The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Acts of Resistance and the Organization of the Revolt in Treblinka
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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 Unterscharführer 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 trying 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.

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