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.
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.
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.