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Sobibor Extermination Camp: Jewish Prisoner Uprisings

Part 3

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 
        Organization of the Underground in the Extermination Area. 
     The underground in the exterminarion area came into being after Zelo 
Bloch and Adolf Friedman, who had been among the leaders of the underground
in area A, were transferred to the extermination area at the end of March
or beginning of April.  Both of them were made leaders of work groups that
were cremating bodies.  Their adjustment to the new situation and the men
took some time, and, consequently, the organization of the underground and
the preparations for the uprising began only toward the end of May/
beginning of June 1943. The members of the underground were formed into
groups of five with each unit assigned different tasks.  As weapons they
had to use the work implements they used for opening up the pits and
burning the bodies--shovels, pitchforks, and axes.  (Rajgrodzki, op.cit.,
pp. 113-114; testimony of Rosenberg, op.cit., p.12.) 
     Contact between the two undergrounds was carried out by Jacob Wiernik,
a carpenter who was kept in the extermination area, but, because of his
professional expertise, was brought to work in the other part of the camp
as well.  As he moved between the two parts of the camp, he was able to
transmit information and instructions between the two groups.  (Wiernik,
op. cit., p.45.) 
     As the underground in Camp A was larger and had more of a chance to 
obtain weapons, the members of the underground in the extermination area
understood that the chance their activity would succeed depended on
cooperation with the larger underground and, accordingly, they accepted 
its authority. 
     In July 1943 the work of burning the bodies was nearing completion. 
In that period a few transports arrived with about 2,000 Gypsies and 
about 1,000 Jews, but they did not alter the decisive fact--the function of
the place as an extermination camp was coming to an end. The SS even had a
party to celebrate the completion of their mission. 

     All that reinforced the feeling that the time for the uprising must 
be moved up.  In the second half of July the prisoners in the extermination
area relayed repeated demands to the leaders of the underground in area A
that they start the revolt without any further delay.  But all they
received in response were assuasive assurances. At this point the people in
the extermination area decided to pass on an ultimatum, accompanied by a
threat, that if the Underground in Camp A would not fix an immediate date
for the revolt, the extermination area underground would launch the
rebellion on its own. (Rajgrodzki, op.cit., p.114; Wiernik, op.cit., pp. 
51-52; testimony of Tajgman, op.cit., p.19; testimony of Abraham Goldfarb,
YVA, 0-3/1846) 

The Revolt Plan 
     Pressed by the extermination area underground, the "organizing
committee" in Camp A decided to carry out the uprising on August 2, 1943. 
Word to that effect was transmitted to the extermination area underground
by Wiernik.  (Wiernik, op.cit., pp.56-58) 
     At that time there were about 850 Jews in Treblinka, one-third in the 
extermination area.  Several factors were considered in fixing the precise
hour for beginning the revolt.  The uprising plan, which was based on
obtaining arms from the camp arms store, had to take place during the
daytime, when the SS people were not in their quarters. The distribution of
the arms to the various groups and deployment near the targets of attack
could be done more easily during the daytime under the guise of routine
work in the camp.  On the other hand, it was important to begin the
uprising near dusk, so that escape could take place under cover of
darkness, thus hampering the German pursuers.  Another factor was the time
it would take to organize the escape of all the prisoners in the camp--in
addition to the fighters--for it was certain that in reprisal, the Germans
would murder all the remaining prisoners.  All of these considerations 
resulted in 16:30 being set as the hour for the insurrection.  The 
plan for the revolt was as follows: 

Stage A: From 14:00 to 16:30-- Acquisition of Arms and Deployment 
     1.   Removal of the arms from the arms store and their transfer to the
          combat groups' assembly points.  
     2.   Deployment of the combat groups near the targets of 
          attack--the camp headquarters, the quarters of the SS and of the 
          Ukrainians, the guard towers.  
     3.   Quiet elimination of Germans entering workshops and work sites.  

Stage B: Beginning at 16.30--Seizing Control of the Camp and Destroying It
     1.   Attack the camp headquarters and SS people in various places.  
     2.   Cut telephone lines and open fire on the guard towers, forcing
          the guards to abandon their positions.  
     3.   Break into the Ukrainians' quarters, seize their weapons and lock
          them up under guard in the barracks.  
     4.   Set the camp afire and destroy it.  
     5.   Arm with additional weapons taken from the SS and the Ukrainians. 
     6.   Link up with the extermination area people.  

     The signal for beginning Stage B was to be a grenade explosion.  The
plan for the extermination area contained the following stages: 
     1.   Prisoners leave the barracks where they were kept in the
          afternoon hours after work.  
     2.   Attack the SS men and Ukrainian guards near the barracks and
          seize their weapons.  
     3.   Prisoners burst into the guard room and seize the guards'
weapons.       4.   Take over the guard tower where a Ukrainian guard armed
with a         machine gun was stationed.  
     5.   Take control of the entire extermination area, destroy it and
          link up with the people of the lower camp for a joint escape.  

Stage C: Organized Departure to the Forests by All Prisoners.  On Sunday,
August 1, in the late hours of the evening, the "organizing committee" in
Camp A held its final meeting.  At the meeting it was decided that the
uprising would definitely take place on the following day.  (Shmuel
Rajzman, "Hitkomemut be-Mahane ha-Hashmada Treblinka," 'Kehillat 
Wengrow--Sefer Zikkaron', 1961, pp.66-68) 

The Insurrection--August 2, 1943 
     The final decision on the uprising was conveyed to the other members 
of the underground on the eve of the revolt and in the early hours of the
morning.  The underground members who worked in the workshops prepared
weapons--knives, axes and the like.  Until noon work went on as usual.  In
spite of the secrecy, however, word of the revolt had reached other
prisoners.  The men prepared extra clothing and money and valuables that
would be useful once they were outside the camp. As it happened, on the
afternoon of that same day a group of four SS men and sixteen Ukrainians,
headed by Kurt Franz, left the camp to go bathing in the Bug River, which
was just a few kilometers away.  This coincidence helped weaken the force
guarding the camp.  At 13:00 hours the "camp elder," as usual, inspected
the noon roll-call, after which the men dispersed to their places of work,
but this time with certain changes--the combat groups and commanders went
to work places in accord with the tasks assigned them for the insurrection. 
The mission of the group in the potato storage, which worked near the SS 
headquarters, was to attack the headquarters with grenades.  (Marian
Platkiewicz, "Mered ba-Gehnom -- Parshiyot Zeva'a u-Gevura be-Mahane
ha-Hashmada Treblinka," 'Plock -- Toledot Kehilla Atikat Yomin be-Polin',
Tel Aviv, 1967, p.549.  Testimony of Tajgman, op.cit., p.14; testimony of
Wolf Schneidmann, YVA, 0-3/560, p.4) 

     The leaders of the underground, Galewski, Kurland and others, 
gathered in the square near the lazarett in the southwest section of 
the camp.  Most of the prisoners were in this section, which was also 
close to the extermination area, a fact that was supposed to facilitate
contact with the underground people there. 
     The assembly of the prisoners and their organization for escape during
the uprising were also to take place in the southern part of the camp.  A
shortcoming of the concentration of the leaders of the revolt in the
southern part of the camp was their remoteness from the place where the
removal of the arms was carried out and from the attack on the SS and
Ukrainian quarters. 
     At 14:00 hours the removal of the arms and their transfer to various 
places got under way.  Sadowicz, a member of the "organizing committee,"
was in charge of this operation.  A group of youngsters, among them Markus
and Salzberg, made their way into the arms store and filled sacks with
grenades, firearms and ammunition.  The sacks were passed out through the
window and loaded on garbage carts.  on which they were taken to the nearby
garage, where two other members of the underground worked--Rudek Lubernicki
and Srenda Lichtblau.From the garage some of the weapons were transferred
in pails and carts of building materials to the assembly points of the
combat groups, especially to the area where the leaders of the revolt were
located.  (Platkiewicz, op.cit., pp. 548-549; Sereny, opt cit., p. 246;
Rajzman, op.cit., p.221; Kon, op.cit., pp.537-538) Up until about 15:30
everything went according to plan, but then the operation was disrupted.  A
SS man called Kurt Kuttner suddenly appeared in the area of the prisoners'
quarters.  After having a short talk with the prisoner in charge of
Barracks Number 2, Kube, who was known to be an informer, Kuttner seized a
young Jew and found money in his pockets.  He began to interrogate the
youth and to beat him.  Word was immediately dispatched to Galewski and his
colleagues, and they, fearing that Kube may have noticed unusual activity
in the camp and had told Kuttner, and fearing that the youth might break
under interrogation and give away the uprising, decided to eliminate 
Kutlner on the spot and proceed directly to the second stage of the revolt,
before Kuttner would be able to alert the camp guards.  This decision was
reached even though part of the arms had not yet been removed from the
storeroom and the rest had not all been distributed.  Committee member
Salzberg conveyed the decision to the underground people who were near the
prisoners' quarters, and one of the men killed Kuttner with a pistol shot. 
That shot was the signal for the outbreak of the insurrection.  (Testimony
of Strawczynski, op.cit., p. 57; testimony of Schneidmann, op.cit., p. 4) 
     From that moment the "organizing committee" was no longer in control. 
The groups of fighters acted separately.  Rudek Lubernicki and Stenda 
Lichtblau set fire to the large fuel tank, and when it exploded all the
nearby buildings caught fire.  The two also immobilized an armored vehicle
in the garage.  The prisoners' quarters and the warehouses were also set
aflame, and the group working in the potato silo hurled hand grenades at
the SS quarters.  The explosions and gunshots were heard in all parts of
the camp.  Prisoners began running in the direction of the square and the
eastern and southern fences of the camp.  The Ukrainian guards and SS
opened fire from the guard towers and elsewhere, and some of the insurgents
who were armed returned the fire.  Several Ukrainians were wounded and
their weapons taken from them.  The few grenades and meager ammunition that
the rebels had was running out very quickly.  The camp was going up in
flames and in total disarray, and the prisoners began to break through the
fences and get themselves over the anti-tank obstacles, throwing blankets

and coats on the barbed wire.  Many of those fleeing in the area of the
fences were hurt and fell, but the others trampled over them and continued
to run.  All the members of the "organizing committee," including Galewski,
and other members of the underground who were actively involved in the
revolt, were the last to make for the fences; most of them were hit and
fell within the camp.  (There are several versions concerning the death of
Galewski.  Leon Perelstein, a prisoner who escaped from the camp together
with Galewski, relates that after they had gone a few Kilometers, Galewski
felt that he did not have the strength to go on.  He took some poison out
of his pocket, swallowed it and died on the spot.  See YVA, 0-16/106, p. 5. 
Rachel Auerbach, however, notes that Galewski killed himself after being
surrounded.  See her book, Be-Huzot Varsha 1939-1943, Tel Aviv, 1954, p.
346, note 106.  Also see testimony of Strawczynski, op.cit., pp. 58-59;
Platkiewicz, op.cit., pp. 549-550; Wilenberg, op.cit., pp. 56-58) 
          Stangl, the commander of the camp, relates about the outbreak of
     the revolt: Looking out of my window I could see some Jews on the
     other side of the inner fence--they must have jumped down from the
     roof of the ss billets and they were shooting...  In an emergency like
     that my first duty was to inform the chief of the external security
     police.  By the time I'd done that, our petrol station blew up.  That
     too had been built just like a real service station, with flower beds
     round it.  Next thing the whole ghetto camp was burning and then
     Matthes, the German in charge of the Totenlager, arrived at a run and
     said everything was burning up there too...(Sereny, op.cit., pp. 

The Uprising in the Extermination Area 
     The decision to begin the insurrection on August 2 was communicated 
to the extermination area several days before.  On the day of the uprising
itself, around noon, Wiernik arrived in the extermination area and
confirmed that it was definitely decided that the uprising would take place
that very day.  Because of the summer heat, the work hours for cremating
the bodies were from 4:00 A.M.  until noon, after which the prisoners were
kept under guard in their fenced-off and closed barracks.  In the
extermination area there were usually four SS men (three of them operating
the bulldozers) and another seven Ukrainian guards.  However, when the
uprising began only one SS man was there, as the three bulldozer operators
had already finished their work.  In order to enable the members of the
underground to be outside the barracks at the hour set for the revolt,
Bloch and Friedman decided to leave some bodies for burning so that it
would be necessary to continue the work in the afternoon.  Friedman, who
was the head of a work group, informed the SS man in charge of the
cremations that they had not managed to finish the work, and he gave
permission to a group of thirty men--most of them members of the
underground--to go out to work again at 3:00 P.M.  (Testimony of Rosenberg,
op.cit., p.3; testimony of Goldfarb, op.cit.,p.26) Four other members of
the underground were also allowed to be outside the barracks, ostensibly
for drawing water for the kitchen, with a Ukrainian guard close by.  All of
them were tense and ready for the agreed-upon sign to be given from Camp A.

     At about 15:30 a shot was heard from the direction of the lower camp, 
immediately followed by the sound of exploding grenades.  The members of
the underground in the extermination area then went into action. The group
of water-drawers killed the Ukrainian guard, and another group killed the
Ukrainian guard who was positioned at the entrance to the living quarters. 
Zelo Bloch took one of the rifles and fired at the guards in the guard
towers.  The insurgents took over the guardroom, taking a number of rifles
from it.  At this stage the insurgents were successful.  While the
underground members were fighting, the other prisoners burst through the
fences that were behind the barracks on the southern side of the camp and
began escaping into the fields in the direction of the forest.  A machine 
gun fired on them from the guard tower in the southeastern corner of the
camp.  Block and Friedman, who stayed behind to cover the escapees with
rifle fire, were killed by the gunfire.  The gas chambers themselves were
not damaged in the exchange of fire that took place in the camp.  (Wiernik,
op.cit., pp.59-60; testimony of Rosenberg, op.cit., pp.3,4; Rajgrodski, op. 
cit., pp. 115-116; testimony of Sonia Lewkowicz, YVA,0-3/4181, p.5) 

Escape and Pursuit 
On the day of the uprising there were 850 prisoners in the entire camp. 
About half, including most of the members of the underground, were killed
trying to escape, gunned down in the camp itself, between the fences or
near them.  About 100 prisoners decided to remain in the camp and made no
attempt to escape.  Despite the heavy gunfire, about half of those who
tried to escape did manage to get over the fences.  In order to reach the
forest they had to cross a distance of 5-8 kilometers.  In the meantime
Stangl the camp commander, alerted the German security forces by telephone
(because of the disruptions in the plan the insurgents had not had time to
cut the lines).  They arrived from Malkinia, Kosov, the Treblinka labor
camp and elsewhere and cordoned off an area at a radius of 5 kilometers
from the camp. (Sereny, op.cit., p.247; Rajgrodski, op.cit., p.116) 

     The pursuit, the combing of the area and the roadblocks resulted in 
the capture of most of the escapees, most of whom were shot on the spot. 
The local population was of no help.  Prominent in the testimonies of the
survivors is the assertion that the peasants in the region caught the
escapees, took their money and then handed them over to the Germans. 
(Rajzman, op.cit., p.190; Greenberg, op.cit., pp.63-64; testimony of
Schneidmann, op.cit., pp.4-5; testimony of Tajgman, op.cit., p.20)
Nevertheless, some of the survivors of the escape from Treblinka owe their
lives to the help they received from the local inhabitants.  (Testimony of
Goldfarb, op.cit., p.28) 
     There is no way of knowing the exact number of prisoners who
successfully escaped and found places to hide.  According to various
estimates, about 60-70 of the Treblinka escapees were still alive at
the end of the war.  It may be assumed, however, that a larger number 
escaped during the uprising but that some met their death under various
circumstances in the year between the uprising and the liberation of the
area by the Soviet and Polish armies, or until the liberation of all of
Poland.  Thus, of the 850 prisoners in the camp, it is probable that at
least 100 escaped and successfully eluded the pursuit forces.  This
estimate is higher than the figure generally  accepted until now.  (See,
for example: The Death Camp Treblinka--A Documentary, Alexander Donat, ed.,
New York, 1979.  A list of sixty-nine survivors is given in this work, but
it contains mistakes and duplications.  Testimonies of twenty-seven of the
survivors are in my possession.)

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