A lesser-known uprising took place at Treblinka on this date in 1943. Aaron Taylor, the Holocaust Educational Trust's summer intern, encourages us to learn and remember.
The artist Samuel Willenberg’s 2003 sculpture The Treblinka Inmates’ Revolt, 1943 depicts his and his fellow prisoners’ role in the revolt at the extermination camp at Treblinka sixty years earlier. It is, he says, his most important sculpture. Several of the prisoners brandish weapons smuggled from the guards’ munitions store; in the middle, one hands over a grenade hidden in a bucket of potatoes; on the left, a prisoner shoots towards the viewer with a look of determined desperation.
The story of the Treblinka uprising is both dramatic and inspiring, but it remains largely unknown. We are often presented images of the passivity of Jews in the face of their slaughter; apart from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, few acts of resistance exist in the popular consciousness. But acts of resistance – despite the overwhelming force, cruelty, and manipulation that were inflicted to prevent them – did occur. On the seventieth anniversary of the Treblinka uprising, it is important to commemorate these acts.
Under Operation Reinhard an area near the village of Treblinka, fifty miles north-east of Warsaw, in Nazi-occupied Poland, was chosen as the site for an extermination camp for Jews. The murders began on 23 July 1942 with the arrival of the first transport from the Warsaw Ghetto. It was, until the deportation of Jews from occupied Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most deadly Nazi killing centre. By July at least 780,000 Jews had been murdered at Treblinka.
There were many escape attempts from Treblinka, mostly involving breaking through the fence, hiding in railway trucks, or tunnelling under the boundaries. Most escapees failed; for each person who did escape, ten prisoners were killed in a savage reprisal, to deter future attempts. In early 1943, a secret resistance group was formed from prisoners from both the main camp and extermination area, which began formulate a plan to revolt.
Such resistance was extremely difficult. The prisoners were very weak – starved to the point of emaciation and forced into hard labour. The various work groups were also kept isolated from one another. The Holocaust survivor Chil Rajchman recalls in his memoir Treblinka:
We make every effort to establish contact with Camp 1. It is very difficult, but we make the most of the opportunity created by the fact that several of us work at the Schlauch [the path down which Jews were led to the gas chambers] removing the blood of the murder victims. ... Our method of communication is the following: a comrade speaks with another from our camp in a loud voice. The people from Camp 1 who are working nearby hear the conversation and respond in the same way – with a loud conversation among themselves. The criminals are particularly watchful to see that we do not speak to each other.
Transports to Treblinka diminished in 1943, and the prisoners were only kept alive to carry out the massive task of burning the hundreds of thousands of bodies which had originally been buried in 1942. As the cremations neared completion, and it became clear that the camp would soon be liquidated, the resistance group set the date of August 2nd for the uprising. Weapons were successfully smuggled from the guards’ armoury with the use of a copied key. To ensure that people were not shut in their barracks, it was claimed that prisoners needed to return to stoke fires that weren’t burning well, and to visit the kitchen to draw more water. Rajchman continues:
We hear two gunshots from the direction of Camp 1 – a sign that the revolt has started. A few minutes later we receive the order to quit working. Everyone hurries to his post. A few seconds after that, flames engulf the gas chambers. They have been set on fire. ... Shots are heard from all sides. The Ukrainians, whom our comrades have lured from the watchtowers, lie dead. Two S.S. excavator operators are dead. We head for the barbed wire shouting: Revolyutsya v Berline! (Russian: Revolution in Berlin!) Several of the Ukrainians become disorientated and put up their hands. Their weapons are taken from them.
Almost all of the camp – aside from the gas chambers, which were not made of wood – was burned down. Of the approximately 350-400 prisoners involved, about seventy survived to see liberation. However, additional guards were soon called and the Nazi response was unrestrained; machine guns were fired at those attempting to escape, killing the majority of the prisoners. Another sculpture by Samuel Willenberg, The Escape during the Revolt at Treblinka, depicts this battle for life; Willenberg himself can be seen climbing ‘over the bodies of my friends who were killed.’
Those who remained were forced to demolish the rest of the camp structures in an attempt to extinguish the memory of the Nazis’ crimes, before themselves being shot. In the following weeks, the Nazis ploughed the ground above these mass graves and a Ukrainian guard from the camp and his family were settled on the site.
We are reminded by Willenberg’s art that amidst the unfathomable suffering of Holocaust victims were many acts of desperate and courageous resistance against Nazi extermination, many of which remain widely unknown. One such act was the uprising at Treblinka on August 2nd 1943 – 70 years ago today – which remains a story of enduring inspiration.
Samuel Willenberg is now the last living survivor from Treblinka. He is the visionary behind the Education Centre at Treblinka, the cornerstone for which will be laid today as part of the commemorations taking place there. The Centre was designed by OKA – a leading Israeli architectural firm, founded by Willenberg’s daughter.
Aaron Taylor is an intern at the Holocaust Educational Trust, having just graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in History. He begins a second BA in Law at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, in October.