Advanced Search

Learn About The Holocaust

Special Collections

My Saved Research




Skip to main content

Jan Piwonski - Sobibor

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5031 | Film ID: 3339, 3340, 3341, 3342, 3343, 3344, 3345, 3346, 3347

Jan Piwonski gives a detailed description of the extermination process at Sobibor. He also provides a harrowing account of the brutal treatment the Jews received in the process of building the camp. He could hear the screams of the victims from his home three kilometers from the camp. Lanzmann quizzes him about relations between the Poles and the Jews. Piwonski says that the Poles were surprised by the Jews' lack of resistance.

FILM ID 3339 -- Camera Rolls #7-8 -- 01:00:08 to 01:18:05
Lanzmann and Piwonski are seated outside on a bench in front of a small building speaking through translator Barbara Janicka. (For Lanzmann's reflections on working with Barbara and the accuracy of her translations, see pgs. 481 - 482 of the English translation of his memoir The Patagonian Hare.) On the building is the word "Sobibor" on a sign above the door. Lanzmann asks Piwonski if he is alright, to which he answers that he is fine, though he is a bit stressed. They begin the interview, learning that the building (assumedly a train station) was there since 1938 and has not changed, nor have the few buildings in the vicinity. Piwonski tells that he worked track maintenance beginning in the spring of 1942, and became an assistant switchman by July of that year, working in the building in front of which they are currently seated. Piwonski says that he could see everything that went on from the building's window, including the main gate with "Arbeit Macht Frei" and the SS logo. He begins to talk about how the camp began when he is cut off by Lanzmann, who cuts the camera.

01:06:50 Piwonski begins to tell Lanzmann about the beginnings of the camp in 1942, but prefaces his comments by saying that he never kept a diary or notes, but he believes the Germans first brought a group of Jewish workers early in March of 1942. They were housed in one of the buildings (that they are sitting near) because the camps were not yet built. The Jewish workers would unload trains of materials, carrying them on their backs, running the entire time due to the brutality of the Germans. He could not identify from where these workers came because talking to them was strictly forbidden. The construction of the camp proceeded very quickly as the first convoy of Jews arrived. 01:13:50 Piwonski talks about the beginnings of the camp, when the barracks and the wall were beginning to be built.

FILM ID 3340 -- Camera Rolls #9-11 -- 01:00:08 to 01:31:07
Piwonski continues describing the construction of the camp, saying that the Germans were forcing a very fast pace and yelled constantly. He describes the constant brutality that they endured while the Jewish workers unloaded bricks. Those who witnessed such brutality were quite shocked, he says. Piwonski continues, sounding a bit angry and then quite distraught at his words, saying that based on what he observed and the rumors from the Ukrainians and Russians that worked there, that the camp would be used to get rid of the Jews. He became choked up as he discussed the Germans killing Jews who were too exhausted to work at the fast pace. He could see all this because the barbed wire fences had not yet been covered with branches and trees; the land was quite clear and everything was rather visible to the outside world.

01:11:27 Piwonski describes the arrival of the first convoy, early June 1942. He says 40 or more cars arrived in the afternoon, accompanied by SS guards. He went home shortly after they arrived, believing that they would be working in the camp like those already there. He couldn't have known that Sobibor was going to be a place of massive extermination. When he returned the next morning, there was a silence in the camp, with nobody outside, no movement to be seen, which was quite different from the usual specter of hard work and screaming. People questioned what happened, with no answers forthcoming. After the second shipment came, a smell spread throughout the area, and then they realized what the true purpose of Sobibor was: extermination.

01:20:15 Piwonski recalls knowing that extermination was going on, and he and his comrades speculating on how such a thing was being done. Later convoys were not treated the same way; instead they were treated more brutally. The trains had to be split up because of the limited space on the ramp, so Polish rail workers divided the train in two while under German supervision. When those operating the train were Polish, Piwonski would sometimes hop onto the train's tender and ride it to the main gate, trying to see inside to satisfy his curiosity, seeing SS men with dogs, and the gas chambers themselves. Concludes with silence, and a CU on Lanzmann.

FILM ID 3341 -- Camera Roll #12 -- 03:00:08 to 03:21:56
Tape jumps frequently at the beginning. Piwonski says that from his town, only three kilometers away, he could hear the screams of the victims, in fact, all of Jwobeck could. These screams were indescribable, he says, hideous and terrible, a clamor of noises, of men, women, and children. The children's screams were easily distinguishable, as were gunshots and dogs barking. It was a sound that he says nobody can forget. He cannot escape it, he has nightmares to this day, very often, where he relives these scenes of those being shot, and even little children being crushed against tree trunks. The people began to piece things together, and based on the sounds of a diesel motor that ran only after a convoy had arrived, deduced that they were being killed by exhaust gas.

03:11:26 Silent scenes of the interview from afar, angles from further down the street opposite Barbara. You can see a crowd gathered off-camera to watch. CUs of some of those in the crowd follow.

FILM ID 3342 -- Camera Rolls #13,15-20 -- 04:00:10 to 04:18:39
Piwonski and Lanzmann walk through the forests around Sobibor while smoking cigarettes. Barbara is translating from off-screen. Lanzmann asks if people still hunt in these forests, to which Piwonski replies that they do, rather often. Lanzmann questions the locations, asking about the communal graves and the location of the camp itself. Piwonski reminds him that while they are within the confines of the camp, it is only the expanded camp, which was done in 1943. Only people were hunted then, he says. The borders of the camp in the forest were two and a half meter tall posts with five lines of barbed wire, along with a minefield. Those who attempted escape often failed. Piwonski says that the guards told stories of investigating exploded mines, where they would find a deer or an unfortunate Jew. Lanzmann repeats grimly, "a deer or a Jew..."

04:05:40 This segment's audio is very faint, and the picture soon cuts to brown. It was Piwonski, Lanzmann, and Barbara walking towards the camera from the edge of the forest. As the audio reaches an audible level, the group is walking past the camera, stopping in front of it. It becomes clear that the group is talking about where things were located, and that the trees were planted by the Germans in 1943 so as to hide the camp.

04:10:33 Cut to a massive wall of piled logs that winds into the distance, a logging yard. The group of Piwonski, Lanzmann, and Barbara are walking towards the camera. What they say is inaudible.

04:12:24 Massive wall of piled logs that winds into the distance, a logging yard, the same shot and pan once again. The group of Piwonski, Lanzmann, and Barbara are walking past the camera lower left, barely audible. Cut to them sitting down on some logs to continue the interview. The tape cuts to brown, the audio for a new segment begins, but they are no longer on the log. It appears that the audio and video are not properly in sync here. They walk towards the bench again. 04:15:41 They are in the forest again, this time the camera views from afar. They are inaudible.

FILM ID 3343 -- Camera Roll #14 -- 05:00:08 to 05:11:24
Tape jumps frequently at the beginning. Piwonski and Lanzmann walk through the forest with Barbara off-screen. Lanzmann comments on how hard it is to imagine the horrors of Sobibor happening in these tranquil forests. Piwonski agrees, and says that the judges from Frankfurt agreed with that feeling. One judge said that the scents were so idyllic that it was romantic, and that it was hard for him to reconstruct the Nazi horrors in his mind because of it. 05:04:14 Piwonski, Lanzmann, and Barbara (off-screen) have stopped walking. Piwonski says, at Lanzmann's asking, that there was no way for the Poles to tell the Jews what was about to happen to them at Sobibor. 05:05:15 Piwonski describes the relationship that the Poles had with the Ukrainians and Germans. There wasn't much interaction between them, but the Poles were discriminated against. The Ukrainians, who worked in the camp, were often overheard saying "good, now we can finish up the Jews and start on you." 05:08:26 Lanzmann asks Piwonski if the Ukrainians trafficked goods. Piwonski tells of them trying to sell items that were stolen from the Jews. He tells one story of a Ukrainian guard who tried to buy a bottle of Vodka from him. The Ukrainian wanted to use a bunch of gold-filled teeth, still bloody from the decomposing corpse that they were pulled from. Piwonski refused, and still seems disturbed by the scene.

FILM ID 3344 -- Camera Rolls #20-21 -- 06:00:08 to 06:16:06
Piwonski, Barbara, and Lanzmann are seated in front of a giant woodpile. Piwonski tells that not all of the Jews arrived in cattle cars, but that some of the richer Jews travelled in Pullmans. The Germans tried to make it so that the victims never knew what their fate would be, making it much easier to relocate them. Polish rail workers tried to warn them by speaking in German, but rarely were there opportunities to do this. He says that they knew what trains were for the camp, and that other stations would telephone or telegraph the information ahead to them.

FILM ID 3345 -- Camera Rolls #22-24 -- 07:00:08 to 07:33:41
Piwonski, Barbara, and Lanzmann are seated in front of a giant woodpile, continuing their conversation. Piwonski tells Lanzmann that escapes were relatively common among Polish Jews because they were very informed of what was going on. He talks of a column of 500 Jews being marched to Sobibor from another work project where half were killed en route for trying to escape. He doubts that they had actually tried to escape, considering that the 500 could easily overpower the 30 guards they had with them, and the terrain would have easily concealed them. He reasons instead that the elderly and exhausted must be those lost, and is befuddled by the lack of resistance, their "extreme passivity," and thinks that 500 Poles would have tried to escape.

07:11:27 Piwonski tells that he is baffled by the passivity of the Jews, as were many Poles. He cannot figure why, despite their history of non-violence, they did not resist more. He talks of solidarity in the communities, of Poles hiding Jews in their houses. Lanzmann is trying to figure out the Polish perception of Jews and why they did not act to stop the Germans, but does not get a satisfactory answer.

07:22:41 Lanzmann continues from the last Camera Roll, asking about how the Poles saw the Jews and why there was a lack of a response from the Polish community. Piwonski insists that the Jews were a part of the community, though considered different based on their religious beliefs and practices, they were still an "integral part of the Polish collective." 07:26:57 Lanzmann asks about the Poles' feelings on the Jews being relocated to ghettos. Piwonski says that the isolation of the Jews into ghettos was never accepted by the Polish community. But he also says that very few Jews settled in his small village, and instead more were in the cities, and in general, the Poles and Ukrainians were shocked by the actions of the Germans. Piwonski says he was surprised by the uprisings that did happen, as was the entire Polish community.

FILM ID 3346 -- Camera Rolls #25-27 -- 08:00:08 to 08:33:02
Piwonski says that the Poles expected the Jews to be able to resist more effectively. They also believed that this passivity was part of how the Germans were able to exterminate so many. The revolt at Sobibor was a real surprise for he and the rest of the Poles because they showed that not only could they escape, but they could fight the Germans, to fight for their dignity. 08:08:06 Lanzmann presses Piwonski concerning the Jews fighting for their dignity. He refers to those who had prepared for a long stay at Sobibor, deceived until their demise. Piwonski answers simply that the foreign Jews were indeed oblivious of their fate until the end.

08:11:16 Piwonski recalls what was heard from the camp after a convoy arrived. He describes a gathering in the camp, followed by a speech in German explaining that the Jews were to be washed and then put to work. The Jews often cheered this good news. It wasn't until later that one heard the screams of horror, followed by the silence and the sound of the diesel motor.

08:19:46 Lanzmann asks Piwonski what he thought of the German people as a whole, to which he replied that the ones at the camp were certainly abnormal, but the entire German people could not all be like that. "It is impossible to believe that a nation full of so many poets could be criminal," he says. He believes that the Germans at Sobibor who committed these atrocities were the rejects of the nation, and though the Poles only had contact with them, he doesn't think that the entire country could be like them. 08:22:33 Piwonski comments that the Ukrainians thought the Germans to be abnormal too, but the attitude of the Ukrainians was different. He tells the story of a Ukrainian guard coming to him in the summer of 1942. He was asking for vodka, and wanted to buy it using gold teeth, crowns, bridges, and fillings from a decomposing corpse that stank and was covered in blood. Piwonski immediately tossed it back to the Ukrainian, telling him to take them. The Ukrainian called him an idiot and left. Later, Piwonski's comrades would tell him that the same guard was trying to get the same deal with them. It was scenes such as this, on top of the German atrocities, that Piwonski cannot forget, and is still bothered by. Though cameraman Jimmy is told to cut, he continues to roll for another few minutes, getting CUs of Piwonski, Barbara, and Lanzmann.

FILM ID 3347 -- Camera Rolls #31-32 -- 09:00:08 to 09:15:46
Lanzmann, Piwonski, and Barbara are back in front of the blue building with a sign reading "Sobibor" above the door, assumedly a train station. Lanzmann asks a few questions about how things have changed. They get up and begin walking. Lanzmann is trying to get his bearings about the place, asking questions about the relationship of this location to the camp. They stop on some old railroad tracks, and Lanzmann asks where Piwonski's post was in relation to the camp, and where the trains were coming from and where exactly they were going to. They walk back across the tracks to the ramp, the exact one where the Jews were unloaded from the trains and taken into the camp. Lanzmann compares this to other camps, and realizes that there was only a small fence separating the camp from the town and that Sobibor was relatively small.

09:08:01 Lanzmann, Piwonski, and Barbara are in front of the train station once again, going over a lot of the same questions and answers as the previous reel. Large portions of this has no video. Piwonski describes the locations of various things from their new position across the tracks, including this time that the camp was designed to be very functional. Lanzmann comments that Sobibor was very small. Piwonski describes seeing the convoys from Western Europe, where the Jews were carried in Pullmans, and seeing the girls putting on makeup, unaware their destiny, and the helplessness of the Polish workers who were forbidden to tell them anything.

Event Date
1978-1981 (Tournage en Pologne)
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Expand all
Record last modified: 2018-03-16 12:35:50
This page:
Previous location: