As photos were revealed showing the commandant and auxiliary guards at Sobibor death camp, the godson of a man who escaped from Sobibor said his godfather would have wanted the perpetrators to be prosecuted.
Benjamin Zacks, a Columbus lawyer, said his great-uncle by marriage, Kurt Thomas, pursued justice testifying at Nuremberg.
At least 167,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor between April 1942 and November 1943. Prisoners revolted on Oct. 14, 1943, and Thomas was among them.
“He was too old to travel to Germany at the time for the (first John) Demjanjuk trials, but he had been asked and interviewed in that regard,” said Zacks, a resident of Columbus who serves on the board of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, is a past president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus and attends both Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus and of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington.
Two of the 361 photographs – from a collection of two photo albums, loose photos and papers belonging to Johann Niemann, the deputy commandant of the Sobibor camp – may contain images of John Demjanjuk.
Demjanjuk was an auto worker in the Cleveland suburb of Seven Hills, who was extradited in 1983 and deported in 2009 by judges in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland. He was tried four times for war crimes in Germany and Israel. He died in Germany in 2012 as he awaited appeal.
The photos were released Jan. 28, the same day the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., took legal possession of them.
“Martin Cueppers, a Holocaust historian at the University of Stuttgart, said researchers concluded that Demjanjuk is ‘probably’ depicted in at least one case in conjunction with the criminal police office in Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state, whose biometric department agreed to examine the historical photos,” The Associated Press reported.
“He’s part of the group that escaped,” Zacks said of Thomas. “So he would have wanted this group of people to face justice, whether it was (John) Demjanjuk and/or anybody else for that matter.”
Commandant's killing recalled
When Thomas was imprisoned at Sobibor, he was in his 20s. He at first volunteered to sort clothing from those who were killed at the death camp. Thomas told his godson that he recognized his mother’s and sister’s clothing as he sorted possessions of people sent to their deaths at Sobibor.
A videotape of Thomas recollecting the death of Niemann, the first person killed during the revolt, is included as part of the press kit of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum about the collection.
“He (Niemann) came on a horse,” Thomas recalled, explaining that there was a bakery near the entrance gate to the camp.
He said Niemann told the baker, “‘Baker, hold her, keep the horse.’ … He walks just as slow as ever with his hand on the back and his whip, and enters the tailor shop. And as soon as he entered, they must have hit him over the head –
was the end of Niemann. … That was the only SS man I have seen walking to his death.”
Edna Friedberg, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said Niemann was known to be vain, which may have helped lead to his death at the tailor shop.
“He had special uniforms made for himself,” she said. “And the album includes vanity shots, posing looking very dramatic on a horse wearing these special uniforms.”
Born in Boskovice, Moravia in the Czech Republic, Thomas lived with his family in a ghetto.
“On the day that he last saw his father and mother and sister, he had gone out to work and when he came back, they were gone,” Zacks said.
Thomas died in Columbus in 2009 at age 95.
Medic at Sobibor
Thomas worked as a telegraph operator in the resistance prior to his arrest, Zacks said, and aspired to be a doctor. Doctors at the camp encouraged him to pursue a “job” as a medic there, which he did.
“He had actually had run-ins with (Karl) Frenzel (commandant of Sobibor) near the time of the uprising, and he was very nervous that he would be killed,” Zacks said. “But he was one of the ones who got out, and then he spent 11 months hidden by the Catholic family which he had worked for when he lived in the ghetto – and helped support that family for the rest of his life after he got to the U.S.”
Thomas’ book, “My Legacy Holocaust History and the Unfinished Task of Pope John Paul II,” was published under the name Kurt Ticho, his birth name.
Zacks read a brief excerpt: “At the end of the spring of ’43 the crew of the camp was enlarged and two more barracks were added to accommodate workers selected from incoming transport. The population grew to about 500 slave laborers. “
Demjanjuk’s son, John Demjanjuk Jr., who lives in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights, cast doubt on the possibility his father was pictured in the photos.
“The photos are certainly not proof of my father being in Sobibor and may even exculpate him once forensically examined,” Demjanjuk Jr. wrote in a Jan. 28 email to the Columbus Jewish News.
He also alluded to his father’s status as a prisoner of war.
“Further, as an American of Ukrainian descent who has studied the subject for most of my life, it’s shameful for Germans to continue generally blaming Ukrainian POWs for the crimes of the German Nazis,” Demjanjuk Jr. wrote. “Historical evidence has proven that captured Soviet POWs were coerced to serve under a threat of death if they were not among the millions who perished in German POW camps.”
Comparing photos, Demjanjuk’s lawyer in Germany, Ulrich Busch, said he believes the new photos do not show the evidence the researchers describe.
“The publishers did not produce the results of the experts,” Busch wrote in a Jan. 28 email to the Columbus Jewish News. “They did not say which photos they used for a comparison. ... If you compare the new pictures with (a photograph) 1393, you do not need to be an expert to right away see that 1393, whoever it shows, is a completely different person. Especially the chin and the nose are completely different. The attempt to show evidence, that Demjanjuk was in Sobibor, failed.”
Value of the photos
Friedberg said she does not know whether the photos contain images of Demjanjuk.
“We have not even seen a copy of the police report or what the analysis was, so it’s not that we confirm or doubt it. We just haven’t seen it in order to even assess,” Friedberg said.
However, she said regardless of who is pictured, the photo collection points to issues of “guilt and complicity” as it depicts almost 400 auxiliary guards, who trained at Trawniki SS Camp and served at Sobibor.
“Whether it’s a name we recognize or not, it represents a human being who murdered other human beings,” she said. “So I don’t want us to be distracted by a famous name and not forget that either way, it is someone who was central to genocide.”
The photos will have value to those trying to understand the Holocaust, Friedberg said, as they paint a picture of the Final Solution and how it was carried out.
“For example, it shows us how professional networks among people (were) involved in different killing programs,” she said. “So the ‘euthanasia’ program of people with disabilities provided a direct staffing pipeline into the killing centers in Occupied Poland – and this collection illustrates that vividly. We see the same personnel advancing up the career ladder of the Nazi hierarchy.”
She also reflected on the role of women in the Holocaust and what the photos demonstrate. For example, wives of perpetrators are shown with their spouses and local civilian Sobibor women are shown relaxing and socializing with members of the SS.
In addition, she said the photos show the close relationships between the upper echelons and the Trawniki auxiliary guards.
“It shows us the centrality of the close to 400 Trawniki auxiliary guards who served at Sobibor over the course of this operation,” Friedberg said. “We have images of them patrolling the perimeter of the camp. We have images of them on a junket to Berlin that was given as a reward for good performance. And just looking at the body language of the people in these images, we see high-ranking officials of Hitler’s chancellery looking relaxed and chatting with some of these Trawniki auxiliaries. So the pictures give us a sense of how closely these people worked together.”
In addition, she said, the photos corroborate eyewitness testimony about Sobibor, one of six Nazi-run camps during World War II. Sobibor was also the site of the most successful attempt by prisoners to escape a Nazi extermination camp during the Holocaust.
“There is an image that shows the entrance gate to Sobibor with tree branches woven into the fence to camouflage what’s happening inside and the description of how the gate was decorated with SS flags directly corresponds to testimony of a survivor in West German court in 1962,” she said.
“It puts into literal black and white what we had known to be true, but just confirms it. And it confirms it through the souvenir album of one of the people who ran the killing center.”
A home for the collection
In addition to two photo albums, there are about 50 loose photographs of Sobibor, “a handful” from the Belzec death camp and 14 loose photographs that show Niemann’s funeral, along with letters to his wife, Henriette, Friedberg said.
Niemann’s grandson turned over the materials to two volunteer German historians, who donated them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Often one reason that material like this is so rare is that perpetrators or their families would destroy material like this lest it be used as evidence against their loved one in a criminal proceeding,” Friedberg said. “But because Niemann had been killed, he couldn’t be prosecuted. So, presumably, it just stayed in the family home and it wasn’t until 2015 that Niemann’s grandson shared it with a local historian who was doing research into his hometown. So, for decades, it just lay there. Whether it was forgotten or thought unimportant, I don’t know. But it was unknown to us.”
Friedberg said the German researchers chose to donate the collection to the museum partly because one of them had served as a fellow at the museum.
“They were looking for a repository for the collection that could accomplish two things: one, make sure that it was conserved and safe in perpetuity, and two – equally significant – make sure it was accessible and could be examined and analyzed in a much broader context of other evidence of the Holocaust,” Friedberg said. “And the size and scope of our collections are the largest in the world so that made it a natural place, but we are very, very grateful to these German partners. They’ve worked on it meticulously for several years and we are all the beneficiaries of their research.”
Thomas' life and legacy
After World War II, Thomas was sponsored by an uncle, Leo Steiner, who lived in Pittsburgh, to come to the United States around 1950. He initially worked as a traveling salesman of women’s clothing at a Pittsburgh company. He met his wife-to-be, Tina Zacks, when he walked into Taft’s Department Store in downtown Columbus on a sales call.
After relocating to Columbus, Thomas worked for slipper manufacturer R.G. Barry Corp., now based in Pickerington, as its first traveling salesman.
Zacks remembered spending time with Thomas and his aunt, Tina, as a child.
“We were close as a family because all of that generation (was),” he said. “As kids they always had coffee on Shabbat evening and we were around all the time.”
Zacks said Thomas said little about his time at Sobibor until after he retired.
“Oddly, he was an atheist before the Holocaust, before his bar mitzvah, but he was also a big student of history and in the context of history he believed for many reasons the Catholic Church and particularly the pope acquiesced in what was going on, and so made as part of his book the responsibility of the current popes to, in his view, make amends and recognize what they had not done, and how they contributed,” Zacks said. “I got involved with some people to try and consider a more Hollywood version of the book to go for a movie or something along those lines. And in that process, we did a lot of personal interviews with him. But in that, it became apparent to me that if you had not lived through something like that, you would not understand that in his view, people could seek retribution against people you love for generations.”
Zacks said that fear kept Thomas from speaking out as a younger man.
He said his great-uncle established the Max, Paula and Marianne Ticho Foundation to memorialize his parents, Paula (Steiner) and Max Ticho and his sister, Marianne Ticho, who were killed at Sobibor, and to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism in Columbus. The Ticho Fund made its first allocations this year, following the death of Thomas’ second wife, Gloria L. (Wasserstrom). Donations were made to Hillel and to a program that sends Columbus police officers to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for education about the Holocaust.
“My view is to carry out his legacy and pass that on to the next generation,” said Zacks, referring to Thomas. “Our daughter’s middle name is Ticho. And … she became a doctor. And so he would have loved that.”