Captured from the nearby town of Stok (or Stocheck) in approximately June of 1942, Sam Goldberg was brought to Treblinka – by truck. When he arrived, the only building standing was a barracks. His job, along with other Jewish slaves, was to build the camp that would kill his family and at least 750,000 other Jews. Sam survived for 13 months, until he escaped during the uprising on August 2, 1943.
My research shows that it is possible that Sam may be the only person who was forced to construct Belzec, Sobibor or Treblinika that survived. This is an astounding fact that may be unknown to scholars.
Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, explains that Himmler sent some men to “a site near the village of Treblinka, where construction of the death factory began on 1 June 1942. The laborers were Jews from the region, who were killed when the project was complete.” (Snyder at 261).
Yitzchak Arad in his book, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, describes the construction crew assembled for Treblinka: “Polish and Jewish prisoners from Treblinka penal camp [pre-existing], as well as Jews from neighboring towns, were provided for labor. . . . None of the Jewish workers who were employed at the building of the camp survived (Arad at 40).
Sobibor, one of the other two death camps in Operation Reinhard was built and operational before Treblinka’s construction even began. Arad confirms that, [a] group of eighty Jews from the ghettos in the vicinity of the camp was brought to Sobibor for construction work. . . . After completing their work, the Jews were shot“ (Arad at 30).
Belzec was the first of the Operation Reinhard camps to be built. Arad describes that “Jews from ghettos in the vicinity . . . were brought to the camp. Some of these Jews were skilled workers – carpenters, smiths, and builders”(Arad at 25). After the completion of the gas chambers, Jews were brought in to experiment and see how they work. “These experimental killings lasted a few days and the last group to be murdered were the Jewish prisoners who had been engaged in building the camp” (Id at 26).
These scholars seem to believe that no Jews from the construction crews survived.
Later in his book, Arad describes how the chances for survival in Treblinka were extremely low. However, he acknowledges that there were a few survivors among the early prisoners. He states that “[t]hose who entered the camp around the time of its establishment and lasted until the final stages of the camp’s existence can be counted on one hand” (Arad at 207).
Sam Goldberg was one of these survivors. But is it possible that he was the only survivor from those who were originally captured and brought to construct these camps?
In a 1997 interview, Sam describes his capture and first work at Treblinka:
Sam: So they didn’t take me until the time came,when they came from Treblinka and they needed 135 people from the shtetl Stochek.
Interviewer: What did they need them for?
Sam: They needed them for the work.
Interviewer: What kind of work?
Sam: For the work, there in Treblinka, to build the camp. So they caught us, they took this policeman too.
Interviewer: Where did they take you?
Interviewer: By night or day?
Sam: By day. There were Ukrainians and Germans. They surrounded the shtetl, it was a small shtetl and they caught us. They got me too. So everyone that was caught, they had us lie down. So, it’s lost, there was nothing I could do about it. I was skillful in escaping, but they didn’t let me. I looked here and I looked there . . . What can you do? So they put us on a truck, 135 people and they took us to Treblinka. We got to Treblinka and took us off the tuck.
Interviewer: Did you know you were going to Treblinka?
Sam: Yeah, they told us that we were going to Treblinka to work.
Interviewer: What did you know at that time about Treblinka?
Sam: We didn’t know much about it, they were just starting to build the camp.
Interviewer: What was there when you came there?
Sam: When the 135 came to the camp, they put us in groups of five. What can you do? You are a tailor, if you were nothing, you said nothing. They asked me and I said, “I’m a farmer, but I can do anything.” (in German) I can do everything that has to be done. He said “everything?” I said yes, everything. So they took me to make a roof to make out of bundles of straw and to bind them together and to make the roof from that. And I should do that. So I indeed saw how the workers did that on our farm, but I had never done, not in my life, but I saw. When the time came that I had to remember everything, I remembered how to do it. So I took the straw and made the bundles. I asked the boys to pass it to me and they kissed, and said beautiful. They liked the work.
Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about Treblinka.
Sam: I’ll tell you, just a minute. When I finished (the roof), they asked “can you wash laundry?” I said “yavall” yes! So they brought me a basin with a board, and they said that I should wash clothes. I wasn’t alone, there were five or six. Two people from Stok that they killed right away because they didn’t want to work. They told me that I should work with them. Oh, a stomach ache that I should work for them. But what do I have to say about it, why I am here, I have no control over myself. They said work, so I worked. . . . I worked for about six weeks, and I saw that they needed more people to do the laundry, I couldn’t do it alone. So the senior German said to me, “you have nice eyes. I will make a laundry for you and you will be the supervisor of the laundry.” It didn’t go into my head. It didn’t take two days and there was already a laundry.
Interviewer: Who built it?
Sam: There were plenty of carpenters.
(translated from Yiddish by Shlomo Goldberg).
Amazing, right? There is much more to Sam’s story of survival. Stay tuned.