When 15-year-old Sigmund Sobolewski walked through the gates of Auschwitz on June 14, 1940, he never thought he’d live to see his next birthday.
But prisoner 88 turns 88 Wednesday, May 11.
“I never believed I could be alive at 88,” laughed Sobolewski, who was the 88th prisoner to walk through the gate of the notorious Nazi death camp.
Sobolewski laughed again when asked if he ever celebrated his birthday in Auschwitz.
“I never celebrated my birthday. I never remembered my birthday in Auschwitz. There was no calendar. We never knew what day it was. All this kind of thing was taken away from us. We were dehumanized in Auschwitz.”
Sobolewski’s family are planning a private birthday get together with friends for him at one of the local restaurants.
“It’s kind of a big one,” his son Vladimir said. “I always think of my dad as a 15- or 16-year-old kid in a death camp wondering if he’d ever make it to that age.”
Sobolewski and about 730 others were the first transport of prisoners to the camp.
All were Poles, about 30 of whom were Jews who were exterminated within two or three weeks.
But like many others Sobolewski, a Roman Catholic, was eventually put to work.
“In 1942 I was assigned to the Auschwitz fire brigade,” Sobolewski reminisced. “This meant very often we had to leave the camp to fight a fire — two or three times a month after a bombardment. Auschwitz was in a heavily industrialized area that was often bombed.”
“It gave us an opportunity to steal food.”
Sobolewski spent nearly five years in the camp.
When he was released he travelled extensively, eventually marrying in Cuba. He and his wife Ramona have lived in Fort Macleod since 1981 raising three sons, Simon, Emilio, and Vladimir.
Vladimir, 45, helps Sobolewski run the Heritage Motel.
“It’s pretty crazy to think my dad was in the first transport to Auschwitz and survived for five years,” he said. “I can’t even imagine what he went through. Dad was also in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs and met and worked for the then agriculture minister Ernesto Che Guevara. He’s had quite a life.”
In conjunction with Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, Sigmund Sobolewski wrote “Prisoner 88: The Man in Stripes,” which is available at the Fort Macleod RCMP Centennial Library.
Sobolewski still travels occasionally telling his story and encouraging people to move beyond the prison walls of prejudice. He spoke in Alabama last year, and this coming November has a speaking engagement in Chicago.
He is still in good health, he said.
“Very good. I walk with two canes, but I’m okay. In the last election I ran for councillor. I’ll try again next time. I never give up.”