Karl Frenzel, one of the leading Nazis in Sobibor, was sentenced to life in prison. After serving sixteen and a half years, he was released on appeal due to a technicality. In July 1984, the court in Hagen rejected a defense motion to stop the trial on the grounds that Frenzel was suffering from heart problems. After a stringent medical examination it was ruled that he was fit to be retried.
In 1984, I was granted a three hour face-to-face taped interview with the former SS officer, the man who forty years earlier had selected me to live and work at Sobibor and sent my whole family to the gas chambers. The following are selections from the article I wrote about my confrontation with this murderer.
The Confrontation with a Murderer
"Do you remember me?"
"Not exactly", he answered. "You were a little boy..."
An innocent enough reply... For one crazy moment I could almost imagine this was not what it really was. We could have been uncle and nephew meeting after so many years, or perhaps father and son. Yes, there were even similarities in us. Except for his receding hairline, double chin and fuller middle, (he was seventy-three and I was fifty-six) there was the same coloring, ruddy complexion, very fair skin, blue eyes, hair once reddish, now graying, and the ample nose, quite remarkably similar in shape. It was quite possible that he did not remember me. What was I to him? But I remember him. I will never forget. I can't forget. Every night my nightmares remind me.
"You are sitting here and drinking your beer. You have a smile on your face. You might be anyone in the neighborhood. But you are not like anyone. You are Karl Frenzel, the SS Oberscharfuehrer. You were the third in command in the death camp Sobibor. You were the Commandant of Lager I. Maybe you don't remember me, but I remember you."
I was trembling as I faced him. "It was a dilemma." I said to him, "but I decided to come. This was the first case, as far as I know, from the World War II literature where the accused talks face-to-face with the victim and I feel it is important."
I told him I put aside the moral implications and my feelings and approached him objectively simply as a researcher.
I knew why I wanted to talk to him. As a man who has dedicated his life to the remembrance of Sobibor and as a serious researcher of Sobibor, I felt there were still some unanswered questions and gaps. As a former senior staff member of a death camp, one of the few still living, he could give me some technical and other important information and facts about the camp and the revolt known only by the SS. I could get the German view of events and solve some puzzling aspects of the camp. But why did he want to talk to me? I asked him outright why he agreed to speak to me. He said he wanted to apologize to me in person. He couldn't do it in the courtroom.
"I don't blame you or other witnesses," he said. "And I must honestly say I was sorry for you and all those witnesses... After all those years to have to think back on all those memories and be pressured... they were pressuring and squeezing you in the court..."
This was putting it mildly. The method of the defense was primarily to discredit the testimony of the witnesses by asking them idiotic questions. In my case for example, "How tall was the tree near the barrack?" or " Was the club with which Frenzel beat your father round or not? How many centimeters?" A stranger in the courtroom would immediately have thought I was the defendant and not the victim.
Now, speaking to him at the same table, privately in a hotel lobby, I was again in moral conflict. In a way, my being there with him could be interpreted as desecrating and insulting the memories of the deceased, making this murderer again a "person", in some manner, even forgiving him. I knew that many of my fellow survivors will point an accusing finger at me. Yet I wanted to talk to him. I knew if I went, I would be sorry and if I didn't, I would be even more sorry. Time will move on. I will be gone, Frenzel will be gone, but what will be written down will go to history. So, I blocked out the feelings.
"I was fifteen years old. I survived because you picked me as a shoe-shine boy. But my father, my mother and my brother and the other 200 Jews from Izbica that you led to the gas chamber, did not."
"This was terrible, very terrible. I can only tell you with tears, he went on quietly, calmly in an even tone, "it isn't only now that it upsets me so terribly. It upset me then... You don't know what went on in us, and you don't understand the circumstances we found ourselves in."
I heard him, but nothing registered emotionally. Functioning on an intellectual level only, my mind simply sought out data and compared what he said with facts. And the facts were: SS Frenzel acted above and beyond "duty". A conscientious and efficient official, he led the incoming transports of Jews to the gas chambers. To the slave-workers, he doled out vicious beatings for slowness and other infractions. Those who became sick, or were caught committing "crimes" such as theft of food, he personally led to the execution site. Was he asking me to understand and feel sorry for his sufferings? I felt no pity, no anger, nothing. In order to interview him I turned off all feelings, just as over forty years ago in Sobibor I did not feel for my gassed parents and brother; if I had, I would have broken down and been killed.
I was the objective reporter now and I wanted to know what he felt in those years.
I said, "Frenzel, I would like to know what you felt then...Were you an anti-Semite or did you do what you did because you were ordered to? What I want to know is, did you believe, when you were there, that what you were doing was right?"
There was a pause. I didn't realize the spot I put him in. If he said no, he would be portraying himself as a morally deficient Nazi. If he said yes, he would be portraying himself as a morally deficient human being.
"No", he said quietly and evenly, "but we had our duty to do. For us it was also a very bad time."
I made no comment on this comparison, but asked why he joined the Nazi Party.
He looked at me dumbfounded, as if it were a silly question, and he replied, "Because there was unemployment!". As if this were self-explanatory. He told me that by chance his first girlfriend was Jewish. They were together for two years, but parted when her father, who was an editor of the Social-Democratic newspaper Vorwarts, found out that he was a member of the Nazi party. In 1934, she emigrated to America with her family.
"You were a member of the Nazi Party since 1930," I said. "Why are you now having a change of heart?"
"No, I'm not just now," he answered, "I've cursed the Nazis and all their leaders since 1945 for what they have done. Since 1945, I have not been interested any more in politics."
I noted that his change occurred when the Germans lost the war, but I said nothing. After the war he lived peacefully like any respectable citizen. After his wife's death, he took care of his five children. In 1962, he was arrested at his job in Frankfurt where he worked as a stage lighting technician. On his break police officers interrupted his beer drinking and asked him if his name was Frenzel and was he ever in Sobibor? He admitted he was.
We went on.
"Frenzel, how many Jews were gassed at Sobibor? They say over half a million. Is that accurate?"
He replied, "No. I think no more than l60,000, but the railroad documents show 250,000 and many were brought by trucks, carriages and by foot."
I said, "Are you a religious person?" I asked, "Do you attend church?"
He responded, "Yes, very often."
I then asked, "Did you have any conflict regarding your religious beliefs and political activity?"
"No. We were German Christians, [A Nazi-supported section of the Evangelical Church]. All my children were christened, like myself. My brother studied theology. My wife and myself, not every Sunday because of the children, but every second or third, we always attended church."
"And you have not, as a Christian, any problems with your past?"
He answered immediately "I have nothing to hide. I'm sorry that I was in this mess then."
"But in Sobibor you did not think about being sorry," I pressed.
He answered, "We didn't know where we were till we arrived. They told us we were going to guard a concentration camp. So I had my duty to do."
"Was the extermination of 250,000 Jews your duty?"
He looked straight at me, "I was in jail for over sixteen years and had ample time to think about right and wrong and I came to the conclusion that what happened to the Jews in those times was wrong. All those years, I was dreaming about it...".
I was listening as if from far away. I asked about his family, I knew that he had two brothers. One was studying for the pastorate. How much did they know?
"Both of them were killed in the war, but my sister survived," he answered.
I asked, "How about your children now. Do they know? And what are they saying?"
He replied, "Naturally they wondered about Sobibor. They know it was a crime. They say, 'Father, you were also a part of it' and I explained. But they are with me and don't reject me. They wanted to know everything that happened at Sobibor. I was ordered there. I was not an SS. There were only five SS. The rest were civilians in SS uniforms."
I asked why he didn't ask for a transfer if he wasn't an ardent Nazi. He wanted to, he said. He had begged his brother to try to get him out.
"But the fact is," I said, "there was a case where an SS man simply asked for a transfer and was given it. He wasn't killed."
Frenzel didn't answer.
A hotel employee entered the room. He refilled his empty beer glass and left. We had our quiet corner again. I had many questions to ask Frenzel. As a survivor I had often wondered what a Nazi thought of the film "Holocaust." Had he seen it? He shook his head. Did he think any film or documentary could show it the way it was?
"No," he said, "the reality was much worse ...it was so terrible that it can not be described."
Suddenly, though I tried to block it out, a scene flashed across my mind: my friend, Leon, being beaten to death, slowly and the horror of being forced to watch his agony. Another scene flashed... Standing, listening to the muffled screams from the gas chambers...and knowing that men, women and children were dying in horrible pain, naked, as I worked sorting their clothing. I tried to keep an interviewer's tone, but my voice trembled.
"Frenzel," I said, "tens of thousands of children were killed at Sobibor and you had children at the time. I've seen pictures of them. When you saw little children, five years, one year, one week old put to death. Did it occur to you, you had children also?" I didn't mean it the way he took it.
Defensively, and with just a trace of anger, he said he never killed children, but was accused of it by other witnesses. His voice, until now in a low, even tone with patience and self-control, suddenly took on emotion. "I want you to know," he said, and I could feel the resentment in his voice, "there was this little ten year old girl and her mother, and Wagner wanted to take them to the gas chambers and I arranged so they didn't go." There was a pause and his voice trembled slightly. "That's why it's upsetting that I'm accused of killing children."
Apparently he didn't consider ordering their deaths as "killing." Someone else did the actual shooting or gassing.
As if sensing my feelings, he continued, "I condemn all that happened to the Jews...I can understand that you can never forget, but I can't either. I've dreamed about it all of the sixteen years I spent in prison. Just as you dream about it, I dream about it too."
Surely he wasn't comparing his nightmares to mine...or was he saying his conscience was bothering him?
Frenzel was sent to Sobibor from Hadamar, a sanitarium where mentally ill Germans were gassed in the course of the euthanasia program. I mentioned Hadamar and asked how he felt killing Germans. His voice became angry. The tape ran out and so as not to jeopardize the interview, I did not insist on an answer.
I decided to ask less personal questions. Did he remember "Berliner" (Berliner was an Oberkapo, killed by the Jews for cruelty to his fellow prisoners). I asked if it was true that he gave permission to the Jews to kill him.
He leaned back in his chair, like an executive, "Yes," he answered confidently, "when I think back hard, it was so. My kapo from the Bahnhofkommando told me about Berliner, then I think I said 'Butcher him to death', or something similar." His tone was frighteningly casual, as if he were speaking of getting rid of rotten potatoes. In fact, he didn't do it because he was on the prisoners' side, but because he was furious that Berliner went above his head to SS Wagner.
I asked him about Cukerman (given over one hundred lashes, his body was left in a pool of blood).
Yes, he remembered, he was the cook. There were five to eight kilos of meat missing, so he gave him a beating. "..Later the meat turned up and Cukerman's son said, 'My father did nothing, it was me who had taken the meat.' So I gave them both twenty-five lashes. I want you to know I was always fair. I never punished unless they had done something wrong."
I did not comment, but I was thinking he wasn't always so lenient. Another survivor testified in court that Frenzel caught his fifteen year old friend helping himself to a can of sardines and took him to the crematorium where he was shot.
I had another leading question. What had happened to the Dutch Jews?
He immediately knew what I meant. Like a superior officer, he answered swiftly and to the point, "A Polish Kapo told me some Dutch Jews were organizing an escape, so I relayed it to Deputy Commandant Niemann and he ordered the seventy-two Jews to be executed." He failed to mention that he alone led them to be killed. And I could not help noting that his voice and bearing were more forceful now and there was a feeling of competence and pride about his work.
"The revolt was well executed, don't you think?" I asked proudly, but if I expected confirmation or praise, there was none. Instead, he asked a question, did I know how long the revolt took? "Fifteen minutes." I said. He agreed. "But, we worked from 3:30 to 5:30," I continued, "the time during which we annihilated your comrades. You reported it, and later Captain Wurbrand arrived and executed all the Jews in the camp. Did you leave anyone alive?" Quickly and defensively he retorted that it was SS General Sporenberg who ordered the executions, not he.
I had more technical questions. Many escapees unwittingly found themselves back near the camp, having run around in circles in the forest. I wanted to know how many were caught. His face lit up. A chance to show his expertise.
"Yes, about forty-five and with the 150 Jews remaining in camp, about 195. Then I had the operation (searchin camp) stopped. About seventy were killed in the revolt and in the mine fields surrounding the camp." Then, as an afterthought, looking away he added in a matter-of-fact tone, " I'm happy for every Jew who survived."
I didn't comment on this irony. I dropped the subject of the revolt. "You know," I said, "Every year I travel to Sobibor. You can still find today, if you just scrape the earth, burnt bones and hair that had been cut from the women before going to the gas chambers." I wasn't really expecting a response to this and I received none. I think I said it simply because each year as I bend down and pick up a piece of bone, I feel a sense of awe. I pay my respect to those who died. Their bones do not let me forget. They seem to be crying out for justice. And there has been little justice in the finding and prosecuting of Nazi criminals. At least their deaths as Jews should not be denied! (I had in mind the sign at the entrance to Sobibor).
"Frenzel, you know there is a plaque as you enter the camp today and it reads: HERE THE NAZIS KILLED 250,000 RUSSIAN PRISONERS OF WAR, JEWS, POLES AND GYPSIES."
Immediately his eyes lit up. Here again, he was an authority on Sobibor. Excitedly and with emphasis he retorted, "Poles were not killed there. Gypsies were not killed there. Russians were not killed there...only Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Dutch Jews, French Jews."
I was surprised at his strong reaction. I wanted it verified. It was so important. "Only Jews were destroyed in Sobibor, Frenzel?"
"Only Jews, only Jews", he answered.
I made sure I got it on tape. I could use this verification from a leading Sobibor Nazi to show the responsible officials in Communist Poland their manipulation of the truth.
We were quiet for a moment. Then in a confidential tone, as if between friends, quietly and hesitantly and I believe sincerely, he began, "Herr Blatt, you know, when I see on television and read about Israel, I ask myself how could so many (go to their deaths)...When I see in Israel, proof of their courage, I can't understand how this could happen here...I just can't grasp it."
Suddenly I realized he probably didn't feel hatred for Jews, but contempt that they were weak. I didn't let him go further. My voice trembled, "I think the question you want to ask is, why did the revolt happen so late?" Not waiting for a reply, I continued, "For one thing, the Polish Jews had already been imprisoned in the ghettos for three years and were demoralized. They were weak, members of families who were separated or killed, they were broken in spirit. They were starved, they were ill, and there were the elderly, and women with children. And the Jews from other countries, like Holland, who had not come from ghettos, who knew nothing, and had been tricked. You know how it was...". He did not comment. "Besides, I said, breaking the silence, who could believe it? They simply couldn't believe that Germans could do such a thing. They believed in Humanity. You know...the fake train station, flowers, promising speeches." I paused. Still he said nothing.
After a few moments of silence I asked him once more if he believed in the Nazi racist theory.
"I ask that you see me also in another way than in Sobibor," he answered. "I have much on my conscience (and here his voice had a calm strength to it)...many people, not one, but 100,000 people on my conscience...and it's okay with me, you can put it in the American press."
"What do you say," I asked him," when many Germans say it wasn't so, that it never happened?"
He answered, "I say it's exactly true, it's not right to say it never happened."
I asked further,
So why don't you go to a magazine or newspaper and say openly: ‘I'm German, I was there in charge. I worked there, and it's true?’
He said that if he told them the way Jews were murdered, he would be afraid, like the Jew, Kornfeld. (Supposedly Kornfeld, a Sobibor survivor living in Brazil, had refused to testify against SS Wagner, for fear of reprisals against him).
I asked what he thought of neo Nazis today. "Are they strong or weak?"
"Very weak and they should be forbidden," he answered.
"Well, if they are so weak, why are you afraid to speak out?" I asked.
He leaned forward and as if indicating various locations on an imaginary map, he pointed with his finger on the table. "They are here, there and if I go to the press, they have their connections."
We talked for another few hours. I was trying to get more information regarding the interaction between the Nazis in Sobibor and the inner structural organization of the camp which was unknown to the prisoners. I sifted through the past, verifying suspicions and rumors. Surprisingly, I was able to verify facts that were never brought up in court and were necessary for writing the story of Sobibor.
I lit another cigarette and we sat back quietly for a while, facing each other. I heard voices from outside and looked out the window. I saw on the street older women and men of Frenzel's age. I wondered what they were like back then. And those young kids...what will they become?
Our interview was over.
So, repentant as he claims to be, he will not speak out. He is now a free man living at home (under the pretense of illness), even though his appeal was lost on September 12, 1985, and he was given a life sentence once more.
I had gained some pertinent information, but was emotionally shattered. I paid a price. I felt and still feel, a sense of guilt and betrayal for doing the interview. My only consolation is the hope that my published work will give some insight, especially to the younger generation, into how and why such an evil was possible and to the depths that hatred and bigotry can lead us.
Source: Historical research of Thomas ‘Toivi’ Blatt, survivor of the Sobibor death camp who escaped during the uprising on October 14, 1943. Provided by his daughter Rena Smith.