempt was also made to destroy the Führerbunker. Because the site was close to the Berlin Wall, it remained essentially untouched until the late 1980s when East Germany built residential housing units and a new road system over the site. In 1988 the Vorbunker was torn out. The massive roof of the Führerbunker was broken up and allowed to fall into the rooms below before it was buried under a nondescript car park. So, the Führerbunker still exits, buried beneath modern Berlin, its historical significance marked only by a small information board erected on the site in 2006.

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As for the New Reichs Chancellery building, this was knocked down by the Soviets shortly after the war. However, some of the marble panels that once lined the huge reception halls were used to refurbish Mohrenstrasse U-Bahn Station, the entrance to which is just across the street from the site of Hitler’s bunker and though rather shabby and dirty, the huge blocks of marble cover the walls and pillars. Here are some pictures:

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Escape from Sobibor

ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR

For more stories like this check out Mark’s new book Holocaust Heroes

Holocaust Heroes 2

We knew our fate. We knew that we were in an extermination camp and death was our destiny. We knew that even a sudden end to the war might spare the inmates of the ‘normal’ concentration camps, but never us. Only desperate actions could shorten our suffering and maybe afford us a chance of escape. And the will to resist had grown and ripened.’

Thomas Toivi Blatt

Sonderkommando Sobibor

The small group of Jewish prisoners inside the camp tailor’s shop exchanged fearful glances, as the sound of hooves grew louder outside. One of them quickly peeked out of one of the hut’s small windows.

‘He’s arrived,’ he muttered. ‘Get ready.’

A few seconds later and the hut door opened and in stepped SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann, the 30-year-old deputy commandant of the Sobibor Extermination Camp. Outside, another prisoner held the bridle of Niemann’s chestnut horse that he used to ride imperiously around the camp. Niemann tucked his riding crop under one armpit and began to slowly remove his gloves, his hard eyes moving around the room and settling momentarily on each of the Jewish faces before him. The prisoners took in Niemann’s uniform and shuddered. A devil walked among them, the SS death’s head badge grinning at them from Niemann’s cap band and from his right collar patch. As a concentration camp officer in the notorious SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) Niemann did not wear the twin lightning flash runes of the Waffen-SS on his collar. His rank was indicated by three silver pips arranged in a diagonal line on his left collar patch and army-style silver shoulder straps. The prisoners glanced at his waist, where his black belt with its silver SS buckle supported a leather holster. Inside sat Niemann’s Luger pistol, ready for instant use against any ‘problem’ prisoners.

One of the tailors brought out an unfinished officer’s uniform ready for Niemann to try on. After removing his belt and tunic, the prisoners were helping him into the new jacket when Niemann sensed movement behind him. He turned his head to one side and managed to mutter ‘Was?’ before Soviet prisoner-of-war Alexander Shubayev buried a homemade hatchet in his skull. Niemann didn’t scream, just grunted at the impact, which killed him instantly. He collapsed onto the hut’s wooden floor, dark rivulets of blood running across its dusty surface from the gaping wound in his head. One prisoner picked up Niemann’s heavy gun belt and drew the Luger from its holster. It felt solid and cold in his grasp. He looked at his comrades and nodded slowly. The Sobibor Revolt had commenced.

Beginning in 1940, the Nazis had established sixteen labour camps in the Lublin region near the village of Sobibor. It was intended that the Jews sent to these camps would work as agricultural labourers under German colonial overseers. Over 95,000 Jews expelled from Warsaw and Vienna were shipped in for this task, and paid for their labour. They were housed in a network of subcamps based on the Concentration Camp at Krychow.

Sobibor Camp was constructed by SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla between March and April 1942, using Jewish Sonderkommando labour after German policy towards the Jews had dramatically changed. The location, marshy woodland with a sparse population, was chosen because it was close to the rail line that ran between Chelm and Wlodawa connecting the General Government with Reichskommissariat Ukraine. The garrison would consist of a German commandant, initially SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, 29 SS non-commissioned officers, and between 90 and 120 Ukrainian SS auxiliaries, or “Trawnikis” after the concentration camp where the ex-Red Army prisoners-of-war were trained.  At the end of August 1942 a new commandant was appointed after Stangl was moved to take command at Treblinka, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner.

An Austrian, Reichleitner had been born in 1906 and was another Aktion T4 veteran. At the Hartheim Institute, Reichleitner had worked alongside Franz Stangl under the command of Christian Wirth. The prisoners at Sobibor regarded Reichleitner as an austere figure who was always immaculately turned out in his uniform, and always wore gloves. He had very little to do with the Jews, relying on his trusted second-in-command Niemann and a coterie of efficient SS-TV sergeants and corporals. But it was obvious that Reichleitner was feared and respected by the other SS.

Sobibor was small compared with Auschwitz or Dachau, consisting of three camps, surrounded by a barbed wire fence into which tree branches had been woven. Trees had also been planted around the camp’s perimeter to further shield it from public view and it was also surrounded by a deep water-filled moat. Camp I, under the command of SS-Oberscharführer Karl Frenzel consisted of the main administration offices, housing for the German SS and Trawnikis auxiliaries, and barracks for a large detachment of Jewish Sonderkommandos. Here also was the prisoners’ kitchen.

12

 

Karl Frenzel

Thirty-two-year-old Frenzel had been active with the Nazis since 1930 when he had enlisted in the SA. When war broke out in 1939, Frenzel had been drafted into the Reich Labour Service but soon after released to help take care of his five children. Desperate to take part in the war effort, Frenzel volunteered through his SA connections and was recruited into the SS-TV and was assigned to the highly secret Aktion T4.

The T4 euthanasia programme that was partly based at Schloss Hartheim in Austria was the bloody prelude to the industrialized murders that were to follow in places like Sobibor and Treblinka II. The mentally retarded and physically disabled were murdered on the recommendations of doctors as the Nazis attempted to remove all ‘defectives’ from their population. Over 70,000 ‘patients’ were to die during the course of the programme, which continued in operation until just after the war ended in 1945. Told that the killings were the responsibility of doctors, Frenzel, Stangl, Reichleitner and the other SS-TV men had set aside their moral reservations and done their duty, as they conceived of it. Frenzel’s primary job was removing bodies from the small gas chambers, wrenching out any gold teeth and then burning the bodies in the crematoria.

On 20 April 1942 Frenzel was assigned to Sobibor, where he was widely detested and feared by the prisoners, and was known for using his whip on them frequently. In one notorious incident in spring 1943, two Jews from Chelm were caught trying to escape from Sobibor. Frenzel decided, in consultation with the other SS senior NCOs, that an example should be made. At roll call every tenth Jew was taken out of the line to be shot, twenty being murdered in this way. Following this escape attempt, a minefield was laid around the outside of the camp’s perimeter as a further deterrent.

Camp II, or the Vorlager, consisted of the railway platform where evacuation trains were off-loaded, a ramp, the undressing barracks and warehouses where 400 of the Jewish Sonderkommandos worked. They sorted and stored property confiscated from Jews that arrived by train at the camp platform. There was also a building where the newly arrived Jews had their heads shaved, and their valuables taken from them before they proceeded into Camp III and the gas chambers.

Camp III contained a further Sonderkommando unit’s barracks, these men tasked with the open-air cremation of the bodies of the dead and the disposal of these bones and ashes in large pits.

The evacuation trains that brought the Jews to Sobibor consisted of between forty and sixty freight cars. The platform in Camp II was large enough to permit the unloading of twenty cars at a time. On arrival, the SS told the Jews that the facility was a transit camp, where they would be disinfected for lice and processed through to working parties in labour camps elsewhere. ‘I helped Jews out of the trains with all their baggage,’ said Sonderkommando Philip Bialowitz. ‘My heart was bleeding knowing that in half an hour they would all be reduced to ashes. I couldn’t tell them. I wasn’t allowed to speak. Even if I told them, they wouldn’t believe they were going to die.’

Fresh arrivals were met by SS NCOs whose welcome speech was designed to make the Jews cooperate in their own destruction. ‘The Jews of Warsaw, your attention!’ one of the SS would shout along the length of the platform. ‘You are in a transit camp from which you will be sent to a labour camp. As a safeguard against epidemics you must immediately hand over your clothing and parcels for disinfection. Gold, silver, foreign currency and jewellery must be placed with the cashier, in exchange for a receipt. These will be returned to you at a later time upon presentation of the receipt. For bodily washing before continuing with the journey all arrivals must attend the bathhouse.’

Some of the new arrivals would be hived off into the ranks of the Sonderkommandos to replace those who had died from disease, exhaustion or murder. In this way, tens of thousands of people arrived at the railway platform in front of the camp with no idea of what awaited them.

The main deportations to Sobibor were made between May 1942 and autumn 1943. The Jews came primarily from the ghettos of the General Government, with others from the Soviet Union, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Bohemia and Moravia, Netherlands and France. Altogether, upwards of 170,000 people entered Sobibor.

The events that led to a Sonderkommando rising at Treblinka had their roots elsewhere. Rumours arrived in Sobibor that most of the 600 Sonderkommando workers would soon become surplus to requirements and that the Germans planned to kill them. The reason for this was that another Aktion Reinhard death camp at Belzec had been closed and dismantled, the Germans shooting the remaining Sonderkommandos. The Sonderkommandos realised that the same thing would probably happen at Sobibor as the number of evacuation transports had noticeably slowed. The Jews needed a plan of action to save themselves. ‘We started organising and talking and it gave us something to live for again,’ said Esther Raab, a female prisoner. ‘[The idea] that maybe we’ll be able to take revenge for all those who can’t.’

The leader of the Jews in Sobibor was the 33-year-old son of a Polish rabbi named Leon Feldhendler. He had been head of the Judenrat in his home village of Zolkiewka in Lublin. With a hardcore of conspirators, Feldhendler considered several possible avenues of escape. The initial plan was to poison the SS and seize their weapons. But vigilant SS guards discovered a secret batch of poison and five Jews were shot in retaliation. Another plan was to set fire to the camp and try and escape during the subsequent confusion. But the mining of the camp perimeter by Wehrmacht engineers following the attempted escape of two Jews made such a plan extremely risky. The plan was eventually rejected as impractical. What Feldhendler and his fellow plotters lacked was organizational ability and who better to possess those skills than soldiers? The answer to Feldhendler’s problems was the arrival at Sobibor on 23 September 1943 of a man called Sasha.

11 Leon Feldhendler

Lieutenant Quartermaster (Class II) Alexander “Sasha” Pechersky was a 34-year-old Jewish Red Army officer who had been captured during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. The son of a lawyer, Sasha was born in the Ukraine, gained a degree in music and literature in Rostov and was working as an accountant and manager of a small music school when he was conscripted into the Red Army as a Junior Lieutenant on 22 June 1941, the day the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. Promoted to Lieutenant in September 1941, Sasha was captured in October at the city of Vyazna. He suffered seven months of typhus before escaping with four other POWs in May 1942. Recaptured the very same day, Sasha was sent to a penal camp in Belorussia, then to another harsh camp near Minsk. During the routine medical examination it was revealed that he was circumcised and Sasha immediately admitted to being a Jew. On 20 August 1942 he was separated from non-Jewish prisoners-of-war and sent to an Arbeitslager in Minsk. On 18 September 1943, 2,000 Minsk Jews, including 100 Jewish Red Army POWs, were herded on to a cattle train and sent to Sobibor, arriving on the 23rd. Sasha was among eighty Jews selected to join the Sonderkommando in Camp II. The sudden and unexpected arrival of prisoners who were trained soldiers provided the conspirators with a considerable morale boost. Perhaps these Russians could help?

Sasha also made an impression on the SS quite early on. He was clearly a man who commanded respect among his peers, and also a proud military officer and no mere slave. Three days after his arrival, Sasha was outside the camp on a working party that was chopping up tree stumps. In command of the party, which was guarded by a detachment of SSTrawnikis, was SS-Oberscharführer Frenzel. Impatient at the exhausted manner in which the Jews were tending to their tasks, Frenzel had decided to punish certain workers with twenty-five lashes from his whip. Frenzel noticed that Sasha had stopped work during one of these ‘punishments’.

‘Russian soldier,’ shouted Frenzel, ‘you don’t like the way I punish this fool? I give you exactly five minutes to split this stump.’ Frenzel kicked a large tree stump with the toe of his black jackboot. ‘If you make it, you get a pack of cigarettes. If you miss by as much as one second, you get twenty-five lashes,’ said Frenzel, a cruel smile creasing his face.

Sasha attacked the stump with his axe like a madman, Frenzel timing him with his watch. He finished in four-and-a-half minutes. Frenzel, his face a mask of anger, proffered a pack of cigarettes. ‘Thanks, I don’t smoke,’ said Sasha. Frenzel, muttering under his breath, stalked off while the other prisoners continued chopping, astonishment drawn across their sweaty faces. They were even more surprised when Frenzel returned with a lump of bread and some margarine and offered them to Sasha. The big Red Army officer shook his head slowly. ‘Thank you, the rations we are getting satisfy me fully.’ Frenzel’s face turned beetroot red, his fist tightening around his whip handle. He stared at Sasha for a moment, clearly debating in his mind what he should do, while Sasha ignored him and returned to chopping wood. Frenzel once again stalked off. The incident deeply impressed the other members of the working party and that night the proud defiance of the Soviet officer was the talk of the Sonderkommando barracks in Camp I.

It was obvious that the resistance organisation desperately needed someone like Sasha and Feldhendler reached out to him on 29 September. He hoped that Sasha might be able to contact the partisans, many of whom were escaped Soviet POWs, to enlist their aid in liberating the Sobibor Jews. But Sasha was unequivocal in his response. ‘The partisans have their own tasks,’ replied Sasha to Feldhendler, ‘and no one can do our work for us.’ The meaning was clear – if the Jews wanted out of Sobibor, they would have to do all the work themselves. Some of Sasha’s fellow Soviet prisoners were already exploring an escape from the camp, but only for themselves. They were reluctant to let untrained and disorderly foreign civilians join them. But Feldhendler countered that if the Soviet POWs managed to escape the SS would retaliate against the innocent Jewish civilians left behind in the camp. He managed to convince Sasha that any escape should include everybody.

It was decided that it would be better from a security standpoint if the Germans did not see Sasha and Feldhendler constantly meeting. Instead, a young Jew named Shlomo Leitman would act as a go-between for the two leaders. Sasha and his men carefully gathered intelligence on the layout of the camp, the number of guards and their personalities, routines and armament, as well as the all-important perimeter defences. In this, the Jewish civilian members of the Sonderkommando proved invaluable, having been imprisoned in Sobibor for much longer than the Soviets.

The first plan proposed by Sasha was a tunnel. Digging began in early October 1943 beneath the carpenter’s workshops in Camp II. On 7 October, Sasha became very concerned. It was clear that there weren’t enough hours of darkness for all of the camp’s prisoners to successfully pass through the long tunnel to freedom, and he knew that the non-military backgrounds of the civilian workers would probably lead to arguments and fights breaking out amongst those waiting to go. Before Sasha was forced to call off the tunnel break, the diggings were destroyed by two days of very heavy rain on the 8 and 9 October. It was back to the drawing board.

The second plan was a much more dangerous proposition – a revolt. This would involve attacking and overpowering the guards and seizing the camp. Though this appeared to be a tall order, Sasha believed that the key to the plan’s success was to remove the German brain from the larger SS body – that was, to kill the small number of German SS-TV officers and NCOs that administered the camp. It was the same conclusion that was reached by the desperate resisters at Treblinka II. Sasha believed that if the prisoners succeeded, the remaining Ukrainian SS guards would be confused and possibly open to negotiations. If all else failed, the prisoners could fight them with weapons captured off the dead guards, or they could try to storm and capture the camp’s armoury. It was known that the Trawnikis were not completely trusted by the regular SS, and only issued with limited ammunition for their weapons. The gravity of what the prisoners were planning to do was not lost on any of them for a second. ‘We had no dreams of liberation,’ said Thomas Toivi Blatt, ‘we hoped merely to destroy the camp and to die from bullets rather than from gas. We would not make it easy for the Germans.’

The Trawnikis that provided the bulk of the guards in the camp were armed with five-shot bolt-action Mauser 98K rifles, the standard German infantry weapon of the Second World War. The guard towers also contained MG42 machine guns, extremely rapid firing and highly effective belt-fed weapons. The SS-TV men were routinely armed with Luger or Walther P38 semi-automatic pistols and had access to Schmeisser MP40 machine pistols. In response, Sasha asked the prisoners to begin manufacturing large knives and small hatchets. These would be used to dispose of as many of the German SS NCOs as possible in a series of carefully planned ambushes.

The Trawnikis were even more strongly despised than the Germans. ‘We were terrified of the Ukrainian guards at Sobibor,’ said Blatt. ‘They were worse than the Germans. They mistreated us; they shot the old and the sick new arrivals who couldn’t walk anymore. And they were the ones who drove the naked people into the gas chambers with their bayonets.’ Blatt’s job involved cleaning SS boots. ‘They would come back with splashes of blood on their boots. I often had to work a few feet away. If they [the Jews] refused to go on, they hit them and fired shots. I can still remember their shout of ‘Idi suida’, which means ‘come here.’’

Camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Reichleitner left on leave shortly before the revolt. On 12 October, the hated and feared senior SS-TV NCO in the camp, SS-Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner, also departed on leave. This was a great relief to everyone. The tall, blond and sadistic Wagner was known to be exceptionally cunning and unrelenting in his efforts to uncover subversive activity among the Sonderkommandos. ‘Wagner’s departure gave us a tremendous morale boost,’ said conspirator Thomas Toivi Blatt. ‘While cruel, he was also very intelligent. Always on the go, he could suddenly show up in the most unexpected places. Always suspicious and snooping, he was difficult to fool. Besides, his colossal stature and strength would make it very difficult for us to overcome him with our primitive weapons.’

With Reichleitner and his chief guard dog Wagner gone, Sasha ordered that the final revolt plan be ready by the end of 12 October. The Soviet POWs were dispatched singly to each of the huts where an ambush killing was to be perpetrated in order to stiffen the resolve of the resisters and to do the actual killing if necessary. Each hut had organised a ‘combat team’ consisting of about three men, with their knives and hatchets carefully concealed. The targeted German officers and NCOs would be lured singly into the huts and then dispatched. Lures included appointments for uniform or boot fittings, or to peruse expensive coats taken from recent transports. ‘The planning took into consideration the German’s brashness and power-hungry mistreatment of the seemingly subdued Jews,’ said Blatt, ‘their consistent and systematic daily routine, their unfaltering punctuality, and their greed.’

The targets were carefully selected. The most important was deputy commandant SS-Untersturmführer Johann Niemann. In the absence of Reichleitner on leave, Niemann was acting commandant of the camp. Born in 1913, Niemann had joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and the SS in 1934. He had served at another Aktion Reinhard camp, Belzec, as an Oberscharführer, commanding Camp II. Transferred to Sobibor, Niemann was commissioned as an officer after Heinrich Himmler’s visit to the camp on 12 February 1943. According to Karl Frenzel, Niemann was a brutal officer. ‘A Polish Kapo [Jewish worker appointed to oversee other Jews] told me that some Dutch Jews were organising an escape, so I relayed it to Deputy Commandant Niemann. He ordered the seventy-two Jews to be executed.’ The Jews were also aided by the fact that almost a dozen SS NCOs were away from the camp on leave when the revolt was launched.

The method for killing the SS was to be as quiet as possible. They were to be axed in the skull or stabbed to death and their bodies quickly hidden. X-day, the day the revolt would be launched, was set for 13 October. But in the morning, Sasha and the rest of the plotters were disconcerted by the sudden arrival in the camp of a company of SS men. There was much confusion among the prisoners, who initially feared that their plot had been discovered and the extra manpower brought in to deal with them. But instead the SS piled out of their trucks and started eating and drinking with the Sobibor SS-TV men in the main canteen. As the extra SS were still in the camp at lunchtime, Sasha decided to postpone the revolt until the following day. Later in the afternoon, the visiting SS company packed up and drove away.

On 14 October everyone was ready. It was now or never. At noon, each battle team commander secretly met with Sasha for final instructions. There was one nasty moment when Frenzel marched into the carpentry shop and noticed that one of the prisoners was dressed in his best clothing. The prisoners had gathered their few possessions ready for the revolt. Unlike Wagner, who would undoubtedly have become suspicious, Frenzel instead sarcastically asked the man whether he was off to a wedding.

At 2pm, SS-Unterscharführer Walter Hochberg, who was not on the target list to be killed, suddenly entered Camp I armed with an MP40 machine pistol. This was unusual, as the SS-TV men rarely carried such firepower. Hochberg took away four prisoners. Sasha discovered that Hochberg was so armed because he hadn’t had with him because of the recent leaves a Ukrainian Trawniki as backup. By 4pm the battle teams were ready and in position.

The first to die was acting commandant Niemann. Once he was dead, his body was quickly dragged into a hiding place and the blood cleaned up. The officer’s loaded Luger pistol was added to the resisters’ meagre stash of weapons. Another prisoner led Niemann’s horse back to the camp stables to complete the illusion of normality.

SS-Scharführer Josef Wolf entered a storeroom shortly after 5pm, lured there by the offer of a nice coat that the prisoners had taken off a transport. As one prisoner helped Wolf into the coat, two others quickly pulled out hatchets and drove them into Wolf’s head, killing him. His body was carefully concealed beneath a pile of clothes, his blood mopped up and his pistol taken. Close by, 33-year-old SS-Oberscharführer Rudolf Beckmann, the head of sorting commands in Camp II, was lured towards a storeroom to view a leather coat. But Beckmann suddenly changed his mind and strode off to his office instead. A little later a combat team entered his office and stabbed him to death with knives. His body was left in a pool of blood on the floor behind his desk.

SS-Unterscharführer Walter Hochberg suddenly appeared in the SS garage and was there killed by the momentarily surprised Jewish prisoners. A major target was the commandant of Camp II, SS-Oberscharführer Göttinger. He was lured into the Shoemakers’ Shop to try on some new jackboots. As he leaned over he was struck in the head with a hatchet and killed.

The NCO in charge of the Ukrainian guards, 27-year-old SS-Oberscharführer Siegfried Graetschus, entered the Shoemakers’ Shop and was axed in the head by Soviet POW Arkady Wajspapir. Soon after, SS-Mann Ivan Klatt, one of the Trawnikis, came into the Shoemakers’ Shop looking for Graetschus, and he was similarly dispatched, his Mauser rifle being added to the pistols that the Jews had now procured from the dead SS. Jews also cut the camp’s telephone and electricity cables to prevent the remaining SS from calling in reinforcements. SS-Scharführer Friedrich Gaulstich was killed in the Carpentry Shop, while SS-Unterscharführer Ernst Stengelin was also dispatched without trouble. So far, everything was progressing perfectly to plan. The alarm had not been raised and the SS were none the wiser.

Around 5pm, the camp prisoners, most of whom had little idea that a revolt was underway, began to assemble on the Appellplatz, the area the Germans used for roll call parades. At 5.10pm Sasha blew an SS whistle, used to summon the prisoners to attention. It was twenty minutes early and the bemused prisoners turned and stared as Sasha stood to address them. ‘Our day has come,’ he shouted. ‘Most of the Germans are dead. Let’s die with honour. Remember, if anyone survives, he must tell the world what has happened here.’

At this point shouting was heard – a Ukrainian guard had discovered the bloody corpse of SS-Oberscharführer Beckmann lying behind his desk. The guard ran out shouting ‘A German is dead!’

Sasha didn’t hesitate and shouted ‘Forward, comrades!’ at the top of his voice. Someone behind him yelled ‘Forward!’ while several others screamed ‘For the Fatherland!’ or ‘For Stalin!’ Although the Jews had managed to kill a total eleven SS men, plus a few of the Trawnikis, Frenzel and the remaining SS quickly armed themselves with Schmeisser machine pistols and opened fire on the prisoners as they attempted to storm the wire.

The prisoners fired back at the Trawnikis manning the gates and guard towers, killing or wounding several, while hundreds flung themselves at the fences, and began to clamber over. The assault on the arms store failed, machine gun fire barring the way. ‘Most of the people who were escaping turned in the direction of the main gate,’ said Sasha. ‘There, after they finished off the guards, under cover of fire from the rifles that a few of them had…[they] broke through the gate and hurried in the direction of the forest.’

9

‘We rushed to the fence,’ said Philip Bialowitz. ‘We were shooting back as the men in the guard towers were shooting at us with machine guns.’

‘We ran out of the workshop,’ recalled survivor Ada Lichtman. ‘All around were the bodies of the killed and wounded. Some of them were exchanging fire with the Ukrainians, others were running toward the gate or through the fences.’ The SS opened a vigorous fire, shooting down people as they ran or climbed. Many people were killed after getting over the wire when they stepped on landmines. In horrific scenes, hundreds of survivors, many wounded, charged for the forest with German bullets stitching the earth around them.

‘We ran through the exploded mine field holes,’ said Thomas Blatt, ‘and we were outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further…100 yards…50 yards…20 more yards…and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes. In the greyness of the approaching evening, the towers’ machine guns shot their last victims.’

Once in the forest and out of range of the guards, the survivors searched around desperately for friends and relatives before striking off in large groups. But these large groups eventually broke up into smaller and smaller groups as the pressures of searching for food and water took its toll. Sasha initially led a party of about fifty survivors. But on 17 October, he halted the group in the forest and selected several men. They were all armed with Mauser rifles taken from the Trawnikis. Sasha only left one rifle with the main group. Though the people protested at his decision to leave on what he said was a ‘reconnaissance’, they couldn’t stop him and he promised to come back for them. He never did. Sasha, as a soldier, probably realised that trying to feed and protect such a large group was foolhardy, so he took a hardcore of armed men and struck out on their own, giving them a better chance of making it. Some Sobibor survivors never forgave Sasha for abandoning them in the forest in this way.

An estimated 158 Jews were killed by the guards during the revolt, or blown up by mines. The SS, Wehrmacht and Order Police murdered a further 107 during hunts for the escapees. Another 53 died from other causes before the end of the war. There were only 58 known survivors (48 men and 10 women) from Sobibor.

After the revolt the SS decided to close down killing operations at Sobibor. Camp III was disassembled and the remaining Sonderkommandos shot. Furious that the revolt could even have occurred, the SS took further revenge measures against the Jews that were under their control, culminating in the murders of 42,000 in Lublin District three weeks after the revolt in an operation codenamed ‘Erntefest’. The Germans had plans to use the remainder of Sobibor Camp for other purposes, and although they based a small guard detachment of Trawnikis at the site until March 1944, the camp never held any more prisoners.

Leon Feldhendler hid in Lublin until the end of the German occupation in July 1944. He was shot dead in his flat on 2 April 1945 in mysterious circumstances – possibly murdered by a rival Zionist group or the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Thomas Toivi Blatt was initially hidden by a Polish farmer after the escape, but was later shot and wounded by this same farmer. Blatt survived the war, moving to Israel and then the United States. He wrote the book ‘Escape from Sobibor’ in 1983, seeing it turned into a successful film, and two further books on the camp. He is one of a tiny handful of survivors who is still alive and lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Sasha joined the Soviet partisans, sabotaging railway lines, cutting telephone wires and conducting hit-and-run attacks on the Germans. Once the Red Army had occupied Poland, Sasha, like all other Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, was punished on Stalin’s order. He was conscripted into a tough penal battalion and sent to the front. But Sasha’s commanding officer was so shocked by Sasha’s story of what happened at Sobibor that Sasha was sent to Moscow where he spoke before a commission of inquiry. Promoted to captain, Sasha was decorated for gallantry and finally discharged after suffering a foot injury. The Soviets refused to allow him to testify before the Nuremberg Trials and in 1948 Sasha was arrested during a campaign against ‘disloyal Jews’. Stalin’s death in 1953 saved Sasha from further suffering, and he was released. He worked in a small amateur musical theatre. Refused permission by the Soviet authorities to testify at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem in 1960, Sasha died in 1990.

Commandant Karl Reichleitner was transferred to Trieste and Fiume in Italy along with nearly all the Aktion Reinhard death camp personnel where they formed a special SS unit, Sondertruppe R, detailed to fight partisans and murder Jews. Reichleitner was killed at the age of 37 by partisans on 3 January 1944.

For more stories like this check out Mark’s forthcoming book Holocaust Heroes

Holocaust Heroes 2