Speaking Up About Sobibor

MUNICH - Rudie Cortissos came to Munich with an old picture of his mother. He was born in 1939, at the start of World War II, but he never got to know her. When he was a baby, his Jewish family had to go underground in Amsterdam to escape the Nazis. His mother hid in one attic, his father in another hiding place and Rudie - who was named Shlomo Cortissos at his birth - was given to a foster family that called him Rudie Oort and concealed his Jewish origin. "One of my earliest memories is of going to church and praying," he told Haaretz yesterday.

Rudie never got to know his mother because one day, in the spring of 1943, she came out of hiding for a few hours.

"She suffered from asthma and was restless," Cortissos said. He managed to extract the details of what happened from his father after the war.

Apparently, a neighbor who knew she was Jewish and informed on her to the police, who sent her to the Westerbork transit camp on the way to her death at Sobibor.

"My mother sent my father two letters from Westerbork," Cortissos said. "My father died relatively young in 1959 and the two letters are in my possession. They are dearer to me than anything. In the first letter my mother describes the conditions at Westerbork and how she was turned in to the Germans. She asks my father, 'How is Salo?' - that was my nickname - and she tells him, 'Please give him a little kiss from me.' She wrote the second letter right before she boarded the train to the east. She threw it into the street without a stamp but it arrived."

Like most Western European Jews during that period, she was oblivious to the fact that she was being sent to her death. "She wrote to my father, 'Don't worry, we will be strong. We are going to the east, we are going to work,'" Cortissos said, in visible pain. On May 18, 1943 the train left for the east, to Sobibor.

Much evidence concerning all that happened to the passengers at the end of several days on the train has been gathered over the years, some of it from testimony from top Nazis who were put on trial.

The exhausted passengers arrived at Sobibor, where they were told it was just a transit station on the way to resettlement in the east.

In fact, it was a death camp that had been built just a few months earlier as part of Operation Reinhard, which was intended to annihilate the Jews of Europe as part of the Final Solution.

The deception was planned to go on for a long time: In several cases the SS encouraged Jews to write postcards saying they had arrived at the camp and the conditions there were good. They even hung flower boxes to beautify the camp for the eyes of future victims.

The Jews were told they had to undergo disinfection and they were made to remove their clothing and hand over their possessions.

The perimeter of the camp was guarded by non-German armed guards. After the Jews removed their clothing the guards and the SS men became more violent. They pushed the Jews along a fenced outer path to the gas chambers.

Inside the sealed chambers the victims choked to death on piped-in exhaust gases. The few who survived the death camp said they could hear the victims' cries throughout the camp. After the wailing ceased, the doors of the gas chambers were opened, the corpses of the Jewish victims were incinerated and their ashes scattered, or else they were buried in mass graves.

Emmy Cortissos, Rudie's mother, was one of a quarter of a million victims there.

According to the indictment in the trial that began in Munich yesterday, among those who had a part in her murder at Sobibor was John (Ivan) Demjanjuk.

Forty co-prosecutors

Demjanjuk is accused of having been one of the 120 non-German guards, among whom were former Soviet soldiers working for the SS at the camp.

According to the prosecution, Demjanjuk, who was born in Ukraine, enlisted in the Soviet army, was taken prisoner by the Germans, underwent training at the Trawniki camp (which prepared guards for concentration and death camps), volunteered for the SS and was sent to Sobibor in March of 1943 for a period of at least six months.

In court, he will face Rudie Cortissos as one of the 40 "co-prosecutors," a special status in the German legal system that enables relatives of murder victims to participate in the legal proceedings.

In the group that got organized over the past year there are Sobibor survivors like Jules Schelvis, who survived the camp but lost his wife there, and Philip Bialowitz of the United States, who was forced to become part of the Sonderkommando that dealt with the corpses of the murdered.

Nineteen of the co-prosecutors arrived in Munich Sunday and will participate at the trial.

"We wanted to give a voice to the victims," said Prof. Cornelius Nestler, who is representing the Dutch victims' relatives. "It is, after all, impossible to understand 27,000 murder victims from them, but it is possible to understand and identify with each case individually. We did not want the attention to be focused on the 'old man' Demjanjuk - who is on trial for the second time - but rather on the deeds for which he is responsible."

Cortissos said he has prepared for the trial.

"I have been cutting articles about Demjanjuk out of the newspapers since 1970," Cortissos said. "I have researched Sobibor to the best of my ability and the moment I heard about Demjanjuk's extradition I contacted the organization for the perpetuation of the memory of Sobibor victims in Holland and within 24 hours they told me about the prosecutors' group."

The fact that he is a part of the group has helped him and the other prosecutors.

"I am not certain I could have done this alone, going to Munich and reporting to the court on my own," he said.

Cortissos found the picture of his mother he carries with him everywhere in Munich in a family photo album. The album survived the Holocaust, the people photographed in it did not. Sixty-four of his relatives were murdered.

"My victory is the family I have established," Cortissos said, "my two children and my four grandchildren."

But he is also waiting for the moment when he will be able to speak, in German, to the court and tell his family's story. "This I am doing for my mother," he said.