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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

 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            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.       239-241)   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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