TREBLINKA, PART IV – THE UPRISING

Different groups were created to carry out the uprising.  Sam’s group was led by Shmuel Rajzman.  Shmuel was Sam’s best friend and to Sam, he was a true hero.  Sam carried Shmuel’s picture (see above) in his wallet until he died.

Those who survived the uprising tell of earlier plans of revolt that were cancelled.  They also recount the meticulous planning and the careful organization put together for the August 2nd uprising.  However, each account that I read has different details of how it happened, when it happened and how it went all wrong.  This retelling, is based on the accounts of Sam Goldberg, Shmuel Rajzman, Samuel Willenberg and Oskar Strawczynski.

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Treblinka prisoners heard about the Warsaw ghetto uprising and how it was crushed by the Nazis.  For some prisoners this was depressing, for others it was energizing – at least in Warsaw they fought back.

By July of 1943, the transports were very infrequent and there was often nothing for the prisoners to do.  They knew that the camp’s purpose would soon be over and they too would be “over.”  They had nothing to lose.  There were 50 men who were in on the plan.  The final date was set – August 2nd at 5 PM.  The time was chosen carefully to allow for maximum man power.  It was at 5 PM that a trainload of 200-300 men came back from the Treblinka work camp.  These men could join the uprising.  A message was also sent to prisoners who worked in the separate area of the gas chambers, so they too would be ready.

There were two locksmiths involved in the planning, one of whom Sam described as “brilliant.”  They worked with a thirteen-year-old boy who could roam the camp freely, without suspicion by the Germans.   They showed him how to make an impression of the lock on the arsenal door from soap.  “The brainy one made keys [from this impression],” Sam described.  “Each of us had a key, 12 keys, to go into the arsenal and take out weapons.”

The signal to start the revolt was to be a single shot from the blacksmith’s workshop.   If any Nazis came into any of any of the workshops before 5 o’clock, they would be quietly killed and their bodies hidden.  In this way, some Nazis would be eliminated even before the start time.  At the sound of the shot, the administration building was to be attacked and the Nazis inside killed, the telephone lines cut, and the oil and gas barrels would be used to set the camp on fire.  The man Sam called the “electrician,” rigged up a button that when pressed would explode the gas tank.   Other groups were tasked to watch the Ukrainians and disarm and lock them in a barracks at the start of the revolt.   Simultaneously, the watchtowers were to be fired on, killing the guards or at least forcing them to leave the towers.

They did not sleep the night before.  The tension on that sizzling hot August day was palpable.  At 3 o’clock the younger boys went to the arsenal and began to take out some of the rifles and grenades.  They were passed around to those with specific tasks to perform.  Each group knew their task and was ready to execute.

Here is where it gets confusing.  Things did not go as planned.  Rifle shots were heard before 5 o’clocl – either 3 or 4 o’clock.  The sound of the rifle shot or shots started the revolt early, before the group leaders had all their men in place.   The question is — was there a rifle shot, if yes, whose rifle was shot and why?

According to Sam, the revolt started at 4 o’clock.  Here is what happened:   a Jew was digging up a sack of gold he had hidden to take with him upon escape.  Everyone had accumulated lots of gold.  “There was so much gold in Treblinka,” explained Sam, “that wherever you went you stepped on diamonds and gold.  Plenty of pieces of gold.  I myself had accumulated quite a bit [from the laundry].”  Sam described how a Ukrainian in the watch tower saw this prisoner dig something up and put it in his pocket.  Assuming it was gold, the Ukrainian immediately called the Nazis by telephone. A Nazi came and took this Jew away.  “They hit him and right away he told them what was going on.” Sam said.  “So we went to Rajzman [his group leader] and told him the story and he said right away, do this.” So “we started the uprising right there.  It was 4 o’clock.  We started to throw grenades and shoot. . . Yes, I shot too.  There was a watchtower near me.  I threw a grenade at him. . .. We got the electrician and he pushed the button and blew up the whole camp from head to toe.”

According to Shmuel Rajzman, about 3 o’clock the Nazis realized that something was up when they saw two boys standing in the camp shaking hands and saying good-bye to each other and another man standing there crying.  This was reported to Galewski, one of the leaders, and it was decided that if they waited until 5 o’clock, the Nazis would find out and then there was no hope.  One of the revolt leaders sent up the shot, not at 5, but just after 3 o’clock.  Then, after soaking the camp in gasoline, the engineer hit the button and set the camp on fire.

According to Samuel Willenberg, the revolt started at 4 o’clock when someone was running in the camp and dropped a gold twenty-dollar coin.  He was spotted and turned over to a German, who dragged him off to the Lazaret and shot him.  This shot was mistaken for the signal to start the revolt.

Oskar Strawczynski heard a number of shots at 4 o’clock and then loud cannons being fired.  This started the revolt.  Then he heard a huge explosion from the big square area.  “Our whole plan of action,” he said, “was wiped out.”

Stawczynski retells the events as if they are happening now:

“The people in our courtyard, around 300, are overcome by panic.  No groups of five, no leaders; everyone now strives, at any cost, to escape from the blocked courtyard.  . . . With pliers and axes, we cut the barbed wire and break down the fences of the ghetto and the barriers farther on.  The tightly packed mass of people runs in the direction of Camp 2 [where the gas chambers are located]. We pass through a small gate.  There, in Camp 2, everything is in flames.  There is no time to look around.  . . . We must overcome one more obstacle: the thickly tangled barbed wire. We run on with the crowd.  At one point, the wires have been trampled by so many feet that we scramble through without much difficulty.”  (Strawczynski at 181).

Samuel Willenberg also described the scene:

“The shots rained down on the guards in their watchtowers.  The roar of an explosion shook the air.  One, a second, a third . . . Our comrades lobbed hand grenades into the barracks and buildings of the camp.  Prisoners came running from everywhere, formed into groups which kept growing larger, and with a shout fell upon the sentries, the Ukrainians, the SS men.  We heard a loud and long shout, which grew stronger by the moment and faded out into a distant echo in the woods.  Somewhere hand grenades cut the telephone lines and the barbed wire fences.   A commotion was created which cannot be described in words.  One of the wooden barracks, dried out by the sun and the heat, caught fire.  Among the dense crowd of people, I noticed several Germans running panic-stricken in the grounds, taking cover behind trees and forming into a group at the other end of the camp.

Two Jewish drivers, one a Pole and the other a Czeck, set the gasoline and oil pools afire.  The flames flared up; clouds of black smoke covered the sky.  Rifle and machine gun fire burst from the six watchtowers . . . They were answered by single shots form our side.  The Ukrainian who stood at the entrance to the vegetable garden turned at the sound of the shots and the shouts, made a movement as if he was about to run for his life, but he was mowed down by a bullet. . ..  One prisoner ran by him, then a second, and a third. A whole group followed in their wake.  And suddenly the group was hit by machine gun fire.  Many were mowed down by the bullets.  The crowd retreated in panic.  A cry of fear was heard, but above the sounds of fear and terror there rose a mighty shout: ‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’” (Willenberg at 210-211)

Both Sam Goldberg and Samuel Willenberg expressed their deep sadness that the revolt did not go as planned.  Had it gone as planned, many more people would have survived.  The unplanned early start of the revolt threw the camp into chaos from which many did not escape.  Sam explained that each member of the planning group carried poison in the event of capture.  If captured, they were to take the poison quickly, so as not to suffer from torture and not to tell any details of the revolt.

At this most painful and triumphant moment, each man was on his own.  Those that were not killed in those early moments, ran as fast they could – out – out into the open and to a place of hopeful safety – the woods.  What would happen next, no one knew, but at last they were free.

SOURCES:

Interviews with Sam Goldberg: 1991 & July 13, 1997.

Rajzman, Samuel, “The End of Treblinka,” in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 231-251.

Strawczynski, Oskar, “Ten Months in Treblinka (October 5, 1943 – August 2, 1943),” in Cymlich & Strawczynski, Escaping Hell in Treblinka.  New York, Jerusalem. Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project. 2007 at pp. 121-282.

Willenberg, Samuel.  I Survived Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at 189.

 

TREBLINKA, PART III

265,040 Warsaw Jews arrived at Treblinka between July 23 and September 30, 1942. – Abraham Krzepicki was one of these unlucky people.   He described how on August 25, SS guards came with whips and guns to the Warsaw factory where he worked. Chased to the Umschlagplatz, he was whipped until he got into the boxcar.  It was boiling hot and there was no food or water.  He could not move; it was hard to breath.  The only air came from a small window, up high and a few cracks in the boards.  Soon, with only a pail in the corner for people to relieve themselves, the stench of feces and urine, mixed with human sweat became unbearable. Many did not survive the journey.

Jankiel Wiernik described his journey from Warsaw to Treblinka:

“As many as 80 persons were crowded in each car, with no way of escape.  I was wearing only a pair of pants, a shirt and a pair of slippers.  I had left at home a packed knapsack and a pair of boots which I had prepared because of rumors that we would be taken to the Ukraine and put to work there. . .. The air in the cars was becoming stiflingly hot and oppressive.  It was difficult for us to breathe.  Despair descended on us like a pall.  I saw all of my companions in misery, but my mind was still unable to grasp the fate that lay in store for us.  I had thought in terms of suffering, homelessness and hunger, but I still did not realize that the hangman’s ruthless arm was threatening all of us, our children, our very existence.” (Wiernik at 150)

Each train had 50-60 cars.  The train arrived at the nearby Malkinia Station.  Only 20 cars were taken into Treblinka at a time.  The rest waited their turn for their meeting with death.  Imagine standing in one of these boxcars, pressed against others whom you do not know, with no food, no water, dead people around you, no way to escape and no one who will help you.  Then when the train finally arrived at Treblinka and the doors open, you are greeted with SS guards armed with rifles, whips and dogs barking and biting.

Those who arrived at Treblinka before Stangl took over and “cleaned up” the place, were immediately confronted with the stench of human corpses and the sight of thousands of bloated bodies piled up all around the square.  If you arrived after the “clean up” you entered a space that looked like a train station. Stangl had the Jews build a tall clock (that did not change time), a timetable and ticket counters.  This ruse was constructed to convince new arrivals that all was well and they would indeed be continuing their travels eastward.  When these desperately thirsty travelers exited the train, they were greeted by music, played by an orchestra led by the Warsaw musician Artur Gold.

The farce continued.  The SS guards announced that all would be well.  All valuables should be deposit with the official and each person will get a receipt in order to retrieve them after his or her shower.   Some men were chosen for work detail, while the rest were sent to the barracks for undressing.  The women and children were sent to another barracks where they undressed and the women’s hair was shorn for shipment to Germany for mattress stuffing.  All were told to be sure to tie their shoe laces together so that they could find them later.

As they stood naked and dazed in the barracks they were shouted at, hit with whips and butts of rifles to herd them into the “tube,” also called the “road to heaven.”  This path was a few meters wide and about 100 meters long and led directly to the “showers.”  In they went – through the door with the star of David on top.  Inside, they were met by the Hebrew inscription: “This is the gateway to G-d. The righteous shall pass through.” (Snyder at 270)

With the doors sealed, the gas was turned on and the victims’ last shred of doubt vaporized.  Terrified screams, crying, and Shma Yisrael were the last sounds in their ears.  After the victims fell eternally silent, the doors on the other side were opened and Jewish workers removed the dead bodies and dumped them in mass graves.    These unlucky Jews were call “Soderkommandos.”

Recently, I saw a movie – “Son of Saul.”  It won the academy award this year for Best Foreign Film.  It is the story of Saul Auslander who was a Soderkommando.   Here is a link to the Wikipedia article.  It is very hard to watch, as it is a realistic depiction of a death camp.  But if you want a sense of what it might have been like in Treblinka, watch this movie.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Son_of_Saul

Those chosen to “live” and work in the camp had a wide variety of jobs.  For example, some like Sam worked in the laundry.  Others worked in the tinsmith shop or worked as carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, locksmiths, or blacksmiths.  Others collected dead bodies from the train and carried them to the mass grave.  Jankiel Wiernik was chosen to work in a group that handled corpses.  “The work was very hard,” he explained.   “We had to drag each corpse, in teams of two, for a distance of approximately 300 meters.  Sometimes we tied ropes around the dead bodies to pull them to their graves.”  (Wiernik at 153)

Others collected the incomprehensible amount of clothing and valuables left by the victims.  Abraham Krzepicki described this as one of his jobs at Treblinka:

“[P]iled up in huge mounds, were the garments, underwear, shoes and all sorts of other items left by the men, women and children who had undressed there the day before.  Various amounts of cash, large and small, were also lying around on the floor.  There was Polish money as well as foreign currency, securities and jewelry.   It was our job to pick up the rags as they were, and to add them to the piles of clothing near the railroad tracks.” (Krzepicki at 91)

Oskar Strawczynski describes the variety of things that the murdered victims brought:

“[F]rom the most expensive imported textiles, to the cheapest cottons; from the most elegant suits, to the cheapest worn-out rages.  There are rows of suitcases and in them, everything imaginable: haberdashery, cosmetics, drugs – it seems no article in the world cannot be found here.  The sorted items are brought to one side of the square, where they are piled into huge bales.   There is also an enormous amount of food and other goods: dried noodles, sugar, soap, candles, matches, cigarettes, and sweets.   There is no lack of the most expensive canned foods, tea and coffee, but there are also moldy crusts of bread.  Some poor Jews even brought a few potatoes.”  (Strawczynski at 135)   He describes how if no Germans were around, the guards would quickly dump valuables into their pockets and how the “entire square [gave] the impression of a huge bazaar.” (Id. at 136)

Jews were also able to gather some of the money and valuables and hide them away.  They were used to pay guards who would go to nearby towns to buy them goods. Because of the vast amounts of money in Treblinka, prices in the nearby towns were extremely high.  Treblinka’s neighbors did not want to miss out on the opportunity to profit from the murder factory.  Jews also hid away some of the money and valuables in the hopes of escaping or getting out alive.  Sam, who worked in the laundry, found money and jewelry sown into the clothing.  Sam buried some of the money and jewelry he found in a special place –  by a tree – in the hopes of escape or of the war finally ending.  This stash of money and jewelry saved him on many occasions after his escape from Treblinka.

I am honored to wear a ring that comes from Sam’s stash of valuables.  Esther wore it during her life and I inherited this priceless article from her.  It is my constant reminder of both of them and of this place.

In the suitcases left behind there were also passports, legal documents and pictures.  All of these precious items were taken to a special area not far from the Lazaret where they were burned.  “When you looked at these mountains of photographs, literally millions of them,” Oskar Strawczynski said, “you could clearly feel and understand the immense horror and brutality of what was taking place.  All these people looking out at you from the pictures; just a while ago, they too were alive and full of hope.  All these lives suddenly turned to ashes.” (Id. at 138).

For the prisoners of Treblinka, roll calls, twice daily, were supremely dangerous moments of the day.   The prisoners lined up in rows of five, standing at attention for at least two hours at a time.  If a Nazi felt you were not standing properly, they would beat you on the spot – 25 or 50 lashes – there in front of the others.  Before the morning roll call, prisoners took great pains to shave and pinch their cheeks to look as healthy as possible.  If you appeared sick or disabled at roll call, you would be promptly removed and sent to the gas chamber or the Lazaret.

There are many terrible stories from Treblinka.  Some stories told by Sam have been shared in previous blog posts (see posts 12/25/15; 12/30/15; 1/1/16; & 4/6/16).  The memoirs cited below include more detail and many stories that I could not share here.  I will, however, share one final story that I believe depicts not only the sadistic nature of Kurt Franz – the Lalka – but the brutality of the Nazi murderers and life in the camp.  This story is retold by Oskar Strawczynski.

“One day, Lalka takes a walk along the platform, self-satisfied and arrogant as usual, hunting rifle on his shoulder, Barry following lazily.  As it happens, he notices a Jew, Mr. Sztajer, one of my neighbors from Czestochowa.  Without a second thought, he aims his rifle at the Jewish buttocks.  Sztajer falls, screaming in pain.  Lalka approaches him, laughing, and orders him to get up and pull down his pants, so that he can check his aim.  The man doubles up in pain, blood streaming from his lead-filled behind.  But Lalka is not satisfied.  With a disappointing shrug, he mutters: ‘Damn it! I missed the balls.’  He continues his walk, looking for a new target.”  (Id. at 137)

And the killing continued, thousands each day.  By the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943, the Germans started to worry that the world would discover the crimes committed at Treblinka.  The hundreds of thousands of corpses buried in mass graves were damning evidence.  Because of this fear, Stangl received an order that he must begin burning the corpses.  Not only the corpses of the new victims, but he must exhume the buried corpses and burn them as well.  Of course it was the Jews who were forced to carry out this unspeakable task.

Bodies were exhumed with a huge steam shovel.  Train tracks were used to create grills upon which the bodies were burned.  By spring 1943, fires burned day and night.  It was discovered that women’s bodies burn better than men’s. So women were put on the bottom of the pile and men on the top so that all would burn properly.  Oil was poured on the bodies to help the inferno.

As the bodies were burned and transports began to slow, the prisoners were convinced that their end was near.  They had heard from the Ukrainian guards that Germans suffered a defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943.  With well over 750,000 already murdered, prisoners knew that when the Germans had no further use for them they too would be turned to ash.   This led to intensified plans for an uprising.

My next and final Treblinka-post will focus on the plan and execution of the uprising at Treblinka on August 2, 1943.  Sam was part of the uprising and it was this event that led to his escape.

PS.  I know the picture of the train tracks are from Auschwitz/Birkenau, but I could not find a picture of the train tracks going into Treblinka that I could post here.  I found this on Flicker.

Sources:

Rajzman, Samuel, “The End of Treblinka,” in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 231-251.

Krzepicki, Abraham, “Seventeen Days in Treblinka,” in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 77-145.

Wiernik, Jankiel, “One Year in Treblinka.” Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 147-188.

Strawczynski, Oskar, “Ten Months in Treblinka (October 5, 1943 – August 2, 1943),” in Cymlich & Strawczynski, Escaping Hell in Treblinka.  New York, Jerusalem. Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project. 2007 at pp. 121-282.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.

Arad, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. 1987.

Sereny, Gitta.  Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience.  New York, NY.  Random House.

 

TREBLINKA, PART II

Sam arrived at Treblinka in June of 1942 by bus with 135 men captured in Stochzek.  Upon arrival, they were separated into two groups – one to the right, the other to the left.  Sam described the scene:

“The German officer gave us a speech that the right ones are going home and the left ones will stay here for a while.  So I wanted to go home, so I stole myself out to the left.   He saw that I was doing this, so he gave me a smack, ‘what are you doing, you disgusting pig? Stay here where I put you.’  So I started to cry.  So my friend who was a policeman came to me and said, ‘I left behind a wife and a child, I’m not running, you see how we are, stay here, you stay here!’  And that is how it was.  I got calmed down.  The people they picked out to go to the right were shot to death before my eyes.  They took out a machine gun and they killed them right away.”

The first Commandant of Treblinka was Irmfield Eberl.  Eberl was a physician who honed his skills during the Euthanasia program (see blog post Dec. 21, 2015) and served briefly at Chelmo before his appointment at Treblinka.  He took a look at Sam, a young strong man of 22 and asked:

“What do you know how to do?”

“I’m a farmer, but I can do anything, everything that has to be done,” Sam answered.

“Everything?”

“Yes, everything.”

So Sam was assigned the job of making roofs out of bundles of straw.

You might ask, how did Sam know how to make roofs?

He explained: “I had seen 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 yes, yes, beautiful.  They liked the work.”

The camp was built by the slave labor of the Jews.  There were two distinct sections of the camp.  The section where Sam lived and worked is where the railroad cars arrived and where people were “processed” before being funneled through the narrow “road to heaven” that led to the gas chambers.   In Jankiel Wiernik description of Treblinka in One Year in Treblinka, he refers to this section as “Camp No. 1.”

In Camp No. 1 there was a railroad spur that opened up to a large open space.  It is this area where people were sorted and the luggage and clothing piled up.   Camp No. 1 had the Larzaret (infirmary).  The ill and the elderly were taken directly to the Lazaret from the train.  There were two men who wore white aprons and red crosses on their sleeves that escorted them.  At the Lazaret Nazi officers and Ukrainians posed as doctors in white coats (technique taken straight from the Euthanasia program).  The patients were seated on a long bench in order to be examined.  But no examination occurred. They were shot in the neck.  The corpses toppled into the ditch on the other side of the bench.  Once a sufficient number were killed, they set the corpses on fire, making room for the next batch.  Camp No. 1 also had a large room where the women had their hair shorn before heading to the showers, as well four watch towers, a stables, a pigsty, a food storage building and a weapons arsenal.

It will come as no surprise that in Camp No. 1, the barracks of the Germans and Ukrainians were set apart from the barracks and the workshops of the Jews.

After Sam finished building the roofs, the Germans asked him “can you wash laundry?”  He said “Yavall – yes!”  So they brought him a basin with a board and ordered him to wash clothes. He worked washing laundry for about six weeks when he realized that this is too much for him alone.

By this time, there had been a change in commanders — Eberl was out and Franz Stangl – was in.  Eberl was dismissed for incompetence.  Under his command, the dead piled up in the open square.  “The smell was indescribable;” Stangl said.  “The hundreds, no the thousands of bodies everywhere, decomposing, putrefying.”  He was shocked by what he saw.  (Sereney at 267) It seems Eberl did not “process” the victims and their belongings quickly enough.  Stangl brought his expertise from the Euthanasia program and Sobibor to fix the mess at Treblinka.

Kurt Franz, Stangl’s right hand man at Sobibor came along with him to Treblinka.  Kurt Franz was known as the Lalka – the Doll – because he was so beautiful.  He was also known as the worst sadist and cruelest German.  The Lalka had a big dog, named Barry.  “This dog was trained to attack a man’s genitals,” Samuel Rajzman explains.  “Once you were attacked by that dog, even if you lived, you were in such bad shape that you would be taken to the Lazaret and shot.  Kurt Franz was the worse of the murderers there.” (Rajzman at 240)   It is told that the Lalka never walked through the camp without killing a few Jews on the way.  Just for sport.  Oh, he loved sport – he especially loved boxing.  He had Jews conduct boxing matches for his entertainment and even had them build him a zoo.

Nonetheless, the Lalka, this horror of a person, was Sam’s savior.  He liked Sam’s eyes.  Sam had eyes that were translucent blue, a color that I imagine would result if you mixed the blue of the sky and the blue of the shallow sea.  “I will make a laundry for you and you will be the supervisor of the laundry,’ the Lalka told Sam.  Two days later, there was a laundry built with Sam installed as supervisor.

It gets crazier – in the beginning, Sam would venture out to the open area where the clothes were piled up, to gather the laundry and bring it back for washing.  The Lalka saw that Sam was collecting the clothes himself.  He told him not to gather the clothes – it was too dangerous.  Many prisoners were killed in that space each day.  Sam should stay in the laundry where it was safer and other prisoners would bring the clothes to him.  It is almost hard to fathom that this man who is described by most survivors as the worst of the worst saw Sam as his Pet Jew and took care of him. (see blog post December 30, 2015).

The work force in the laundry was increased by twelve women who were taken from a transport and put to work with Sam.   Sam said this was not enough.  So they added another twelve women.  At one point, Sam had thirty-three women working in the laundry.

While Sam worked in the laundry, there was an older SS Officer who was assigned to guard the laundry workers.  One day, Sam told him that he wanted to use the washing tub to cook food for the people in the laundry.  The German said: “I understand, but other Germans will come in here, what will they say?”  Sam responded: “It will happen to me, whatever they say, they say.  I’ll cook here.”  So he cooked – whatever he could steal from the kitchen or things he found in people’s clothes.  He gave the food to those who worked with him in the laundry, but also to the sick in the hospital.  “I risked my life,” Sam explained, “I carried them food.”

Sam told me that he believed he was saved because of the zechus (merit) of taking food to the sick and dying of Treblinka.

In his 13 months at Treblinka, Sam never went to Camp No. 2, where the gas chambers and mass graves were.  He knew, they all knew.  The smell of rotting corpses and then later burning flesh permeated the camp.  There was a tall wooden wall separating the two camps.  There were only a few prisoners who went back and forth.  One such prisoner was Jankiel Wiernik.   He was a carpenter and helped to build structures in both camps.  He described Camp No. 2 as having its own barracks for the prisoners who worked there, a laundry and a laboratory.   When Wiernik first arrived in August of 1942, there were three gas chambers.  However, ten more were built, ultimately bringing the number to 13.  The front entrance of the gas chambers had a star of David on it, to trick the Jews to think they were going to a regular shower.

The Treblinka gas chambers did not use the famous Zyklon B from Auschwitz/Birkenau, rather they used old fashion carbon monoxide.  An old Soviet tank motor would pump gas into the chambers through pipes.  The chambers were sealed, the motor turned on and as the gas was pumped in, those within were asphyxiated.  Death took approximately 25 minutes.  Once the people inside were dead, the doors were opened and the prisoners carried them out and threw them into huge pits.  During the first phase of Treblinka’s operation, these mass graves were dug and filled with thousands of bodies.  Later, the bodies were burned.

When Stangl arrived at Treblinka, he had to clean up the mess.  The first thing he did was to stop all transports for one week, giving the prisoners time to clean up.  During this week, Abraham Krzepicki, who was in Camp No. 2, was able to look inside one of the gas chambers.   In his “Notes from Seventeen Days in Treblinka,” he described what he saw:

“I saw before me a room which was not too large.  It looked like a regular shower room with all the accoutrements of a public bathhouse.  The walls of the room were covered with small, white tiles.  It was very fine, clean work.  The floor was covered with orange terra cotta tiles.   Nickel-plated metal faucets were set into the ceiling.” (Krzepicki 105).

Last week, I watched a documentary called “Treblinka:  Hitler’s Killing Machine.”   It shows archeologists attempting to find evidence of Treblinka and especially evidence of the gas chambers.  They did indeed find the location of the gas chambers and as they dug down they found some of the orange terra cotta tiles described by Krzepicki.   The tiles had stars of David on them. I highly recommend this documentary.  It is on Netflix.

The gas chambers at Treblinka began operation on July 23, 1942.  Yitzchak Arad, in his book, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, states that construction continued and the camp was not completed until later.  (Arad at 43). Sam, one of the early Treblinka builders, recalls that building continued until Rosh Hashanah.

For Sam and the other prisoners, that Rosh Hashonah must have been impossibly arduous.

Sources:

Interview with Sam Goldberg: July 13, 1997.

Interview with Sam Goldberg: 1991.

Arad, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. 1987.

Krzepicki, Abraha. Notes from Seventeen Days in Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at 77.

Wiernik, Jankiel.  One Year in Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY.  Holocaust Library. 1979 at 147.

Willenberg, Samuel.  I Survived Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York.

Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness.  New York. Random House. 1983.