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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

 CAMPS - 3                         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    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 camp.         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.  krakow, 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 day.         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 prisoners.         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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