The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Subject: Yad Vashem Studies IV: The Nazi Concentration Camps (2/4)
Summary: Structure and Aims, The Image of the Prisoner, The 
         Jews in the Camps. Operation Reinhard - Acts of Resistance
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Archive/File: orgs/israeli/yad-vashem/yvs.camps.02
Last-modified: 1993/03/26 

                          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.

                     Acts of Individual Resistance

   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.  Iike 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 preventedddd 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.  (lbid., 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.  Cracow, 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 trvinc to
   escape by train.  They were taken to the lazarett and shot there hy
   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
   succecd 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 "organ-
   izing 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 Ukraini-
   ans).  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.  air., 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)

[Continued in yad_vashem YVS.Camps.03]


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