Jewish Prisoner Uprisings
in The Treblinka And Sobibor
Extermination Camps

Part 4


(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
CAMPS - 4


                       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 
 
Liquidation of the Camp 
 
     After the uprising, on August 18 and 19, 1943, another two transports
slated for extermination arrived in Treblinka, bringing Jews from
Bialystok.  Shortly afterward the Germans destroyed the gas chambers and
the other installations that remained after the revolt, and with that put
an end to the camp.  While the liquidation of the camp was no doubt in
accord with a plan that predated the uprising, its timing was probably
moved up in wake of the revolt.  On October 20 most of the remaining Jewish
prisoners were transferred to Sobibor, where they were killed.  Another
25-30 prisoners remained in Treblinka and were shot there a few days later. 
In order to cover up the crime, a farm-house was built on the site of the
camp, trees were planted, and a Ukrainian peasant was employed to guard the
deserted place. (Sereny, op.cit., pp.249-250; Franciszck Zabecki, 'Rozbicie
obozu w Treblince', Warsaw, 1977, pp.94-95) 

The Treblinka Revolt in Polish Sources 
 
     The idea of the uprising, its organization and implementation were 
entirely the fruit of prisoner initiative.  No assistance nor encouragement
whatsoever was received from the outside.  In a number of Polish sources,
which appeared for the first time in 1969, mention is made of a plan by the
Armia Krajowa (Fatherland Army) to attack Treblinka and free its prisoners. 
According to what is written, this was in coordination with the Jewish
underground in the camp.  It is also stated in these publications that on
August 2 the camp was in fact attacked from the outside.  (Ibid., pp. 
96-99; Tedyslaw Razmowski, "Akcja Treblinki," 'Dzieje Najnowsze', Vol.  I,
1969, pp. 167-172) It should, however, be noted that these accounts are
filled with imprecisions, contradictions and a lack of clarity and confused
information about the labor and penal camp--Treblinka 1, where most of the
prisoners were Poles--and about the Treblinka annihilation camp.  It is
more reasonable to suppose that the Armia Krajowa's planned attack had to
do with Treblinka 1.  In not a single testimony by survivors of Treblinka
is there any mention of a link with the Polish underground or with any
other underground outside the camp, or any hint whatever of assistance
received from outside.  Nor is Polish assistance in the revolt mentioned in
the reports of the Polish underground written during the war and dealing
with the Jews' uprising in Treblinka.  The same holds for the German
sources, and for the two Treblinka trials, where no Polish attack on
Treblinka is mentioned.  It is certain that had such an attack occurred it
would have aroused responses on a wide front, including reprisal measures, 
and would have appeared in the German reports.  It thus can be stated with
absolute certainty that the Polish underground did not extend any aid
whatever to the revolt in Treblinka.  The Polish underground did not attack
German camps in which Polish prisoners were held in detention, even though
those Poles were themselves members of the underground.  Moreover, it is
known that the Armia Krajowa was not distinguished by its sympathy for the
Jews, and it is difficult to suppose that its forces would have carried out
an offensive operation against a camp within which, with the exception of
some 2,000 Gypsies, only Jews were imprisoned and annihilated. 
Furthermore, survivors of Treblinka tell of many instances in which Armia
Krajowa people conspired against them after their escape from the camp. 
(For testimonies of escapees from the camp who were given a hostile 
reception by the surrounding population, see Abram Krzepicki, "Relacje
dwoch zbiegow z Treblinki II," BZIH, No.  40, 1961, pp. 78-88.  Sereny, op. 
cit., pp.244-245; testimony of Goldfarb, op.cit., pp.28-29) 

Influence of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the Treblinka Uprising 
 
     The idea of an uprising and the formation of the underground in 
Treblinka occurred before the Warsaw ghetto uprising.  In the testimonies
of Treblinka survivors, we find conflicting views on the effect information
about the Warsaw ghetto uprising and its outcome had on the prisoners and
members of the underground in Treblinka.  On the one hand is the claim that
word of the Jewish fighting lifted morale and fostered a fighting spirit in
Treblinka.  On the other hand, the view has been put forward that the
remnants of Warsaw Jewry who were brought to Treblinka had given up on the
possibility of rescue by means of revolt or escape; this discouraged the
prisoners in Treblinka and cast a cloud of pessimism over the camp.
(Wilenberg, op.cit., pp.52-53; Kon, op.cit., p.536; testimony of
Strawczynski, op.cit., p.50) C.  Acts of Resistance and the Organization of
the Revolt in Sobibor The effort to preserve the secrecy of the Sobibor
annihilation camp was more successful than for other annihilation camps,
including Belzec (from which only one man managed to escape).  The security
arrangements in Sobibor were very tight and severe from the earliest
stages, and the number of those who escaped en route to the camp and from
the camp itself was small compared to Treblinka.  In the first period of
the camp's operation--May to July 1942--approximately 100,000 Jews were
murdered in Sobibor.  But fewer transports were sent there than to
Treblinka, and the total number of Jews murdered in Sobibor came to about
250,000, whereas in Treblinka the number reached 875,000.  (The figure
quoted here is based on research that will shortly be published in my book
Treblinka--Ovdan ve-Mered, Tel Aviv, 1983) 
 
     The relatively smaller number of transports enabled better security 
of the camp area and prevention of escapes from it, thereby forestalling
the filtering out of information about what was taking place there.  Rumors
about the existence of the Sobibor extermination camp only reached the
nearest communities, Wlodawa and Chelm.  We have very little information
about escapes from Sobibor, and what there is not based on direct testimony
of escapees nor even on the testimony of people who met the escapees.  We
know, for example, that on Christmas in 1943, five Jewish prisoners (two of
them women), along with two Ukrainian guards, escaped from the
extermination area in Sobibor (called Camp 3).  But a Polish farmer
informed on them and in the pursuit carried out by the "Blue [Polish]
Police" they managed to shoot and kill the two Ukrainians and one of the
women.  As reprisal for the escape, several hundred prisoners were shot to
death in the camp.  (Tatiana Berenstein, "Obozy pracy przymusowej dla Zydow
w Dystrykcie Lubelskirn," BZIH, No. 24, 1957, p.16.  The Blue 
Police --the Polish police force that worked for 
the Germans.) 
 
     In another instance known to us, a prisoner escaped from the main 
camp (called in Sobibor--Camp 1) by hiding in a freight car among piles of
clothing being sent from Sobibor to Gerrnany; he made his way to Chelm.  It
appears that he is the person who spread the word in Chelm about what was
happening in Sobibor.  When the last transport of Jews from Chelm was en
route to Sobibor, toward the end of February 1943, there were indeed a
number of escape attempts (Ilya Ehrenburg, ed., 'Merder fun Felker--
Materyalen vegen di Retsikhes fun di Daytshishe farkhaper in die Tsyvaylik
okupirte sovyetishe raiyonen', Moscow, 1944-1945.  According to the
testimony of Haim Poroznik , the escape
took place in February 1943.) made from the train.  A transport of people
from Wlodawa, which arrived in Sobibor on April 30, 1943, also resisted
when ordered to get off the train at the Sobibor platform.  

     Another such instance occurred on October 11, 1943, when the people
resisted going to the gas chambers and broke out in flight.  Some were
killed near the fences, and the others were caught and brought to the gas 
chambers.  (Alexander Pechorsky, 'Der Oifstand in Sobibor', Moscow, 1946,
pp.40-41.  Ehrenburg, op.cit., p.14; group testimony by survivors of
Sobibor, YVA, 0-3/2352, p.62; Ruckerl, op.cit., p. 168) 
 
     Talk about the possibility of resistance and escape began to circulate
at the end of 1942 or beginning of 1943.  One of the ideas raised was
poisoning the SS people.  (Ibid., p.186.  Adam Rutkowski, "Ruch oporu w
hitlerowskim obozie stracen Sobibor," BZIH, No. 65-66, 1968, pp. 14-15) But
all of this early talk did not lead to concrete results, and for the period
until the middle of 1943 we have no reliable information on organizing for
escape.  In late June 1943, after the liquidation of the camp at Belzec,
the 600 prisoners who still remained in the camp were brought to Sobibor. 
They were told that they were being brought to Germany to work, but when
they arrived at Sobibor they were removed, in groups of ten, and shot on
the spot.  From a note found among the clothing of the murdered, the
Sobibor prisoners learned that those who had been killed were from work
groups in the Belzec camp.  The note said: We worked for a year in Belzec. 
I don't know where they're taking us now.  They say to Germany.  In the
freight cars there are dining tables.  We received bread for three days,
and tins and liquor.  If all this is a lie, then know that death awaits you
too.  Don't trust the Germans.  Avenge our blood !  (There are several
different versions of the exact wording of the note; possibly there was
more than one. Testimony of Leon Feldhendler, 'Dokumenty', Vol.I, 'Obozy',
p. 207) The Sobibor prisoners now understood with greater certainty what
fate awaited them.  The slowed-down tempo of transports at the end of
July--because of the cessation of the transports from Holland-- added to
the feeling that the end was approaching.  All this led to more intensive
organization by the underground and more attempts to escape from the camp. 
A short time after the murder of the people from Belzec, two prisoners cut
the camp fences one night and succeeded in getting away.  On the following
day at the roll-call, twenty arbitrarily selected prisoners were shot to
death in reprisal.  The SS men announced that this method of collective
punishment--for each prisoner to escape ten would be shot--would be used in
reprisal for all instances of escape.  (Testimony of Tomasz (Tuvia) Blat,
YVA, 0-3/713, pp. 69-70; Moshe Bahir, "Ha-Mered ha-Gadol be-Sobibor,"
'Pirsume Museum ha-Lohamim ve-ha-Partizanim', April 1944, p.12). 
 
     Previous to that event, one night in June 1943, the prisoners were 
suddenly taken from their barracks and kept for a number of hours under
heavy guard by the Ukrainians; then shots were heard from the area of the
camp's fences.  On the next day the prisoners learned from the Ukrainians
that Soviet partisans had tried to get near the camp.  (Testimony of Z. 
Ida Matz, Dokumenty, Vol. I, Obozy, p. 213.  It should be noted that in the
various sources concerning partisan activity in the Sobibor area, no
mention is made of any outside attempts to attack the camp.) 
 
     It should be noted that in that same period there were several 
instances of Ukrainian guards fleeing and joining the partisans.  As a
precaution against escape by both prisoners and guards alike, and against
partisan activity in the area around Sobibor (especially east of the Bug),
in July 1943 Wehrmacht soldiers laid a minefield 15 meters wide around the
camp.  In addition, west of Camp 1 a water channel was dug between the
prisoners' barracks and the conifer thicket in the camp.  In direct
response to the escapes by the Ukrainians, the camp commanders decided to
arm only those guards actually doing guard duty, and they were each given
only five bullets.  When they learned of the escapes, the prisoners tried
to establish contact with the partisans via the Ukrainians.  (Rutkowski, 
op.cit., pp.16-17; testimony of Blat, op.elf., pp.69-70) They were
unsuccessful. 
 
     On July 5, 1943, Himmler ordered that Sobibor be converted into a 
concentration camp whose installations would serve as a depot for 
captured Soviet ammunition, which would be reprocessed by the camp's 
prisoners.  According to this order the camp was to be placed under the
concentration-camp administration in the head office of the SS. (Ruckerl,
op.cit., p.176) Following the order construction work for storing the
captured ammunition was begun in the northern part of the camp (called in
Sobibor--Camp 4).  At the same time, a work group that came to be called
the Wald-Kommando ("forest commando"), numbering forty people (half of them
Jews from Poland, and half Jews from Holland), began to work cutting down
trees in a forest several kilometers from Sobibor.  The wood was needed for
construction of the new installations.  A squad of seven Ukrainians and two
SS men was assigned to guard the work group.  One day two of the prisoners 
(Shlomo Pudhalebnik and Yosef Kurz, both of them from Poland), accompanied
by a Ukrainian guard, were sent to gel water from the nearby village.  on
the way there, the two killed the guard, took his gun and fled.  When the
incident was discovered, work was immediately stopped, and the men of the
Wald-Kommando were taken back to the camp.  Suddenly, at an agreed-upon
signal, the Polish Jews in the group broke out into a general flight.  Ten
of them were caught, some were shot while fleeing, and only eight managed
to get away.  The Dutch Jews in the Wald-Kommando decided not to join in
the escape attempt, fearing that their lack of knowledge of the language
and unfamiliarity with the region would greatly diminish their chances of 
finding refuge.  The ten prisoners who were caught, among them the Capo,
were brought to the camp and were shot in full view of all the prisoners. 
(Testimony of Blat, op.cit., pp.74-75; Matz, op. cit., p.212; testimony of
Abraham Wang, who was one of the members of the forest commando who
succeeded in escaping, YVA, 0-3/4139, pp. 6-7).
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