Jewish Prisoner Uprisings
in The Treblinka And Sobibor
Extermination Camps

Part 1


(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
                            YAD VASHEM ARCHIVES
CAMPS - 1
                       THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS 
 
              Structure and Aims * The Image of the Prisoner 

                          The Jews in the Camps 
 
PROCEEDINGS OF THE FOURTH YAD VASHEM INTERNATIONAL HISTORICAL CONFERENCE 
                         Jerusalem, January 1980 
                                YAD VASHEM 
                              JERUSALEM 1984 
 
                             SEVENTH SESSION 
                           Chairman: Bela Vago 
 
          JEWISH PRISONER UPRISINGS IN THE TREBLINKA AND SOBIBOR 
                           EXTERMINATION CAMPS 
 
YITZHAK ARAD 
 
A. "Operation Reinhard" Camps 
 
The Erection of the Camps 
 
          At the same time that preparations were being made for the  
destruction of the Jews in the General-Government in Poland, in what was
called Operation Reinhard (Einsatz Reinhard), three death camps were being  
erected in the Lublin region--at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.  The first
camp, at Belzec, was set up alongside the Tomaszow-Lwow railroad and went
into operation in March 1942; the second, Sobibor, was erected near the
Brest-Litovsk-Wlodawa-Chelm railway line and became operational in April
1942; the third, Treblinka, was set up near the Warsaw-Bialystok railway
and started operating on July 23, 1942.  These three camps were placed
under the command of the SS and Police Leader of the Lublin district (SS
und Polizeifu"hrer--SSPF), SS General Odilio Globocnik, even though the
Treblinka camp was located in territory under the control and
responsibility of the SS and Police Leader of the Warsaw district.  The
intention was to concentrate all the annihilation activities of Operation
Reinhard under a unified command. 
 
     The key people and professional staff at Operation Reinhard
headquarters and the staff of the camps came from the T-4 organization,
which had conducted Operation Euthanasia--the killing of mental patients
and the chronically ill in the Reich.  These activities had been stopped in
the fall of 1941 in the wake of pressure from church groups and public
opinion in Germany.  Himmler made ninety-two of the 400 people in the T-4
organization available to Globocnik.  The key member of the group of
transferred personnel was Sturmbannfu"hrer Christian Wirth.  Wirth and his
men had technical and professional experience in killing people by gas. 
This was the method they had used in Operation Euthanasia and which they
now introduced in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.  Wirth was commandant of
the Belzec camp, the first that was put into operation, and served in that
post until August 1, 1942.  At that time he was appointed supervisor of the
three camps, with his office located in Lublin.  The first commandant of
the Treblinka camp was Dr. Eberl, and Franz Stangl, who succeeded him, was
the first commandant of the Sobibor camp.  They, too, had been on the staff
of Operation Euthanasia. 

     The three camps were erected according to the same basic plan, and  
Sobibor and Treblinka were virtually identical in structure (see the   
following sketch of the Treblinka camp)[Not included in this transcription. 
knm].  They occupied a relatively small area, from one-quarter to one-half
sq.  km.  (about the size of a football field).  The camp was divided into
two separate sub-camps.  each having its own distinct function.  Camp A
included the railway platform, the staff housing, the quarters of the
Jewish prisoners, the camp offices, warehouses, and an open square for
handling the people who arrived on the transports and for dealing with
their belongings.  Camp B, called the "extermination area," included the
gas chambers.  burial pits, fire pits for burning the corpses, and the
quarters of the Jewish prisoners who were employed at various jobs in this
part of the camp.  A narrow path, from 2 to 4 meters wide, fenced on both
sides and running for about 100 meters, led from the area where the victims
had to undress to the gas chambers in the extermination area.  This path
was called Heaven Street (Himmelstrasse) or The Tube (Schlauch).  Both
sections of the camps were surrounded by two or three barbed-wire fences,
some of which were camouflaged with tree branches so that it was impossible
to observe from outside what was going on inside the camp.  The
extermination area and the path leading to it were also blocked off from
the rest of the camp with fences, tree branches, and earth embankments, so
that even from the other parts of the camp it was not possible to see what
was going on there.  
  
The Camp Staff  
  
     The permanent staff of each of the Operation Reinhard death camps was
comprised of German SS men and Ukrainians.  In addition, Jewish prisoners
were kept and employed for various tasks.  
  
The SS Staff  
  
     The number of SS people ranged from twenty to thirty.  The SS people
occupied the command and administrative positions in the camp and were
responsible for the various installations, which were operated by the
Ukrainians or by the Jewish prisoners.  The camp commanders had the rank of
Hauplsturmfuhrer--Stangl in Treblinka, Reichleitner in Sobibor and Hering
in Belzec.  The assistant camp commanders Kurt Franz in Treblinka and
Niemann in Sobibor had the rank of Untersturmfu"hrer.  The remaining SS
people bore a variety of ranks, Unterscharfu"hrer, Scharfu"hrer,
Oberscharfu"hrer.  All the SS in the camp wore grey army-like uniforms.  
  
The Ukrainian Staff  
  
     On the staff of each of the camps there were approximately 80-120  
Ukrainians.  Their main job was to guard the camp.  They manned the guard
towers and other positions and patrolled along the fences between
positions.  When transports arrived the Ukrainians provided armed cover at
the railway platform, in the reception square and along the path to the gas
chambers (the guarding of the train on its way to the camp was carried out
by a different guard unit and was not the camp's responsibility).  They
also guarded within the camp and prevented contact between the Jews in the
camp and those in the extermination area, and operated the motors that
supplied the gas for the gas chambers.  Like the German personnel, they,
too, took part in the shooting executions.  The Ukrainian staff in the
death camps had been organized beforehand and had been trained in the
Trawniki camp near Lublin.  Some of them were Soviet prisoners of war and
some were local Ukrainians who volunteered for the German service.  Among
the Ukrainians there were also Volksdeutsche from Soviet areas.  They wore
black uniforms, and their personal weapon was a service rifle.  Some of the
guard towers manned by the Ukrainians were equipped with machine guns.  
  
     The Jewish Prisoners.  The number of Jewish prisoners kept for various
service jobs in the camp ranged from 700 to 1,000, with about 600-700 in
camp A and 150-300 in camp B.  
  
     The Jews in the first group were divided into two groups: the first  
was facetiously called the "court Jews" (Hofjuden) and the second was  
called the "square Jews" (Platzjudend).  Most of the "court Jews" were
skilled workers or were employed in workshops or in building the camp. 
Compared to the others, their situation was relatively good.  The "Jews 
of the square" were also divided into a number of groups:  one group was
employed on the railway platform when the transports arrived.  Their job
was to remove from the cars the bodies of those who had died en route, to
remove the packages and to clean the cars.  Other groups were positioned in
the square where the Jews were ordered to undress; their job was to sort
and arrange the clothing and belongings and to ready them for shipment to
Germany.  In addition, there were the so-called "gold Jews" who sorted gold
and other valuables, and a group of barbers who sheared the women's hair  
before they were sent to the gas chambers.  From time to time additional
groups of workers were formed for various jobs, including camouflaging the
camp fences with branches brought from the nearby forest, construction,
paving roads in the camp, and the like.  Among the Jewish prisoners there
was also a group of women.  
  
     The Jews who were kept in the extermination area worked mainly at  
removing the dead bodies from the gas chambers and transferring them to 
the pits.  When it was decided to cremate the bodies, on a pile of
discarded old rails set aside especially for that purpose, they were  
also put to work at that.  Another group of working Jews was called the
"dentists"; they extracted gold teeth from the bodies that had been removed
from the gas chambers before they were brought to the pits.  There were
others who worked in the services in the extermination area--the kitchen,
laundry, and the like.  The Germans prevented any contact between the Jews
in the two parts of the camp.  At times Jews were shifted from the first
camp to the second, but never back from there.  To head the group of Jews
the Germans appointed a "camp elder" (Lagera"lteste), or, as he was
sometimes called, "head Capo" (Oberkapo).  Each of the two parts of the
camp had its own "camp elder," and the Germans also appointed a Jewish  
Capo for each work group.  To keep a check on what the Jewish prisoners
were thinking and doing, the SS found informers among them, but the
prisoners quickly learned to recognize these informers and to take
precautionary measures.  
  
     The relatively small size of the camp and the manner in which it 
was constructed, including the system of barbed-wire fences and the guard  
towers, which provided an unobstructed view of the camp area, plus the size
of the German and Ukrainian staff and its activity in all parts of the
camp, enabled maximum control and surveillance of the goings-on in the camp
and of the movement of Jewish prisoners.  The only places where the Jews
were not under constant observation were the workshops in the daytime and
the barracks at night.  But the Germans paid frequent visits there, too,
and the presence of informers facilitated surveillance of what was going on
inside.  
  
Secrecy and Deception as the Major Principle in the Operation of the German
Annihilation Apparatus  
  
     In order to understand why the uprisings in Sobibor and Treblinka  
were carried out by the few hundred Jews retained to work in the camp  
and not by the hundreds of thousands brought there for extermination,  
we must consider the system of secrecy and deception and the technique of
extermination used by the Nazis.  We must also deal with the question of
what was known to the Jews who were brought on the transports of the fate
awaiting them.  
  
     The decisions reached at the highest levels of the Third Reich about  
the destruction of the Jews and the instructions for carrying them out,
which were passed on to the lower levels of the German administration were
a closely guarded state secret.  The concentration of the Jews in their
various countries of residence in occupied Europe and their transport in
trains to the annihilation camps in Poland engaged a large bureaucratic and
operational apparatus that included both Germans and non-Germans.  Many SS,
local police officials, government officials and railroad workers were part
of this apparatus.  Yet despite the involvement of thousands of people in
these activities, the Nazis succeeded in keeping the purpose of the
transports, their real destination, and the fate awaiting the deportees a
secret, even from parts of the Nazi apparatus that dealt directly with the
deportations and transportation of the Jews to the death camps.  Those
levels and sections within the Nazi annihilation apparatus that knew the
truth about the destination of the transports kept this secret very well. 
In fact, the SS who took part in Operation Reinhard were required to 
sign a special declaration of secrecy. 
 
     The millions of Jews who were taken from their places of residence, 
ghettos or transit camps did not in any way know that they were being 
brought to extermination camps nor did they know what fate awaited them. 
Most of them had not even heard of the existence of such camps.  Rumors
about the death camps did, it is true, reach Warsaw and other ghettos in
Poland, but the public for the most part did not want to believe them. 
Even most of those who escaped from the trains that were on their way to
the extermination camps did not know the trains' real destination. 
 
     More than one-quarter of a million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, who 
from July to September 1942 were brought to Treblinka--which was only 
80 kilometers from Warsaw--did not know what fate awaited them.  When 
they got off the train at the camp platform they were met by a heavy guard
of SS men and Ukrainians, but their eyes immediately encountered the large
sign announcing the following in Polish and German: 
 
          Jews of Warsaw, for your attention!  You are in a transit camp
     (Durch-gangslager) from which you will be sent to a labor camp
     (Arbeitslager).  As a safeguard against epidemics you must immediately
     hand over your clothing and parcels for disinfection.  Gold, silver,
     foreign currency and jewelry must be placed with the cashier, in
     exchange for a receipt.  These will be returned to you at a later time
     upon presentation of the receipt.  For bodily washing before
     continuing with the journey all arrivals must attend the bathhouse. 
     (Adalbert Ruckerl, Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungslager im Spiegel
     deutscher Strafprozesse--Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Munich,
     1977, 219) 
 
     This announcement was also delivered to the prisoners orally by a SS 
officer, who also announced that the old and sick for whom walking was
difficult would be transferred to a field hospital (lazarett) near the
train platform; they would be assisted by Jews who worked in the camp.  He
promised that in the hospital the old and infirm would receive medical
attention. 
 
     From the moment a "shipment" of several thousand people set foot on 
the platform until its total liquidation in the gas chambers, no more 
than an hour or an hour and a half passed, sometimes even less.  During
that time the men were separated from the women and children; they were
ordered to undress, and their clothing was arranged in packages; they
handed over their valuables; the women's hair was shorn, and the people
were led to the "showers," which of course were the gas chambers.  They
were forced to do all of these things at a run, under a hail of shouts,
blows and bullets from the So men and the Ukrainians, and the barking and
biting of dogs.  The suddenness and speed with which all of this was done,
the constant running, and the atmosphere of terror and threat put the
people in a state of shock that kept them from thinking about what was
happening around them or from taking any action of resistance. 
      
     This method was used with all the extermination transports that 
arrived in sealed freight cars in the latter part of 1942 from the
territory of the General-Government in Poland and from the occupied 
territories of the Soviet Union.  A slightly different method was used 
for transports that arrived from Western Europe, the territory of the 
Third Reich, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans from the end of 1942 until 
the middle of 1943.  These transports arrived in passenger cars.  Upon
arrival they found an "ordinary" railway Station with signs pointing to
ticket windows, tables indicating the departure times of trains to various
destinations and other normal station installations -- all, of course, fake. 
The alighting from the train was carried out in a polite and calm manner. 
The camp personnel encouraged the arrivals to write postcards to their
families and friends telling them that they had come to a labor camp; they
were even given an address for receiving mail (those arriving in Sobibor 
were told to write Arbeitslager Wlodawa [Wlodawa Labor Camp]). 
 
     After the postcards were sent, everything having been done in a 
peaceful and polite atmosphere, the situation changed radically: a torrent
of shouts, blows, dog bites and bullets rained down on the people, who were
stricken by an even greater shock and paralysis than that felt by the Jews
from Poland and the Soviet Union.  In this way they were driven toward the
gas chambers. 
 
     It is thus clear why those hundreds of thousands of Jews were unable 
to organize and respond.  It is equally clear why the underground that
carried out the uprisings was formed by some of those few Jews who had been
selected from the transports to work for a certain period at various jobs
in the camp.  They came to know what was happening in the camps and what
fate awaited them; in addition, they had the time to organize their
resistance. 
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Source: The Holocaust\Shoah Page