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Sobibor Extermination Camp: Jewish Prisoner Uprisings

Part 2

Note: The materials in this section were transcribed by Mr. Kenneth McVay of Vancouver, Canada. Mr. McVay's award-winning Nizkor Project is one of the largest collections of Holocaust-related materials in the world.—Ben Austin


                       THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS 
   Structure and Aims * The Image of the Prisoner The Jews in the Camps 
                         Jerusalem, January 1980 

Chairman: Bela Vago 
B.  Acts of Resistance and the Organization of the Revolt in Treblinka 
     The organization of the underground was preceded by some successful 
and some unsuccessful acts of resistance and escape attempts.  These
actions were followed by cruel reprisals and punishment by the camp 
authorities.  The lessons learned from these actions influenced the modes
of operation of the underground and its plans. 
     The first act of resistance, which is mentioned in many testimonies, 
was the killing of SS Unterscharfu"hrer Max Bialas by the Jew Meir Berliner
on September 10 or 11, 1942.  Meir Berliner had arrived in Treblinka from
Warsaw a few days before in one of the transports of the "big Aktion." At
that time it was the practice to take out several hundred people from each
transport to work arranging the belongings of the murdered; the same day or
a few days later, the group was liquidated and was replaced by other people
selected from new shipments.  At the evening roll-call of the prisoners,
Max Bialas instructed those who had arrived that same day to line up on the
side.  It was not clear who was to be liquidated --the new arrivals or
those who had arrived earlier.  At that moment Berliner jumped out from the
ranks of the prisoners, lurched toward Bialas and stabbed him with a knife. 
A great commotion followed.  The Ukranian guards opened fire.  Berliner was
killed on the spot.  and in the course of the shooting more than ten other
prisoners were killed and others were wounded.  When the tumult subsided
the prisoners were lined up again for roll-call.  Christian Wirth, who was
in Treblinka at the time, arrived on the scene accompanied by Kurt Franz,
the second in command of the camp.  Ten men were removed from the ranks and
shot on the spot in full view of all the others.  On the following day,
during the morning roll-call, another 150 men were taken out, brought to
the Lazarett and shot there.  Max Bialas died en route to the military 
hospital in Ostrow.  (Ibid., 231-232; Testimony of Eliyahu Rosehberg, 
Yad Vashem Archives, hereafter, YVA), 0-3/4039.) 
     Following this event a new practice was introduced; a permanent group
of Jewish prisoners was now retained in the camp to carry out all physical
labor.  The daily executions of Jewish prisoners was now of limited scope
and encompassed mainly the infirm and weak who were no longer able to work
and those who had committed violations even of the most minor sorts.  The
place of those who were killed was taken by new men selected from the
transports slated for annihilation, which continued to stream into the
     The lesson learned by the Jewish prisoners who worked in the camp was 
that the cost of a courageous act like that performed by Berliner was very
high--more than 160 Jews were executed in reprisal for the killing of one
SS man.  In light of the fact that the Germans had also changed their
methods, instances of this sort did not recur.  It became clear that
individual, spontaneous acts like that of Berliner, however admirable, were
not the way to rescue, nor could they even slow down the annihilation
activities in the camp.  

     In his book 'A Year in Treblinka', Jacob Wiernik tells of another 
act of individual resistance.  One of the girls being herded into the 
gas chambers grabbed a rifle from the hands of a Ukrainian guard, shot 
and killed one Ukrainian and wounded two others.  The girl was caught,
tortured and murdered.  (The testimony of Jacob Wiernik was taken down 
in Warsaw during the war and in 1944 was published in Poland by the 
Polish underground.  His testimony also appeared in Yiddish in New York;
see Jacob Wiemili, 'A Yor in Treblinke', New York, 1944, 30.) 
     Group Resistance by Jews who Arrived in the Transports In December
1942 a transport of about 2,000 Jews arrived in Treblinka from Kiellbasin
camp in the Grodno district.  Jews from Grodno and the towns of the region
had been concentrated in this camp.  Unlike other transports, most of which
arrived during the daylight hours, this one arrived in the evening.  The
people were taken off the train and brought into the camp surrounded by SS
and Ukrainian guards.  The handling of this transport, like the others, was
accompanied by shouts, blows and firing into the air.  The people were
ordered to undress, and some of them had already begun to run on the
Himmelstrasse toward the gas chambers.  At this point it became clear 
to the people where they were and what awaited them.  Shouts were heard:
Don't obey the Germans!  Don't undress!  Scores of people from the
transport grabbed sticks, pulled out knives and fell on the Germans and
Ukrainians who surrounded them.  According to one testimony, one of the
Jews pulled out a grenade and hurled it at the Germans and Ukrainians, who
opened fire on the crowd with rifles and machine guns.  A great tumult
began as people ran in all directions. But the barbed-wire fences prevented
escape from the camp.  It was not long before the square was covered with
the corpses of the prisoners.  In the end the Germans and Ukrainians
quelled this act of resistance, and the people were shoved into the gas
chambers, some of them still in their clothing.  In this struggle it seems
that three SS men and Ukrainians were injured. 
     It should be noted that underground activity, the idea of resistance 
and of going into the forests was very widespread among the Jews of 
Grodno and its surroundings.  Their psychological readiness for 
resistance, the rumors that had reached them about the meaning of 
Treblinka, the situation they encountered after getting off the train 
and the cries of some of them to resist all led to the spontaneous 
outburst.  After that transports to Treblinka were brought in only during
daylight hours.  (ibid., pp.40-411; Shmuel Wilenberg, "Treblinka --
ha-Mahane ve-ha-Mered," Yalkut Moreshet, No.  5, April 1966, pp.  30-31;
testimony of Oskar Strawczynski, YVA, 0-3/3131; pp.17-18.) 
Escapes from the Camps 
     In the first months of the camp's existence scores of people escaped 
from Treblinka.  Some of them were caught, others managed to get away. 
They reached the nearby ghettos and told what was going on in Treblinka. 
Some of the escapees reached the Warsaw ghetto.  One of the first of these
was Simcha Binem Laski, who was sent to Treblinka from Warsaw at the end of
July 1942.  Four days after he arrived in the camp, Simcha managed to
escape.  He got back to the Warsaw ghetto in the beginning of August--on
the day that the "Children's Aktion" was being carried out there.  ("In
Treblinke--Gviyat Edut," 'Fun Lefstn Khurbn' , No. 3, October-November
1946, pp.47-48.) 
     On September 13, 1942, Avraham (Jacob) Krzepicki escaped from 
Treblinka after having been in the camp for eighteen days.  He, too, 
managed to reach the Warsaw ghetto and there provided testimony as to 
what was occurring in Treblinka.  (Krzepicki was a member of the Jewish
Fighting Organization and took part in the fighting in "the brush makers"
area in the Warsaw ghetto.  His testimony in Ringelblum Archives, YVA,
M-10; see also Rachel Auerbach, Varshever Tsevuos--Bagegenishn Aktivinein,
Gorules 1933-1943, Tel Aviv, 1974, p.278.) Several of the escapees from
Treblinka participated in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, among them David
Nowodworski, member of the Jewish Fighting Organization and commander of a
group of fighters, and Lazar Szerszein, who was also the commander of a
group of fighters.  (On David Nowodworski see Ysrael Gutman, Mered
ha-Nazurim. 1963, p.239; Avraham Levin, "Mi-Pinkaso Shel ha-More
mi-Yehudiya." Beit Lohamei ha-Geta'ot, 1969, p.215; on Szerszein see Aryeh
Neiberg, Ha- Aharonim--be-Kez ha-Mered shel Getto Varsha, Tel Aviv, 
1958, p.98; Dokumenty i materialy do dziejow okupacji niemieckiej w 
Polscc (hereafter, Dokumenty), Vol.lI, "Akcje' i wysicdlenia, Warsaw, Lodz. 
Cracow, 1946, p.343.) 
     At the time of the deportation of the Jews of Czestochowa, on January 
4, 1943, a Jew by the name of Richter, who had also escaped from Treblinka,
attacked and wounded Lieutenant Rohn, the commander of the gendarmerie that
carried out the deportation.  (Ibid., p. 290.) 
     At the end of October or beginning of November, two Treblinka
prisoners, assisted by others, managed to escape on the freight train 
carrying the personal belongings of the murdered out of the camp.  At 
the end of November or beginning of December, seven people from the group
that worked on the station platform were caught trying to escape by train. 
They were taken to the lazarett and shot there by Kurt Franz.  The camp
prisoners were called to a special roll-call which Franz informed them that
for each escapee ten Jews working in the camp would be shot.  (Gitta
Sereny, Into that Darkness--From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder, London,
1974, p.196.) 
     At the beginning of winter, under cover of darkness, another four 
prisoners escaped.  They slipped out of the barrack, cut the barbed-wire
fence and got away.  As an immediate reprisal twenty sick people were taken
out and shot on the spot.  (Wilenberg, op.cit., pp.36-37) 
     The escape attempts continued, the threats notwithstanding.  Two 
youths from Czestochowa caught trying to escape were hung naked by their
feet.  All the Jews in the camp were forced to witness their torture, and
only after they were kept hanging from their feet for several hours were
they shot to death.  (Testimony of Strawczynski, op.cit., p.29; testimony
of Kalman Tajgman, WA, (0-3/1586.)  

     There were escape attempts also from the camp's extermination area. 
A group of seven people succeeded in digging a tunnel from the barracks
near the camp's southern fence.  In the course of digging, they had to deal
with the serious problem of what to do with the dug-up earth.  They found a
solution to this problem and completed a tunnel 5 meters long, from the
barracks to the outside of the first fence.  The digging was done at night,
during the month of December 1942, and despite the secrecy of the work many
of the men in the barracks --there were then about 250 of them--knew about
it.  They kept the secret, even though they knew that the group's escape
was liable to endanger the others.  The escape was carried out on the night
of December 31, 1942.  Five men succeeded in getting through the tunnel and
out beyond the fences, but then the Ukrainian sentry noticed them and
opened fire.  The entire camp was called into action.  The prisoners were
removed from the barracks and inspected. Five were missing.  It was snowing
that night, but the Germans and Ukrainian guards went in pursuit of the
escapees.  The escapees had reached a nearby village, but were caught while
trying to rent a cart.  One succeeded in escaping, but the other four were
caught after a struggle.  One was shot on the spot, and the other three
were brought back to the camp.  After they were tortured, they were hanged
in full view of all the prisoners, who had been lined up in roll-call 
formation.  The last prisoner to be hanged shouted from the gallows "Down
with the nation of Hitler, long live the Jewish people." (Wiernik, op.
cit., pp.41-42; testimony of Rosenberg, op.cit., pp.9-10.) 
     During the existence of the Treblinka camp scores of people did 
succeed in escaping, but scores of others were caught, tortured and
executed.  The possibilities for escape were greater in the early months,
and it was then that most of the successful escapes were carried out.  As
time passed escape became more difficult and more complicated.  Security
measures were improved, and the system of barbed-wire fencing around the
camp was reinforced and improved. There were three fences: an inner
barbed-wire fence 3-4 meters high and camouflaged by tree boughs; a second
network of tank obstacles laid with barbed-wire fencing; and a third, outer
barbed-wire fence. In addition, parts within the camp itself were also
fenced, including the prisoners' quarters.  Six guard towers were erected,
one of them in the center of the extermination area, and, as a result,
there was constant observation of what was going on in the camp during the
     At night the prisoners were shut up in the barracks, which were
guarded by Ukrainian sentries.  The intensified punitive measures-- the
torture and hanging of the captured escapees and the announcement that for
each prisoner who escaped ten others would be executed-- also had their
effect.  The snow and the tracks left in the snow, which gave the escapees
away.  also made escape more difficult. The last escape attempts were made
at the beginning, of the winter, in December 1942, but they ended in
failure.  It became evident that the ways of escape that had been tried
heretofore now stood virtually no chance of succeeding.  It became
necessary to search for different ways, more organized and complex. 
Indeed, at the beginning of 1943, new ideas began to take shape regarding
struggle, escape and rescue.  

The Organization of the Underground 
     In the winter of 1942/1943, a change occurred in the intensity of the
activity in Treblinka.  The number of transports gradually diminished and
almost stopped altogether in February/March 1943.  The annihilation of the
Jews of the General-Government was completed  for the most part, although
from time to time a few transports did arrive from the Bialystok-Grodno
district (Generalbezirk).  The vast piles of possessions taken from the
murdered, which had been heaped up in the square near the platform and had
been part of the permanent scenery of the camp, disappeared.  They had been
packed and sent off to destinations in Germany and elsewhere.  As the
stream of transports ceased, it was no longer necessary to sort the
belongings of the dead, and the fear descended on the Jewish prisoners that
they were slated to be liquidated soon, together with the camp as a whole.
Rumors about a selection in which some of the men would be taken to the gas
chambers hovered in the air constantly.  Moreover, the reduced number of
transports led to a shortage of food and clothing, which had been obtained
from what the victims left behind. Starvation and the typhus that broke out
in the winter claimed many victims, and that added to the gloom among the
     The news from the front about the German military defeat at 
Stalingrad--which the prisoners learned about from newspapers smuggled to
them by the boy prisoners who worked in the quarters of the SS--was
received with joy.  At the same time fears intensified that with the end of
Nazi Germany approaching, the last of the Jews would be liquidated. 
(Sereny, op.cit., pp.210-212; testimony of Strawczynski, op.cit. p.26, 47;
Wiernik, op.cit., p.37; J. Rajgrodzki, "Jedenascie miesiecy w obozie
zaglady w Treblince--Wspomnienia," Biuletyn Zydowskiego Instytutu
Historycznego (BZIH), No.25, 1958, p.109.) 

     That was the atmosphere in which the idea of escape and rebellion 
gradually took shape in talks among the prisoners in the work places and
barracks.  The lessons of previous acts of resistance in the camp and the
recent unsuccessful escape attempts made it clear that new ways had to be
found.  The only realistic possibility seemed to be a mass revolt and
organized escape by all the prisoners by means of force. 
     When and within which group the idea of rebellion first occurred 
cannot be stated with any certainty.  (According to Strawczynski, op.cit.,
p.47, the idea of revolt was first raised by the carpenters' group.) It
seems reasonable to assume that the idea occurred to several groups at more
or less the same time in talks among the "court Jews" and among the "square
Jews." In preparation for the rebellion, an "organizing committee" was
formed, comprised of prisoners from both groups.  On this committee were
Dr.  Chorazycki, who was physician to the SS men, Zeev Kurland, the Capo of
the Lazarett, Zelo Bloch, a lieutenant in the Czech army who had arrived 
in a transport from Theresienstadt, Salzberg of the tailors' group, the
agronomist Sadowicz and others. 

     Even before the plan for the uprising was formulated, the "organizing
committee" tried to acquire arms by bribing the Ukrainian guards.  These
guards used to slip food to the prisoners in exchange for money and gold,
and it was hoped that they would also agree to supply weapons.  The Jewish
prisoners, especially the "gold Jews," maintained caches of money and
valuables that had been taken from what had been left by the victims.  Even
though the Germans often threatened that prisoners possessing money and
valuables would be executed, the prisoners were not deterred and continued
to hide sizable quantities of money and valuables, Now these holdings were
to serve as a source for the acquisition of arms.  One of the first
attempts was made by a Jewish prisoner named Moshe, who served as the Capo
of the carpentry shop.  He gave an Ukrainian with whom he was in contact
money and asked him to get him a pistol.  The money was taken, but the gun
was not brought.  In spite of this failure, the efforts to acquire arms via
the Ukrainians continued, but it was decided that in addition an attempt
would be made to remove weapons from the camp arms store.  In this luck was
with the prisoners.  One day a Jewish locksmith was ordered to repair the
lock on the arms store door.  In the course of the repair, he prepared a
key for the underground "organizing committee." (Dokumenty, op.cit., Vol. 
I, Obozy, p.188; Wilenberg, op.cit., p.46; Tanhum Greenberg, "Ha-Mered
be-Treblinka--Kitei Edut," Yalkllt Mo-reshet, No. 5, April 1966, p.61) 
     In the second half of March 1943, the underground suffered a serious 
loss.  Zelo Bloch, the military man on the "organizing committee," was
transferred to the extermination area.  The reasons for his transfer are
not clear.  It is very unlikely that it was in any way related to his
underground activity, for had there been the slightest suspicion against
him the Germans would have immediately killed him. His transfer was most
likely a result of the lessened activity in the camp and the need for more
men in the extermination area.  After Himmler visited the camp at the end
of February or early March 1943, the burning of the corpses was begun in
the "extermination area" so as to remove traces of the murder that had
taken place there; for this more men were needed.  Typhus also had claimed
many victims in the extermination area, which further increased the
manpower shortage there.  (Sereny, op.cit., pp. 210-211)  Another
underground activist, Adolf Friedman, was transferred together with Block. 
     The efforts to get arms from the Ukrainian guards continued.  This 
time Dr.  Chorazycki, one of the heads of the "organizing committee" who by
virtue of his work had daily contact with the Ukrainians, took upon himself
the handling of this matter.  As a bribe for the guards he carried on him a
sum of money.  One day early in April 1943, the deputy camp commander, Kurt
Franz, entered the infirmary and discovered the money (possibly after being
informed by the Ukrainians).  When Chorazycki realized that his situation
was hopeless, he rushed at Franz with a surgical knife.  A struggle ensued
in which Chorazycki did not manage to injure Franz, but did succeed in
swallowing poison that he kept on him for just such an occasion.  The
Germans' efforts to revive him were to no avail.  In order to deter the
other prisoners from thinking about escape they were called to a roll-call
at which the dead body of Chorazycki was abused.  A thorough search was
conducted among the "gold Jews" who were suspected of having supplied the
money.  They were threatened that if they did not confess they would be
executed.  They were severely beaten and tortured, but denied any
connection with the affair. (Greenberg, op.cit., p.60; Wilenberg, op. 
cit., pp. 52-53; testimony of Strawczynski, op.cit., p.38) 
     In spite of Chorazycki's death and Zelo Bloch's transfer to the other 
part of the camp, the "organizing committee" continued with the 
preparations for the uprising.  The "camp elder" Rakowski was now 
brought in on the secret of the underground activity.  Rudek Lubernicki,
who was in charge of the garage and later played an important role in the
uprising, now also joined the underground.  The members of the underground,
who numbered several score, were organized into several groups. 
     In the latter part of April 1943, it was decided to remove weapons 
from the arms store by using the key in the committee's possession. The
arms store was located between two barracks where Germans lived; there was
access to it also from within the barracks.  The job of removing the
weapons, during the daytime, when the barracks' occupants were not there,
was given to a group of Jewish boys who worked in the SS quarters cleaning
up and polishing the Germans' boots.  A group of boys headed by Markus, a
young man from Warsaw who was in charge of them, and three other boys
removed two cases containing grenades from the storeroom and 
surreptitiously got them to the shoemakers' workshop.  When the grenades
were examined.  it was discovered that the detonators, which were kept in a
separate box, were missing.  The grenades were returned in the same way
they had been removed so that the Germans would not find out that they 
were missing.  This failure led to a postponement of the uprising. 
(Greenberg, op.cit., pp. 61-62.) 

     After the uprising planned for the latter half of April 1943 failed 
to take place, there was a decline in the underground's activity. Once
again there were thoughts of individual escape.  One of those who planned
to escape was Rakowski, together with his girlfriend Cesia Mendel and
others.  Seeking collaboration.  they bribed a Ukrainian guard, but the SS
began to get suspicious.  They conducted a search in the room where the
Capos lived and found large quantities of money and gold in the blankets
and walls.  Rakowski claimed that the treasure they found did not belong to
him and that he was unaware of its existence.  He claimed that the money
and gold had probably been hidden by Chorazycki, who had since died but who
had lived in that room before.  But his arguments were not accepted, and he
was taken to the Lazarett where he was shot.  After Rakowski's death the 
Germans, at the beginning of May 1943, appointed Galewski "camp elder."
(Galewski, an engineer by profession, served as camp elder before Rakowski
; see also testimony of Strawczynski,
op.cit., pp.51-52; Sereny, op.cit., p.195). 
     In May and the beginning of June the activity of the "organizing 
committee" and underground activity in general continued to slacken. 
But the cessation of the transports and the information from the
extermination area that the removal of the bodies from the pits and 
their cremation was nearing completion and that soon there would be 
no more "work" led to a reawakening of underground activity. 
     At this time the "camp elder" Galewski joined the underground
leadership, and with him came Monik, an energetic Warsaw youth who was 
Capo of the skilled workers, and others as well.  The "organizing
committee" was reactivated.  It was headed by Galewski and had about 
ten members, most of whom had been members of the previous "committee." 
The activity was conducted in the greatest possible secrecy, and the camp
authorities did not learn of it despite the informers they had among the
prisoners.  The fact that the committee was headed by the "camp elder" and
that its members included most of the Capos and heads of work groups
(Kurland, Monik, Sadowicz and others) made its activity somewhat easier. 
'The meetings generally took place in the tailors' workshop.  The number of
members in the underground grew steadily.  On the eve of the uprising, in
Camp A there were about sixty people, who comprised about 10 percent of the
camp's prisoner population.  They were organized by places of work into
sub-units of five to ten people, headed by a commander. (Testimony of
Strawczynski, op cit., pp.50-55; Stanislaw Kon, "Ha-Mered be-Treblinka,"
'Sefer Milhamot ha-Geta'ot, 1954, pp 536-537). 

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