The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Acts of Resistance and the Organization of the Revolt in Treblinka
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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 "organizing 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 Ukrainians). 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 Greenberg, op. cit., p. 61]; 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)

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