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CHAPTER 4 MURDERING STAR THE SOBIBOR INVESTIGATION AND TRIAL Nature’s polluted. There’s man in every secret corner of her Doing damned wicked deeds. Thou art, old world, A hoary, atheistic, murdering star. —Thomas Beddoes, Death’s Jest-Book, Act II, Scene 1 Into That Darkness: The Sobibor Death Camp Investigation On the same day as the Central Office in Ludwigsburg began its investigation into the Sobibor death camp, July 24, 1959, it requested from the senior prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt the records from the trial of Hubert Gomerski. Gomerski was one of three Sobibor staff members tried in 1950 in West Germany . Accused by survivors of ghastly crimes, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison on August 25, 1950. Dietrich Zeug, one of several Ludwigsburg officials assigned to the Sobibor investigation, had stumbled across a reference to Gomerski’s trial in Gerald Reitlinger’s monograph The Final Solution (1953), which referred to the Gomerski proceedings in Frankfurt on page 151. Zeug was at the beginning of his on-the-job tutorial on the Operation Reinhard death camps, and Reitlinger was one of his primary teachers : from Reitlinger’s book, Zeug learned that only five of the men serving in Wirth’s Sonderkommando had been the subject of a criminal trial, that a prisoner revolt on October 14, 1943, had enabled thirty prisoners to escape and survive the war, and that some of these fugitives were Dutch Jews who had returned to the Netherlands after the war. In August, Zeug enriched his knowledge of Sobibor by reading The Black Book: The Nazi Crimes against the Jewish People (1946), in which he encountered the name of SS Oberscharführer Murdering Star 126 (Staff Sergeant) Karl Frenzel, subcommander of the work camp (Camp 1) at Sobibor . From August 5 until November 6, Zeug plunged into the records of the Gomerski trial that had been sent to him by the Frankfurt prosecutor’s office in early August, searching for the names of perpetrators and surviving victims. The records contained references to previous trials and investigations related to Sobibor: the 1950 proceedings against the gassing technician Erich Bauer in Berlin and a series of early civil cases filed with German restitution offices. Zeug followed up with requests to the relevant authorities for documentation on each of these cases.1 On November 12, the Office for Restitution in Stuttgart responded to Zeug’s inquiry, citing eight claims pending with its office related to the Sobibor death camp. These included the names of Hercz Cukierman, at the time residing in Newark, New Jersey; Samuel Lerer, a resident of the Bronx; Kurt Max Thomas, living in Pittsburgh; Zyndel Honigman of Atlantic City, New Jersey; Salmon Podchlibnik of Cumberland, New Jersey; Moshek Merenstein, a resident of Brooklyn, New York; Zelda Kelberman of Vineland, New Jersey; and Esther Raab, also residing in Vineland. Moreover, the applicants Merenstein, Kelberman, and Raab had implicated SS Oberscharführer Frenzel, about whom Zeug had already read in Reitlinger’s book. The same witnesses mentioned the name of an SS Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) called Johann Niemann. Zeug also received an answer from the district court (Amtsgericht) in Siegen, indicating that an application had been filed with its office for a declaration of death in the case of Rosalie Marx, a Jewish widow from Siegen deported from the Westerbork concentration camp in Holland to Sobibor and presumably murdered there. The district court forwarded the file to Zeug in Ludwigsburg. On pages 4 and 41 of the file, Zeug found the names of Dutch Jews deported to Sobibor who had survived the death camp: Sara Engel, Chaim Engel, Ursula Stern, and Eduard Menn. All but Menn were believed to reside in Holland.2 In December, Zeug traveled to the US Documentation Center in Berlin, where he inspected the SS file of Christian Wirth, the former inspector of the Operation Reinhard death camps. In the file, he found references to the Sobibor commandant, SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Franz Reichleitner; SS Oberscharführer (Staff Sergeant) Gustav Wagner; SS Untersturmführer (2nd Lieutenant) Johann Niemann; and SS Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla, the chief builder of Sobibor and its first commandant. The records indicated that Niemann had been killed on August 8, 1943, but they were mute on the fate and whereabouts of Richard Thomalla. Zeug followed up with a letter to the “hometown card index” (Heimatsortkartei) for Upper Silesia in Poland , seeking information on Thomalla (his last known residence was a town...


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