The first camp during the Second World War to experience a violent uprising was Treblinka. Construction of the camp began in April 1942 through the use of four hundred Jewish slave laborers, all whom who executed after the camps completion. The camp was designed to look like a typical holding, camp with its sinister purpose carefully masked from the incoming victims. The camp was surrounded by a myriad of watchtowers and barbed wire fences, and a rail line ran directly into the camp where all the prisoners whom were to be gassed were unloaded.
Another section of the camp, there was a “living quarter” where the Jewish prisoners, whom maintained and removed the bodies from the gas chambers to be burned in the crematoriums, lived. This section was fenced off from the rest of the camp and not camouflage, as to reassure incoming prisoners that this was not an extermination camp; the living quarter just appeared to be a smaller labor camp adjoined with the main camp. Facilities in this section included barracks for the Jewish workers, laundry facilities and latrines.
The total number of Jews that were committed by the Nazis to aid in running the death camp came to a total of twelve hundred prisoners. These prisoners were broken down into individual groups responsible for a variety of tasks. For example, the Lumpenkommandos were responsible for sorting the belongings of the prisoners; others aided in the undressing of the incoming victims, and others, which were considered the prison elite, were tasked with sorting out currency and melting down gold teeth extracts from incoming prisoners.
Despite the relatively comfortable living conditions and freedoms the Jewish workers were afforded, the idea of revolt and escape nevertheless was always present in their minds. In fact escape, which was the primary goal in the insurrections of Treblinka and Sobibor, had to be accomplished through the elimination of the camp guards and personnel. This was not present during the first months of the camps operation. Chrostowski describes an atmosphere of distrust and ambiguity among the prisoners, and “people were very cautious in their contacts with unknown newcomers”, in regard to the denunciation of their oppressors.
But as time progressed and this static group of workers participated and witnessed the horrific slaughter of thousands of Jews every day, a sense of solidarity and unity was established; “the cases of denunciation of fellow prisoners and the inhuman conditions which cemented the relationships among people. The links that tied the Jewish workers together were the feelings of shared injustice, the lack of hope for help from the outside, and the desire for revenge.” It slowly became apparent that something had to be done to stop these horrible crimes. While the hierarchy within the camp’s Jewish workers was inherently political strictly in its function, the workers were not heavily influenced by prewar, external politics.
In fact the two key planners of the revolt were Dr. Julian Chorazycki and Rudolf Masarek, both of them Jewish soldiers whom served as captains in the Polish Army and Czech Army respectively. They were able to use the existing organizations of resistance to carefully plan their attack against the Nazis.
The Plan of Attack
The plan itself was not complicated, as the Jewish workers had comparatively greater access to vital materials, and the Nazi guards had a penchant for habit, and an attack could be timed accordingly. Weapons were acquired from the Zaunkommando barracks, where tools for woodcutting and wire cutting could be procured. These weapons were to be distributed on the day of the revolt. Other weapons, specifically explosives and grenades, could be procured through the rather neutral Ukrainian guards, who would collaborate with the prisoners if the price was right.
Although the Jewish workers only had melee weapons to combat the firearms of the Nazi guards, the element of surprise was their most indispensible weapon. Once the plan was initiated, young Jewish boys with access to SS barracks would attack them with grenades. Other prisoners with access to the German motor pool would douse the vehicles with gasoline and set fire to them. Others were tasked with opening the main gates, and executing the rest of the camp staff that was German. Only after the completion of these tasks, would a mass escape be possible.
The revolt had to be launched prematurely, as two boys who were aware of the plot had been seized, and may have confessed, jeopardizing the entire effort. Subsequently the revolt was launched much earlier than intended, and all chaos broke loose. In his memoirs, Oscar Strawczynski recalls, “The entire stretch of the camp that contained the German barracks, the food storehouses, the bakery, and the shack containing the barrels of oil and gasoline, was now engulfed by a huge fire. The flames reached and blocked our gate. Our whole plan of action was wiped out…everyone strives now, at any cost, to escape…”.
Many objectives were met by resistors, the main camp was severely damaged and the main gates were breached, where over two hundred prisoners managed to escape. Estimates suggest that under half of the people whom escaped managed to survive the machine gun fire that assaulted during the escape, the fields of mines outside the camp, and the manhunt that was conducted by the SS and Polish police units. Only 87 of these initial survivors would last the duration of the war. The prisoners of Treblinka, seeing that the endgame was nearing, chose to act. No longer could they be complicit in the Nazis’ plan to exterminate their fellow brethren.
- Chrostowski, Witold. Extermination camp Treblinka. Valentine Mitchell, 2004.
- Cymlich, Israel and Oscar Strawczynski. Escaping Hell in Treblinka. Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Survivor’s Memoirs Project, New York, 2007.