Introduction
Finding out the fates of victims of Nazi persecution is often like completing a jigsaw. Only when individual pieces of information that come to light one by one are brought together is it possible to reconstruct an individual’s path of persecution in full. The Dutch Network of War Collections does just that – on its new online portal, “Warlives.org,” where it uses information from various sources to piece together the biographies of victims of Nazi persecution . The documents from the Arolsen Archives are one of the sources that are used.

Information is included on the path of persecution of Selma Simon from Arolsen – one of the life stories presented on the portal. The Simons were a Jewish family, and after their failed attempt to emigrate to Cuba on the passenger ship St Louis, the National Socialists sent them to the Westerbork concentration camp before finally deporting them to Sobibor. Three of their daughters survived because they were able to emigrate to England before the deportation.

Path of persecution
The persecution begins in 1938

Selma Simon-Katz, born in Arolsen in 1894, was living in Cloppenburg together with her husband Karl, a cattle dealer, and her four daughters when the Nazi regime stepped up the campaign of state terror against Jews.

The terror begins

In the wake of the November pogroms of 1938, the National Socialists arrested about 30,000 Jewish men; Karl Simon was one of them. The official reason given for the arrests was “protective custody” and the “restoration of order” after all the havoc, plundering, violence, and murder. However, the real reasons were quite different: most of the Jews who were arrested were wealthy, and the intention was to force them to emigrate and for their property to be transferred to the state.

Karl Simon was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Like many other families, the Simons decided to leave Germany in order to escape Nazi persecution. Selma sent two of her daughters on a Kindertransport to England while her husband was still in custody. After Karl’s release, the rest of the family boarded the St Louis passenger ship in Hamburg. Their goal was to start a new life in Cuba and perhaps to emigrate to the USA from there. However, their journey was to take an unexpected turn. When they arrived in Cuba, they were not allowed to enter the country. 

All the passengers on the St Louis were refugees. Returning to Germany was not an option for them. They had seen the consequences of radicalization for themselves and had reason to fear renewed imprisonment in a concentration camp. After an odyssey lasting days, they were allowed to disembark in Antwerp and were accepted by the governments of The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and England. The Simon family went to The Netherlands and spent the next three years in Arnhem.

However, they were not safe from the Nazi regime there either. In 1942, Jews began to be deported from The Netherlands to German extermination camps. The former refugee camp Westerbork, now under German administration, served as a central collection point. Jews who had previously fled from Germany or Austria were interned in this transit camp. As was Selma Simon, who was detained in the camp along with her 14-year-old daughter Ilse in December 1942. According to documents from the Information Office of the Dutch Red Cross, she was imprisoned “for reasons of race.” Her husband Karl followed a few months later. Her eldest daughter Edith had managed to emigrate to England beforehand. On May 18, 1943, the National Socialists deported the Simon family to the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland. They were murdered on arrival three days later.

Path of persecution
The Sobibor extermination camp
The Sobibor extermination camp

The Sobibor German extermination camp in eastern Poland was one of three camps that the National Socialists used for the systematic murder of Jews which took place under the codename Operation Reinhardt. Between 1942 and 1943, they killed 150,000 to 250,000 people there.

Only a few have survived

When the deportation of Jews from The Netherlands began in 1942, the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland was one of the destinations. The Nazis deported around 33,000 people there from the Netherlands alone, including the Simon family. Most of them were driven into the gas chambers by the SS and murdered directly on their arrival; only a small number were put to work in the camp. 

In October 1943, a prisoners’ resistance group, mainly led by Jewish Soviet prisoners of war, staged an uprising. They succeeded in killing a number of SS men, including the deputy camp commandant Johann Niemann, and managed to cut the telephone wires. As they fled from the remaining guards, many of them were shot or died in the minefield that the SS had planted around the perimeter of the camp. Only about 200 prisoners managed to reach the safety of the woods close by. Those prisoners who remained in the camp were murdered. 

After the uprising, the National Socialists destroyed the Sobibor camp and disposed of documents about what had happened there. It is not possible to determine the exact number of victims with any certainty now. Photographs from a private photo album belonging to Johann Niemann were made accessible to the public in January 2020. They had been in his family’s possession since the camp’s closure. The most important testimony about the camp includes statements made by the few survivors. One of them was Jules Schelvis, who visited the Arolsen Archives in 2004 and presented a book he had written, in which he reflects upon his experiences in Sobibor. He was one of 81 male prisoner workers to arrive on his transport who were not murdered in the gas chambers of Sobibor directly on the day of their arrival.