Krzepicki: Eighteen Days in Treblinka
Source: The Death Camp Treblinka. A Documentary, edited by Alexander Donat, New York 1979, pages 77 to 144.
ABRAHAM JACOB KRZEPICKI was in his early twenties when war broke out in Poland in 1939. He was drafted into the Polish army and was taken prisoner by the Germans. After his release, he settled in Warsaw. On August 25, 1942, he was deported to Treblinka. However, he managed to escape 18 days later and returned to the Warsaw ghetto. He joined the ZOB (Jewish Fighting Organization) in the ghetto and was killed in the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April, 1943. He was a member of a Hanoar-Hatzioni group headed by Jacob Praszker. During the shelling of the Brush Workshops he was wounded in the leg. His comrades had to evacuate the burning building and were forced to abandon him and other wounded fighters.
The leaders of the ghetto underground archives (under the historian Emanuel Ringelblum) entrusted Rachel Auerbach with the task of recording the testimony given by Krzepicki (December, 1942–January, 1943). Krzepicki’s report–he was then 25 years old–was the first eyewitness account of the crimes perpetrated at Treblinka. The manuscript (in Yiddish) had been buried in the rubble of the ghetto along with other documents from the second part of the Ringelblum archives. It was recovered on December 1, 1950 by Polish construction workers beneath the ruins of 68 Nowolipki Street. The original manuscript is now at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (File #290). It was first published in the Jan. –June, 1956 issue of the Institute’s Yiddish-language publication, Bleter far Geshikhte (Vol. XI, No.1-2, 1956, Warsaw).
This is the first English translation of Krzepichi’s account.
THE BLOCKADE. On August 25 , at about half past six in The evening, the honey factory at 19 Zamenhof Street, where we workers were employed, was surrounded. SS men broke into the factory and drove out all the people. Entreaties and begging were of no help. With guns drawn, they threatened to shoot us. We left everything behind and vacated the factory. We were lined up in rows. Since I knew German, I went up to the Scharführer and asked him to let me take some things with me. I had thought of hiding, but I could see that it would not work. As I was gathering my belongings, a junak [non-German auxiliary guard] came up to me pointing his gun at me, but when I shouted “Scharführer!” he refrained from shooting.
As I left, the Scharführer gave me a kick to make me move faster. Several men who had been found hiding in the Toporol1 garden had been shot at the courtyard. We were taken out to Zamenhof Street. In the group outside in the street there were some more SS men with their sleeves rolled up and carrying whips in their hands. They looked like butchers in a slaughterhouse; we didn’t like the looks of this. Jews with blood all over them were coming from Wołyńska Street. Gangs of Ukrainians were going around, looting the abandoned houses. When Brandt2 came driving up, people said to each other, “Look! Here’s Brandt! Maybe he’ll get us released because we’re working people.” After that two hundred more people appeared; they were returning from one of the workshops. They walked along as if they hadn’t a care in the world, because they were coming home from work. One of the Ukrainians asked Brandt what he should do with these people. “Take them all in!” Brandt replied, and that whole crowd was taken into our ranks.
Brandt gave an order to Lejkin 3 “Alles abmarschieren!” [Everybody, march off!] and so we began to march off, five abreast. The ghetto police and the Ukrainians formed a cordon on either side, with a Jewish policeman or a Ukrainian standing at intervals of 20 paces and an SS man at intervals of 40-50 meters. And so we marched off. I was the last to move out because I was planning to escape. But it was impossible, there were too many Germans around. I just looked around the streets and told myself that I was now saying good-bye to Warsaw. As I arrived at the Umschlagplatz, I heard one of the ghetto policemen telling one of his relatives to “go to the right.” I also wanted to go “to the right,” toward the hospital, where I thought I might be able to save myself. But this same policeman dragged me back and I went out into the Umschlagplatz. I could see that I was done for.
At the Umschlagplatz. We still hoped that some kind of separation would take place at the Umschlagplatz and we would be able to show our papers. But unfortunately we never had that chance. As we came closer, we saw the boxcars ready for us and we said to each other, “Oy vey, we’ve had it! We’re in trouble!” And in fact, the Lithuanian guards came straight over to us and started hitting us over the head with whips; they did not let anyone go near the Germans. From the Umschlagplatz we were moved toward the boxcars. Only two foremen from Waldemar Schmidt’s shop managed to get through; they were in uniforms and army caps. They went up to the Scharführer, who was the old sadist, but he had a sudden inspiration. He looked them up and down for five minutes, then nodded and told them that they could go. This was how those two men got away, but nobody else was that lucky. We were moving closer to the boxcars. Already we could see elderly people stretched out on the floor of the first car, half-unconscious. We didn’t like the looks of this. Then steps were moved up to the boxcars and the Lithuanian auxiliaries started driving us faster with their whips, up into the cars. We had to give up all hope of being able to show our papers to somebody and so we got into the boxcars.
In the Boxcar. Over a hundred people were crammed into our car. The ghetto police closed the doors. When the door shut on me, I felt my whole world vanishing. Some pretty young girls were still standing in front of the cars, next to a German in a gendarme’s uniform. This man was the commander of the shaulis 4 and the escort for our train. The girls were screaming, weeping, stretching out their hands to the German and crying, “But I’m still young! I want to work! I’m still young! I want to work!” The German just looked at them, and did not say a word. The girls were loaded into the boxcar and they traveled along with us. After the doors had closed on us, some of the people said, “Jews, we’re finished!” But I and some others did not want to believe that. “It can’t be!” we argued, “They won’t kill so many people! Maybe the old people and the children, but not us. We’re young. They’re taking us to work.”
The cars began to move. We were on the way. Where to? We didn’t know. Perhaps we were going to work in Russia. But some of the old people didn’t want to believe this and, as soon as the train started moving, they started to recite the mourners’ Kaddish.
“Jews, we’re done for!” they said. “It’s time to recite the prayer for the dead.”
The Jews Recite the Kaddish. It’s impossible to imagine the horrors in that closed, airless boxcar. It was one big cesspool. Everybody was pushing toward the window, where there was a little air, but it was impossible to get close to the window. Everybody was lying on the ground. I also lay down. I could feel a crack in the floor. I lay with my nose right up against that crack to grab some air. What a stench all over the car! You couldn’t stand it. A real cesspool all over. Filth everywhere, human excrement piled up in every corner of the car. People kept shouting, “A pot! A pot! Give us a pot so we can pour it out the window.” But nobody had a pot.
After the train had traveled some distance, it suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere.
A shaulis, revolver in hand, entered our car. He drove the people over to one side of the car and planted himself on the other side facing them with his revolver. I thought he had a poison gas shell in his gun and that we were going to be gassed right there in the car. But then I remembered the window and I couldn’t understand what was going on. It turned out that the shaulis had come not to kill us but only to rob us. Every one of us had to step up to him and show what he had. Working quickly, the shaulis stowed away everything that was not well hidden: money, watches, jewelry. No doubt he was in a hurry to get to other cars. After a while, the train moved on.
“Let’s Get Out of Here!” I tried to talk to some of the young people. “Let’s get out of here! Let’s get out through the windows!” But many of them said, “It’s no good! If we jump, we’ll get killed anyway.” But two people jumped down just the same. The Germans noticed and stopped the train to shoot after them. I don’t know what became of these two. I had given up the idea of jumping and got back down on the floor, together with the others.
The train stopped at some little depot. One by one, we dropped off to sleep, and we slept for a few hours. At about 5 a.m., we saw many other transports of Jews passing by our window.
Things got very bad in the cars. “Water!” we shouted through the window to the railroad men; ‘we offered them a lot of money to bring us water. We were willing to pay a lot for a drink of water. It was very bad, but we couldn’t manage to get all the water we needed for all the money we had; 500 to 1000 zlotys were paid for one single portion of water. The railroad men and the shaulises took the money. Those who have not lived through this will not believe what happened then. We were lying one on top of the other, without air. Those who had been able to get some water got no great pleasure from it. One person cried that his father had fainted; another, that his mother had passed out, and a third that his child was unconscious, and so the water was divided into such small portions that no one got much benefit from it, even though under such circumstances people ordinarily are quite selfish. Various important people, professors and doctors, were riding in our car. They took off their shirts and lay on the floor, gasping. “A little water for the doctor, he’s fainting!” someone cried out. I didn’t know the names of these people. I paid 500 zlotys, over half the cash I possessed, for a cupful of water (about half a pint.) As I started to drink my water, a woman came up to me and said that her child had fainted. I was in the middle of drinking and simply couldn’t tear the cup away from my lips. Then the woman sank her teeth into my hand with all her might, to get me to stop drinking and leave her some of my water. I wouldn’t have minded being bitten again, just as long as I could have more water. But I left over some of the water in the cup and saw that the child got to drink it.
Things got worse in the boxcars from minute to minute. It was only about 7 a.m., but the sun was already hot and the temperature kept climbing. All the men had taken off their shirts and were lying half-naked, clad only in their pants or underpants. Some of the women, too, had thrown off their clothes and were lying in their underwear. People lay on the floor groaning, tossing from one side to another, twisting their heads and their whole bodies, this way and that, gasping for air. Others lay quietly, resigned, semiconscious, no longer able to move. We were willing to pay the shaulises anything they wanted for a little water.
A little later, at about 10 a.m., we could see through the window the German who was in command. One of us asked him through the window to give orders that we should get some water. The German replied that we should be patient, because in an hour’s time we would arrive at our destination, Camp Treblinka, where everyone would get water. He also told us to be calm. In Treblinka, we would be divided into groups and, put to work. But our train did not move again until 4 p.m.
While the German officer had been speaking, everyone had been satisfied. The Jew at the window who had been talking with the German calmed us down and repeated what the officer had told him: that we wouldn’t have to be afraid because everybody would be put to work at his own occupation. Some of the people applauded, bravo! Others tried to figure out what kind of work they would be given. This one was a ditchdigger, another a carpenter, a third, a locksmith. Everybody in the car was now in a good mood.
At 4 p.m., the train began to move again. We moved a short distance; then we saw the Treblinka station. As the train moved on, we saw whole mountains of smattes.5 The Jew at the window who was the first to see the rags again tried to calm the crowd, saying that this would be our work. We would be put to work sorting out these rags. Others wanted to know where the rags could have come from. They were told that in Maidanek near Lublin and in other camps the Jews had been given paper clothing and that the clothing with which they had come had been gathered together, sorted out, and forwarded to Germany to be reconditioned. Others volunteered that in Warsaw there was also a special shop at 52 Nowolipki Street, known as Hoffmann’s shop, where old clothes were reconditioned. Minutes before the train pulled into Treblinka station, we saw Jews being taken to work. This, too, was reported to the others, and everybody was glad. Everybody was told that Jews were being taken to work, led by a Ukrainian.
After passing the Treblinka station, the train went on a few hundred meters to the camp. In the camp there was a platform to which the train ran through a separate gate, guarded by a Ukrainian. He opened the gate for us. After the train had entered, the gate was closed again. As I was later able to note, this gate was made of wooden slats, interwoven with barbed wire, camouflaged by green branches.
When the train stopped, the doors of all the cars were suddenly flung open. We were now on the grounds of the charnel house that is Treblinka.
The doors of the cars were opened by Ukrainians. There were also German SS men, standing around with whips in their hands. Many of the people in the car were still lying on the floor, unconscious; some of them were probably no longer alive. We had been on the way for about 20 hours. If the trip had gone on for another half day, the number of dead would have been a great deal larger. We would have perished from heat and lack of air. As I later learned, when some of the transports arrived at Treblinka and were unloaded, it was found that all the passengers were dead.
When the doors of our car were opened, some of the people who had been lying half-naked tried to put on some clothing. But not all of them were given a chance to throw on their clothes. At the command of the SS men, Ukrainians jumped onto the cars and used their whips to drive the crowd out of the boxcars as quickly as possible.
“So Many Clothes! But Where Are the People?” We left the cars tired and exhausted. After traveling for so many hours in semidarkness, we were momentarily blinded by the sun. It was 5 p.m., but the day’s heat was at full strength. As we looked around, we saw countless piles of rags. The sight stabbed at our hearts. So many clothes! But where were the people? We began to recall stories we had heard of Lublin, Kolo, Turek and we said to each other, “Jews, this is no good! They’ve got us!” They drove us faster, faster. Through another exit, guarded by a Ukrainian, we left the platform area and entered a fenced-off area where two barracks were located.
One of the Germans rapped out a command: “Women and children to the left! Men to the right!” A little later, two Jews were stationed there as interpreters to show the crowd where to go. We men were told to sit down outside along the length of the barrack on the right. The women all went into the barrack on the left and, as we later learned, they were told at once to strip naked and were driven out of the barrack through another door. From there, they entered a narrow path lined on either side with barbed wire. This path led through a small grove to the building that housed the gas chamber. Only a few minutes later we could hear their terrible screams, but we could not see anything, because the trees of the grove blocked our view.
Beneath Machine Gun Barrels. As we sat there, tired and resigned-some of us lying stretched out on the sand–we could see a heavy machine gun being set up on the roof of the barrack on the left side, with three Ukrainian servicemen stretched out around it. We figured that any minute they would turn the machine gun on us and kill us all. This fear put some new life into me, but then I again felt the terrible thirst which had been torturing me for so many hours. The Ukrainians on the barrack roof had opened an umbrella over their heads to shield them from the sun. My sole thought at that moment was, “A cup of water! just one more cup of water before I die!”
Some of the people I had known from the factory were sitting near to me. Our bookkeeper K., our warehouseman D., and several other young people. “It’s no good,” they said. “They’re going to shoot us! Let’s try to get out of here!” We all thought that there was an open field beyond the fence which surrounded both barracks. We didn’t know then that a second fence lay further on. When I had revived a little, I followed some of the others through an open door to the barrack on the right. I planned to break down one of the boards in the wall and to run away. But when we got into the barrack, we were overcome by stark depression. There were many dead bodies lying in the barrack, and we could see that they had all been shot. Through a chink in the barrack’s wall we could see a Ukrainian guard on the other side, holding a gun. There was nothing we could do. I went back outside.
As I later learned, the corpses were those of a transport of Jews from Kielce who had arrived in Treblinka that morning. Among them were a mother and her son. When it came time to separate them–women to the left and men to the right–the son wanted to say a last good-bye to his mother. When they tried to drive him away, he took out a pocket-knife and stuck it into the Ukrainian. As a punishment, they spent all that day shooting all the Jews from Kielce who were at the camp.
I sat down outside once more. After a while I noticed a Jew with a red triangular patch on his knee, driving a horse and wagon on the other side of the fence. I signaled to him and asked him with my eyes: “What will they do with us?” He answered with a wave of his hand: “Scrap!”
The area between the barracks where we were sitting was guarded on all sides. Leaning against a telephone pole stood two large signs, which I now read for the first time.
“Attention, people from Warsaw!” the signs read in huge letters, followed by detailed instructions for people who supposedly had arrived at a regular labor camp. They were to hand in their clothes to be deloused and disinfected. Our money and our other belongings would be returned to us later on ...
A little later, an SS man came over to us and delivered a speech. He spoke very cold-bloodedly but here and there his oration was interspersed with humor. “Have no fear!” he repeated every minute, “Nothing will happen to you. The dead bodies lying here,” he told us, “arrived in that condition. They died in the train from suffocation. It’s nobody’s fault. Everyone will be treated well here. Everyone will be employed at his own trade or occupation, tailors in the tailor workshops; cabinetmakers in the furniture shop, shoemakers as shoemakers. Everyone will get work and bread.” Some people began to call off their occupations. When they went up to the German, he laughed at them in a friendly way, felt their muscles and patted them on the back. “Ja, ja, that’s good! You’re strong, that’s what we need.” Some people began to applaud the German. Most of the Jews who heard this sweet talk did indeed feel better and started to believe that they really were in a labor camp. “Sit quietly, in order”-the German gently urged them and people sat up straight in their places, like children in a classroom.
Selection For Work. Afterwards, a second SS man appeared, with a rifle on his shoulder, and selected ten men from one group. He didn’t want the older ones, only younger people. He lined them up in a double column and marched them away. Meanwhile, I hung back. I didn’t push forward to be taken, because I was afraid; it just might be that these people would be taken away and shot. Later on, I learned that the ten had been put to work clearing away rags from the railroad tracks.
Still later, a Ukrainian came over and took five more men away to work. At the time I didn’t know for what purpose they were being taken. But I started to think of joining those who were going off to work. Another Ukrainian, who came a little later, spoke to us in Russian. I didn’t understand what he was saying; I thought that he was going to take us for work. He took only three people and said that when these would return, he would take others in their place. It turned out that he took us to the outhouse behind the barrack and since I had come along by mistake, he dubbed me “The Speculator.” He was not the worst in that bunch. A little later, the SS man who had taken the ten men was back. This time he wanted 60 men, and I was one of them.
The SS man lined us up in double columns, and took us out of the fenced-off area between the two barracks into the wider yard through which we had passed when we were first unloaded from the train. The SS man led us to the right behind the narrower enclosure and from there into a large, open area.
Ten Thousand Corpses In One Place. Here we beheld a horrible sight. Countless dead bodies lay there, piled upon each other. I think that perhaps 10,000 bodies were there. A terrible stench hovered in the air. Most of the bodies had horribly bloated bellies; they were covered with brown and black spots, swollen and the surfaces of their skin already crawling with worms.
The lips of most of the dead were strangely twisted and the tips of their tongues could be seen protruding between the swollen lips.
The mouths resembled those of dead fish. I later learned that most of these people had died of suffocation in the boxcar. Their mouths had remained open as if they were still struggling for a little air. Many of the dead still had their eyes open.
We, the new arrivals, were terror-stricken. We looked at each other to confirm that what we were seeing was real. But we were afraid to look around too much, because the guards could start shooting any minute. I still did not want to believe my eyes. I still thought that it was just a dream.
The Corpse Processing Plant at Work. Five hundred meters farther away, a machine was at work digging ditches. This machine, together with its motor, was as big as a railroad car. Its mechanical shovels were digging up piles of dirt. The machine loaded the dirt into little wagons, which turned away and dumped it onto the side. Things were humming out there on that big field. Many Jews had already been working there earlier. They were dragging corpses into the ditches which had been dug for them by the machine. We could also see Jews pushing carts piled with bodies toward the big ditches at the edge of the field.
There it was again, that stench. They were all running, pursued by Germans, Ukrainians, and even Jewish group leaders called kapos (Kameraden-Polizei), who kept driving them on: “Faster! Faster!” All the while, we could hear the crack of pistols and rifles and the whine of bullets. But there were no cries or groans from those who were shot because the Germans shot them from the back in the neck. In that way, the person drops dead quick as lightning and never even has a chance to make his voice heard one last time.
There were various kinds of ditches in that place. At a distance, running parallel with the outermost camp fence, there were three giant mass graves, in which the dead were arranged in layers. Closer to the barracks, a somewhat smaller ditch had been dug. This was where our 60 men were put to work. A group of workers walked around the area, dusting the corpses with chlorine powder, which they dipped from big barrels with their buckets. [... ]
I should point out here that none of the gassing victims were buried in this area; only those who had died in the transports or who had been shot on arrival at the camp, before entering the “showers.”
Our team of 60 men was divided into three groups. Since I knew German, I became the leader of my group, and in fact soon had to shout at my people and chase them. If I had not done so, I could have been whipped or shot at any time.
The Young Man With the Eyeglasses and the SS Man. The SS man who had brought us here had a chat with me. I had asked him what the work would be like and he calmly and patiently answered all my questions. “Whoever wants to work,” he said, “will get work from us. As for the rest, when you’ve been here a while you’ll be able to figure out everything for yourself.” While he was talking to me, he noticed a young man from Warsaw, wearing glasses, who was part of my group. He was standing in the ditch, receiving the bodies which others had been dragging over. It seemed to the German that he was not working fast enough.
“Halt! Turn around!” the SS man ordered the young man. He took his rifle from his shoulder and before the young man could have figured out what was expected from him, he lay dead among the bodies in the ditch. They dragged him farther along and soon additional corpses were piled on top of him.
The German returned the rifle to his shoulder and resumed our conversation, as if nothing had happened.
A chill seized my heart. A few minutes later, when the German had gone away, something similar happened to another Jew. This man was shot by a Ukrainian. The Ukrainian had ordered him searched and had taken a packet of money from his pocket. Before long, our group was missing ten men and we heard continual shooting all around.
A Nap Among the Rags. I could see at every turn that things were bad. I was dead tired and thirsty, barely able to remain on my feet. I was very unhappy about the spot I was in. A little later, about 8 p.m., when it had become darker, I took advantage of the darkness to move closer to the railroad tracks where I had seen the piles of clothing. I no longer cared. I burrowed my whole body and my face into the rags. Unconscious of time and place, I fell asleep almost at once.
When I woke up, it was already completely dark. By the light of electric lamps hanging suspended from poles, I could see a group of Jews not far from me, with red patches on their knees. I recognized one of them who had been a prisoner of war together with me. I went over to him and asked him to do me a favor and let me join his group. He replied that this could be done. While I was talking to this young man, a new transport rolled into the camp. We all went out to meet the boxcars. My world turned black as I looked into the cars. I was stunned by what I saw there. The cars contained only corpses. They had all suffocated on the journey from lack of air. The cars were jam-packed and the corpses lay piled one on top of the other. It is not possible to imagine the impact of the sight of these cars full of dead bodies. I inquired where the transport had come from and I found out that it had come from Międzyrzec (Mezrich). About 6,000 souls, men, women and children. A very few individuals were not dead; they had only fainted. They could have been saved with a little bit of water. But nobody had any water for them. We ourselves had not yet received any water since our arrival in Treblinka.
We were ordered to go over and help unload the dead. The work was very hard and the SS men, as was their custom, kept urging us on with their whips and guns: “Faster! faster!”
We simply had no place to lay out the bodies. The giant piles of clothing were right next to the railroad tracks; beneath them, there were still many unburied bodies left over from before. Meanwhile, we dumped the bodies next to the tracks and arranged them in layers, one on top of the other. From time to time, we heard groans. The sounds came from those who had merely fainted and were now regaining consciousness. These unfortunates were begging with faint voices for a little water, but we were unable to revive them because we ourselves were on the verge of passing out from thirst. We could only separate the ones still alive and put them down a little to the side, near the rags. The Germans didn’t notice it because it was so dark.
Among the living I also found a little child, about a year or a year and a half old. The child had regained consciousness and was crying at the top of its voice. I put it down, too, apart from the others, next to the pile of rags. By the next morning the child was dead and it was thrown into the ditch.
We went on working like this until about 2 a.m. When we went up to the SS man and asked for water, he promised us that we would all get water after we had finished up our work. But first we would have to clean out the cars.
After we got through cleaning the cars, we were ordered to move to one side and line up in double columns. The locomotive whistled and the train slowly pulled out of the camp station. A Ukrainian and an SS man stationed themselves at either side of the exit gate and shone flashlights under the wheels to see whether anyone was hiding beneath the cars. A few cars pulled out in good order. But when he got to the third or fourth car, the German shouted, “Halt!” He had discovered two boys lying hunched up between the wheels. One of them got a bullet even before he could crawl out from under the car. The other was able to jump out and started running quick as lightning, trying to lose himself in the crowd of Jews. But the SS man stopped him right away. The young man immediately took his papers out of his pocket and tried to prove that he was a worker. He shouted and pleaded, but this did not impress the German. He started hitting him over the head as hard as he could with his rubber truncheon, until the boy collapsed. Then the Ukrainian came up, turned his rifle upside down and with great force, as if chopping wood, hit his victim over the head with the rifle butt. Finally, they put a bullet in him. Then, at last, they left him alone. The train rolled out.
Now the SS man turned his attention to us. Standing as we were in double columns, he ordered us to sit down in the same order on the ground and took with him one of us to bring water. Coming back with a bucket of water, the German gave each of us a cupful and we drank it greedily. I literally didn’t know how to start drinking. I held the cup in front of me with both hands and thought that this water was the most precious thing on earth.
After we had drunk our water, the German led us over to the area between the two barracks and ordered us to sit down near the wall of the barrack at the left. The men from my transport were still sitting in front of the barrack on the right. Some of them wanted to slide over to our group, which had just returned from work, but the SS man would not let them do it.
How We Were Put to Bed. The German went away to ask the commandant what to do with us. When he came back he led us into the barracks on the right side, which was divided down the middle by a wall. He let us into the smaller half and told us to go to sleep. Other Jews were already asleep in the barrack; among them were some whom we had seen at work earlier. We understood that we, too, had gained a temporary reprieve. The rest of the men in our transport were taken to the “showers” that very night.
Back to the Corpses. The next morning we were put to work on the corpses again. Each one of us received one cup of water for breakfast. We were not given any bread. None of us had his belongings with him. However, we could take as much as we wanted of the food we found in packages that the victims had thrown away. Packages, bundles, valises and knapsacks were scattered at every turn. Some of these packages contained the finest foods, but none of us felt like eating just then; all we wanted was water.
The first task assigned to my group (20 people) was to clear away the murdered Jews from Kielce, who were still lying in our barrack on the other side of the partition, behind which we had spent the night.
Teams of four men each picked up one corpse after another, carried the bodies out to the other side of the fence and laid them out next to the bodies which we had unloaded from the Międzyrzec transport. The Międzyrzec and Kielce corpses could have exchanged greetings. Here, in the area next to the railroad tracks, a second group was at work, loading the bodies onto carts and pushing the carts to the big mass graves which I had seen the day before, running alongside the outermost fence of the camp. The people from the barrack who had been gunned down and those who had suffocated inside the boxcars were buried fully clothed. Apparently, it was considered too much trouble to undress Jews who were already dead. As a rule, the Germans tried as far as possible to see to it that the bodies of Jews were brought in naked, and if someone dropped dead with his clothes on, the Germans magnanimously forwent the Werterfassung. This may not have been in accordance with the regulations, but simply the result of daily practice, due to lack of time. At this point we weren’t even ordered to search their pockets for money or jewelry. At about 12 noon we were through clearing out the barrack, and were assigned to other work.
The 35 Corpses in the Well. Next to the watchtower in our fence there was a well. Many corpses had accumulated in this well, and we had to pull them out that day. A Pole from Penal Camp Treblinka No. 1 6 was working with us. He stepped into a bucket which was attached to the well’s chain, and we lowered him into the well. He would tie the corpses to the bucket, one by one, and we would turn the crank and pull the bodies up. I counted a total of 35 corpses. I had no way of knowing who the people were and how they had gotten into the well. Some of them were tied with ropes. Perhaps they had tried to get down into the well for a drink of water–who could tell? Others said that they might have taken their own lives.
While I was working at the well, I saw a group of workers approaching. They had with them a bucket filled with water. Hoping to get a chance for a drink of water, I tried to join them, but the German who was guarding our group spotted me and hit me across the face with his rubber truncheon. So I had to go back.
The Personal Effects of the Victims. When we were through with the bodies in the well, we were taken to clear away the things in the left-hand barracks, where the people undressed before entering the gas chamber. Here, piled up in huge mounds, were the garments, underwear, shoes and all sorts of other items left by the men, women and children who had undressed there the day before. Various amounts of cash, large and small, were also lying around on the floor. There was Polish money as well as foreign currency, securities and jewelry. It was our job to pick up the rags as they were, and to add them to the piles of clothing near the railroad tracks.
Suddenly, we heard faint moans from beneath a pile of clothes. We discovered several women who had been hiding beneath the rags. They were alive and afraid to emerge into the light of day. When they saw us Jews, they began to whine, “Water, a little water!” But we had no water ourselves and there was nothing we could do for these women. One of the Ukrainians quickly came over and, seeing the women who had survived, he finished them off with a few bullets. We immediately took them away and added them to the other corpses.
In addition to the women whom we found in the barrack, I saw two women lying on the other side of the barracks. They had been killed. They had tried to slip out through the barbed wire fence, thinking, probably, that an open field lay on the other side. One of them had actually pushed through to the other side, but the other had been caught between the wires, and the bullet hit her there. We took these two bodies also and added them to the pile of corpses.
The Roll Call. Thus, at 7 p.m., the work ended on my second day in Treblinka. At 7 o’clock, a roll call was held and an inmate count made. Altogether, there were about 500 of us, and a Jewish commander (kapo) was appointed to take charge of us. He was G. 7 an engineer from Lodz, who was a convert to Christianity. The roll call that day (just as on all the days that followed) lasted about two hours. Throughout that time, we had to stand at attention in our ranks; if we didn’t, we were savagely beaten. Those who for some reason had fallen from grace had to step out of line and had to lie down and receive 25 lashes right there in front of all the others. Nonetheless, some people were so tired that they sat down on the ground, because they could no longer stand up. After the roll call, we went into the barrack and went to sleep.
Camp Routine. The next morning there was another roll call. After we had been counted, a routine was established in which we had regular roll calls three times a day. A regular meal schedule was also established. A field kitchen was set up near the well, where we got a pint of soup three times a day. We received no bread, but we never missed it, because we could take provisions from the packages which new arrivals had brought in with them. We also took cooking ingredients from these packages. The field kitchen was manned by Jews who ladled out the soup.
It was our third day in Treblinka. We badly wanted to wash ourselves, but there could be no question of using water for that purpose. All the time I was there, a drink of water was the most important thing there could be. So we used to wash ourselves only with the cologne and perfume which we found in the knapsacks.
After roll call, we were taken out to work in the big field with the mass graves, where I had worked on the first day. This time I had to carry the bodies out to the main ditches near the fence.
The Big Ditches. These ditches were 60 or 70 meters long. They were also very deep, but I could not tell how deep they were because the ditches to which we had been assigned were already filled with many layers of corpses. The one thing I found surprising was that, deep though these ditches were, no water got to the corpses. The graves remained open through the night and the next day more bodies were piled into them. While I was in Treblinka, only the small ditch to the left, where I had worked on the first day, was closed.
By the time we came out there in the morning, the excavator was already in operation, and digging out new giant graves. A few days later, the excavation was stopped and a new system was instituted. They started burning the dead in the graves and we used to dump into the graves old clothes, valises, and trash which we had picked up in the yard. These articles were set on fire and kept on burning day and night, filling the camp with billows of smoke and the odor of burning flesh. . . .
Why the Transports Stopped Coming. Many of the dead bodies I had seen a few days earlier were still lying in the yard and near the railroad tracks. Perhaps it was due to the accumulation of so many unburied bodies that no new transports arrived in Treblinka between August 25 and September 2 or 3, 1942. The remains of the earlier transports had to be cleared away first.
Already on the day of my arrival, I had seen that many of the corpses were decomposing, crawling with worms, and half-rotted. Today the scene was even more horrible and repulsive. Many of the bodies were already disintegrating and when we pulled them from the heaps where they had lain piled atop one another, their limbs fell off. Mostly, this happened with the corpses of young children, perhaps because their flesh was more delicate.
Nevertheless, there was no particular lack of “shirkers” who looked precisely for these little corpses, because they were easier to carry. Others could be seen picking up heads, entrails, hands and feet that had fallen from the corpses. Not everyone had the physical strength to carry the very heavy, monstrously bloated corpses of those who had died of suffocation in the boxcars.
“The Doll.” Suddenly I felt as if an electric current were passing through the place. Even the biggest loafers and shirkers threw themselves into their work with great haste. The word had flashed through the crowd: “It’s the Doll! The Doll is coming!”
A young SS man with the rank of Oberscharführer appeared on the scene. He was extraordinarily handsome. I quickly learned that this was the worst sadist in Treblinka. The commandant of Treblinka was a captain; he was in command of the camp. But it was the Oberscharführer who was really in charge of the murder operations. He was nicknamed Lalka, [Polish for] “The Doll.” The Jews had given him that nickname because of his handsome face. It was the habit of this murderer to leave several people behind him every time he took a stroll through the camp. He used to stand off at a distance and observe a group of workers; if by some chance somebody was not working fast enough, or simply happened not to please him, he would come over and beat him with the whip, which he always carried with him, until the blood flowed. Then he would order him to strip naked and put a bullet in his neck. Sometimes, for variety’s sake, he would have an Ukrainian do the shooting. On this occasion, the murderer finished off several Jews and then coolly walked away.
We were working very hard. The heat was great almost all the time that I was in Treblinka. The terrible stench of the dead bodies settled in our nostrils. We were sick at heart, sweat poured from our bodies without cease, and we were plagued by thirst. We could not get enough water to quench our thirst. When a bucket of water did materialize there was such pushing and shoving that on more than one occasion the bucket was overturned and then nobody had any water. On such occasions one of the Ukrainians would come over, drive away the crowd with his rifle butt, and hand out the water himself. We did not drink our water; we sipped it as one would the costliest beverage. Not once in the three weeks that I was in Treblinka did I ever really manage to quench my thirst. Even now, I can still feel this craving for water in my gut. Whenever I start to drink a glass of cold water nowadays, I savor it doubly, and at the same time I can feel my fingers tremble; that’s how important this drink has become to me.
Aside from the thirst and the backbreaking toil, we were plagued by a terrible fear. We could never have pictured the things we now experienced in the flesh. They were worse than even the most lurid horror stories from our childhood about evil witches, robbers, and seven-headed vipers who dragged off people to their caves to suffocate among the corpses and bones of earlier victims.
There were corpses all over the place, corpses by the tens, hundreds, and thousands. Corpses of men, women and children of all ages, in various postures and facial expressions, as if they had been frozen immediately after they had taken their last breath. Heaven, earth, and corpses! A gigantic enterprise which manufactured corpses. Only a German could get accustomed to a place like that. I could never get used to the sight of the dead.
We worked on the field of corpses until 7 o’clock at night. Tired, thirsty, broken in body and soul, we returned to rest in the barrack, where the roll call and the associated beatings took place. There we lay down to sleep. We had lived through a third day in the killing center of Treblinka.
The days that followed passed a little more quickly and began to fall into a pattern.
“The Doll” Has His Fun. On the fourth day, as I was at work at the graves with my group, the following incident took place involving several young fellows. They had not been working very fast. Suddenly, “The Doll” appeared on the scene, marched them to the open ditch and ordered them to undress. In no time at all, they too, were lying naked and dead with the other corpses.
I learned that before the war Lalka had been a prizefighter.8 Apparently, he also regarded shooting Jews as a kind of sport. Frequently he would appear on the field in excellent spirits. He would come striding up, with light, springy steps, and give a Jew a few punches from behind with his fists. If the Jew fell down, he would give him a playful kick, like a football player. Then, continuing on his way, he would finish him off, either by himself or through one of the Ukrainians, with a bullet in the neck.
How to Attract the Attention of a German. The most dangerous thing of all was to do anything that might attract the attention of a German. A certain elderly doctor from Warsaw had his hand bandaged. That was sufficient reason to order him to undress and lay him out dead in the ditch ... An invalid with an injured leg would sit while he was sorting out rags. As soon as Lalka saw this, he was a dead man in the wink of an eye. A Jew who worked in the field kitchen scalded himself. So he got a bullet in the neck because he was now unfit for work. As a result, those who got sick, hurt, or bruised kept it to themselves like the most dangerous secret, so that the Germans would not find out. A boy who slept next to me in the barrack had swollen legs and went to the greatest exertions that this should not be noticed. But he could not keep his legs covered up all the time, and he was soon “cured” with a bullet in the neck.
Naturally, the decimation of the people who had been working side by side with me left me stunned. Here, a person had been standing next to me, we had been straining side by side, dragging the bodies into the graves, and all of a sudden he is lying there, with glassy eyes, naked and dead in a grave where in about a minute’s time he will vanish from sight because other bodies will be lying on top of him.
“I Must Get out of Here.” Whenever I took a final glance at someone who had been killed I would think that the same fate awaited me, if not today, then tomorrow. I thought of my family across the ocean who would never even find out where my remains would be. Young though I was, I would soon lie dead and rot or be cremated, and those who were still alive would be repelled by the sight of my body, just as I was repelled when I had to wrap my arms around the dead bodies of others.
I greatly regretted that I had not looked for ways to steal across borders and join my family while I still had been free and able to do so. And as I gazed at the bodies in the open graves I began to think more and more intensely about ways to get out of this place. When I got back to other places in the camp, I would cool off and become resigned. Then I would see only the difficulties and the impossibility of escaping from that hell. But once I was back in the field of corpses I would always gather new energy to think up a way of escaping. The idea and the will to take to my heels became stronger within me every time.
Selection. At last, the number of bodies in the great field of corpses began to grow smaller and finally the day came when the field had been cleared. What would they do with us now? No new transports were coming in; what kind of work would they give us, then? Frightened, we discussed this among ourselves and our hearts told us that our time was drawing near.
One day, in the afternoon, when we came back to the roll call area between the two barracks, they lined us up in rows of five and we sensed that something was about to happen.
First of all, a group of Ukrainians ran over to search the piles of rags to make sure that no one was hiding out beneath them. They found a few men and stabbed them right then and there with the bayonets which some of the Ukrainians used to carry.
Fifty men from Treblinka Penal Camp No. I used to work with us. They wore red patches. The Scharführer ordered them to fall out and stationed them to one side. Then he started counting out fives. He counted out 50 men at random and sent them over to join the red patches. There were 100 men in all who were marched off to a special barrack. These men were supposed to remain; the others were supposed to go to the “showers.” I was not among the one hundred.
After the roll call, they let us go back to the barrack as usual, but they told us that we would be called that same night and then we would all have to come out. Finally, the Scharführer gave us a speech and took the opportunity to lecture us, saying that we were not a useful element, that we had only ourselves to blame for everything, and so forth. We understood very well what this meant and had no patience to listen to this tripe.
You can imagine the mood in our group after we had been left alone in our barrack.
Was this our last night, or our last hour? We didn’t know, but it was obvious that the end was drawing near.
Different people behaved in different ways. The very young, who probably never had been pious, joined with young Hasidim in reciting the mourners’ Kaddish. There was no lack of moralists who interpreted our present misery as God’s way of punishing the Jewish people for its sins. And as they preached, some people did indeed feel sinful and guilty and they began to beat their breasts and recite the Vidduy [the last confession before death). Others tried to remember some prayer; they swayed and lulled their fears with a tune from the Psalms. Still others simply bawled like children.
“Feh! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! You’re crying like old women!” Those who had a better grip on themselves said things like that to give the others some courage. They even tried to make us see things in a more cheerful light, saying that the situation wasn’t necessarily as bad as all that and that a change could still come.
“If only I could have a drink!” a fat young man whom I knew from Pawia Street cried. Someone else wanted to ease his despair with a cigarette, but it did not occur to anyone to think of ways of saving themselves or of putting up resistance. We were too weakened, too beaten down–and too thirsty.
A Ukrainian Tries to Cheer Us Up. The strangest thing of all was that a Ukrainian was among those who tried to cheer us up. He was on guard duty over the barrack and when he heard the commotion and weeping inside he walked in and spoke to us in Russian, telling us not to take things so hard. Nothing would happen, nothing would be done to us; we would go on working the same as before.
And, wonder of wonders, his prediction came true. A rare miracle occurred. To this day, I don’t know why. Some said that there had been a breakdown in the gas chamber. By morning, no one had come for us, and then we had roll call just as usual. It is true that 80 men had been taken out to be shot, but the remainder, a good few hundred people, were assigned new work.
The Lumpenkommando. Those of us who were left were classified again; some of the carpenters were taken out and sent to the woodworking shop in the German sector of the camp. A group of Jews was assigned to chopping down trees in the woods, another group to repair the road leading into the German camp; the largest group of Jews, including myself, was detailed to sorting out the clothes, and other belongings of those who had perished. Each group had its own designation, which was called out at roll calls. There was a Strassenbaukommando [road construction detail], a Holzfellerkommando [woodcutters’ detail], a Maurerkommando [bricklayer’s detail], a Flaschensortiererkommando [bottle sorting detail]. One of the details, the watchmakers, consisted of only six men, who were responsible for sorting out gold and valuables. The most important and numerous detail was our Lumpenkommando (rag detail), which had the job of sorting and packing clothing and linens. Each of the details had only one wish: that its job should last as long as possible. We persuaded ourselves that in the meantime help would come to us from somewhere–from overseas, or the war might end, or Russian airplanes ... There was no lack of naive people.
Clothes Speak Volumes. Lined up in double columns, we were led away through three gates to the far barracks, which were located in a separate enclosure on the other side of the German camp. These barracks were packed full of rags, which had been lying about unsorted for weeks, or even months. We picked up layer after layer. Apparently, these had been the belongings of the Jews from Warsaw, which had been deposited in layers, according to the various types of people who had been brought, one after the other to Treblinka. First had come the poor, the beggars, the inmates of refugee shelters, and then the better types, with better clothes. At first, we had to handle heavily soiled and lice-infested clothing and underwear. The starving lice crawled all over us from head to toe and there was nothing we could do about it. Some said that we would get typhus; others said, “What’s the difference which way we die?” But when we had gotten through clearing half of a barrack, the stuff got finer and more elegant. We found papers in their pockets, so that-in every instance that seemed interesting to us, we were able to establish the identity of the owner of the clothes. There were things also from German Jews, Jews from Vienna and Berlin, who apparently had been brought to Warsaw prior to the Aktion.
Werterfassung: Sorting and Packing the Personal Effects of the Murdered Jews. But who had the stomach to investigate whose possessions these had been? The work would proceed in the following manner:
We would stand in groups next to piles of personal effects, guarded by a Ukrainian, with an SS man at the head. As usual, we were constantly hurried on as we worked. “Faster! Faster!” They were always in a hurry. The SS man would saunter through our ranks as we stood, bent over our work, and dish out quick blows left and right. Later, the practice was introduced to have the Jewish kapo beat us as much as possible while we worked. If he didn’t proceed with sufficient vigor and wasn’t beating someone new all the time, he himself would get lashes from the SS man. We would empty pockets and knapsacks and sort out the things by categories: linens, clothing, outerwear, and tie them up in separate bundles. The smaller items, too, were carefully sorted: soap separate, matches separate, toothbrushes, lighters, compacts, belts, flashlights, pencils, gold pens, breast pockets, wallets, etc., etc.
The Germans made good use of everything, and if a murdered Jew by some chance had happened to be a famous lawyer or an outstanding medical authority, or had talent and knowledge in some other field, they would inherit from him a finer pen, a nicer shirt, or a platinum watch instead of an ordinary gold one.
Entire luxury boutiques grew up around us as we worked. Everything was packed away in canisters or cases, which we carried over to a central area, where each container was listed, provided with shipping labels, and was expedited to the railroad station for shipment to Germany. It was harder to process the clothes; these had accumulated in such masses that the Germans had to dispense with records and send off this part of the Jewish property without any accounting. It was impossible to speed up the processing of the clothing and as long as I was in Treblinka, I constantly had before my eyes the same mountains of rags, which I had seen when I had first arrived. There was also quite a lot of tea kettles, thermoses, hot-water bottles and especially a plenitude of bottles, all of which we sorted and packed away for shipping. As I have already mentioned, there was a special bottle sorting detail (Flaschensortierkommando) and more than one Jew who happened to break a bottle paid for it with a bullet in the neck.
The six watchmakers and jewelers, who were employed at assessing, sorting, and packing the gold, the watches, the other jewelry and the currency which had been found among the personal effects, were working in a corner of their own. Like all the other work details, they, too, worked under a German supervisor, a portly, somewhat elderly SS man who didn’t treat them badly. When it came time for a selection, he would keep them late at their work and thereby save their lives. Try to figure out a German! Perhaps his motive was to keep his supply of “soft ones”9 rustling. Other German group commanders, too, didn’t like to change their personnel and sometimes would protect their Jews when they learned that a selection was about to take place. I myself experienced this while I was working in the woods.
I should point out here that the selections were an eternal sword hanging over our heads. We would get up every morning before reveille and wash and make ourselves look as youthful and vigorous as possible. Not even in my best days had I shaved so often as I did in Treblinka. Everybody shaved every morning and washed their faces with cologne taken from packages abandoned by the Jewish prisoners. Some even put on powder or rouge. They would pinch their cheeks–so it was told–so that they should have good color. The prize at stake was a few more days, or perhaps even a few more weeks, of life.
The initial, simpler stages of money sorting were assigned to us. Only individual valises or boxes filled with valuables were taken straight to the jewelers. The money we found in pockets or purses was thrown into separate piles. Coins and bills were separated, as were dollars, pounds, Czarist gold rubles, and the “junk,” as we called ordinary Polish currency. Everyone who was taken to the Umchlagplatz, no matter how poor, had taken with him some kind of money for a rainy day, whatever iron reserves he possessed, with which he might be able to save his life. In the very first poster the Germans put up in Warsaw, they did us the favor of announcing that we would be permitted to take our valuables with us ...
We found whole fortunes sewn away in secret pockets, in ladies’ corsets, in jacket linings. Valuables often were given to the women to conceal. They would bake diamonds into bread, or place them into little matchboxes and cover them with matches. The foremen ordered us to search everything for valuables, and our so-called sabotage consisted in not putting too much effort into carrying out these orders. For this reason, plenty of hidden treasures probably remained in the clothing; these may or may not be turned up sometime in the future. In this way, huge fortunes were buried or incinerated together with those Jews who were dumped fully clothed into the special mass graves in the death field.
All over Treblinka one would find scattered bits and pieces of money notes including dollar bills and other foreign currencies. These bills had been torn up and thrown away by Jews who finally understood what kind of place this was. This was their final protest and act of revenge before disappearing forever in the “bathhouse.” ... The bosses of Treblinka didn’t worry too much about trying to prevent our taking some of the gold and valuables for ourselves because they knew that eventually they would be able to get their hands on it–when they would send us naked to our deaths ...
The Millionaires of Treblinka. Some of them enjoyed collecting all sorts of “curios.” They made no effort to hide this from us, but among themselves the Germans were wary of each other. They would come right over to us and take away a nice gold watch, which they would immediately take to one of the six Jewish watchmakers, to put in working order. Or they would pick out a particularly unusual ring or some other item of women’s jewelry, no doubt as gifts for their sweethearts in the Fatherland. All of them–both Germans and Ukrainians–had so much money that they didn’t even bother to touch it. I think that they all became millionaires in Treblinka.
We didn’t bother about such things. There were few among us who even believed they would ever be able to get out. Nevertheless, temptation would come now and then and, without any specific plan, or intent, one or the other of us would hide a few items, and if someone managed to escape from Treblinka these things came in handy, because both Jews and peasants in the Treblinka area would ask huge sums from Treblinka escapees for the least little favor. If someone was noticed hiding something from among the valuables, his neighbor would say to him, “What do you want that for? You’re not going to get out of here alive anyway. The dogcatchers won’t leave any living witnesses.”
But I kept thinking all the time about escaping and every once in a while I used to take some of the money and valuables and bury them in certain places. Either I’ll survive–I thought–and I’ll return here some day and take it out, or if not–at least those fiends will not get their hands on it.
From time to time, as we sorted out the clothing, it would happen that one or the other of us might recognize items that had belonged to one of his relatives or friends. If he looked at the documents found with these items, he would soon see whether his assumption had been correct. A few sighs or, more rarely, a few tears, were the only memorials to those who had perished.
After I had been working a few days at sorting personal effects – no new transports had yet arrived – I was assigned along with 14 other men to clean up the road to the gas chamber, or, as they called it, the “bathhouse.” That area aroused the greatest fear among all of us. But I had never been there before.
The “Trash” on the Last Road. The road leading from the left hand barracks or the roll call area to the building in the middle of the woods was concealed by trees. This was the path upon which hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children ran their last race, a narrow sandy winding path bordered on both sides with a barbed wire fence ...
As we came closer to the path, we saw the “trash” which they wanted us to clean up before new transports arrived. This “trash” consisted of a veritable windfall of banknotes which people had torn up and thrown away before they died. We were given special birch brooms and rakes for the job. With the rakes, we raked up gold coins, jewels and diamonds from the sand. One of us picked up a gold twenty-dollar coin and took it over to the Ukrainian who was standing guard over us, as an inducement to have him get off our backs as we worked.
“What good is this money to me?” answered the Ukrainian “Don’t you know that none of us will get out of here alive, either?” This particular Ukrainian happened to be a fairly decent fellow. He didn’t rush us at our work and didn’t beat us. Only when a German showed up, he would put on an act and shout at us, “Bystro, bystro!” [Russian for “Quick! Quick!”]. We kept busy this way, cleaning up the ground until the evening roll call and bedtime.
I Already Know the Whole Camp. The next morning, 15 men, including myself, were taken out of our group and escorted once again to the gas chamber area. This time we were given a different job; we were ordered to help put up the walls of a new building. Some said that this would be a crematorium for the bodies of those who had been asphyxiated in the gas chamber because burying them took up too much space. I came to a new area with a separate barrack for the workers– a kingdom unto itself. In this way, I got an opportunity to acquaint myself with the most secret and important part of the camp–the part where the mechanical murder factory itself was located, and also the separate field for the dead where those who were murdered there were buried. One after another, I was able to learn about all the parts of the annihilation camp, Treblinka 2.
The area where I had been working on the rags was the center of the Werterfassung, that is, the place where the loot taken from those who had perished was gathered and picked over. Two barracks there were packed with the personal effects of Jews. Later, when some of the items had been sent away so that there was more room, the workers employed in the Werterfassung were moved in also. I only spent one night in the new place, but I’ll get to that later.
Near this area was located the so-called “German camp,” through which our column would march every day on the way to work. There were two long barracks which stood facing each other (see plan). The bedrooms, kitchen and mess hall of the SS men was located in one of the barracks. In the barrack facing it was the commandant’s apartment and the food storehouse, where the Germans kept the best groceries they had found inside the baggage of the Jews. There was no shortage there of wines, sardines, candy and imported delicacies from food packages which Jews used to receive from overseas, and so forth. We too, would find more than one fine snack or drink there. But as time went by, the food supply from the packages began to dwindle, and, because no new transports were coming in, we began to get hungry.
Behind the food storehouse there was a little house where there lived a special category of Jews. These individuals wore yellow patches. They were a few dozen Jews from the neighboring towns, who had been put to work several months earlier building the camp. In recognition of their services, some of them were allowed to remain alive with the special job of waiting on the Germans and Ukrainians who were quartered here. Most of them were artisans in various fields, and they had been joined by some skilled workers from Warsaw with various trades. Together, they groomed, shaved, barbered, dressed and shod the gang of murderers. Several girls were working in the kitchens. They were the only females who walked the earth of Treblinka for more than 24 hours. Those same barracks also housed the workshop for the Jewish artisans. The yellow patches–they can really be called the yellow survival badge–were worn by the Jews on their right knee. As I have already mentioned, there was one other class of Jews in the camp with a longer life span. These were the privileged characters from the Treblinka No. I penal camp; they wore a red patch on their knee as their own badge of survival.
The Gas Chambers. By that time I had already become acquainted with four district parts of the camp, including the big, five-sided field of corpses, which was fenced off next to the railroad tracks, and the roll call square between the two barracks. But I had not yet become acquainted with the most terrible of all the parts of the camp-the gas chambers. That day, I was to come quite close to this, the fifth and last part of the camp. I have forgotten to mention that there were towers at all four corners of the camp, each of them three stories high, in which Ukrainian guards constantly paced back and forth. These were the watchtowers which served as observation posts to make sure that no one could run away from the camp. At the top levels of the watchtowers, there were machine guns, searchlights which sent out broad beacons every few minutes to every part of the camp, making the night as bright as midday. Only on nights when Warsaw was bombed did the searchlights remain dark.
Most of the buildings in the camp were made of wood. The gas chamber and the new building–which was in the process of being built at the time and to which we were assigned as construction helpers-were made of brick.
We were put to work slaking lime in the ditches which had been dug. Barrels of water, drawn from a special well, were standing nearby. It was from these barrels that, for the only time while I was in Treblinka, I was able to satisfy my thirst a little more. But it did not do me any good. just like others who finally got a chance to grab a little more water, I was seized by diarrhea that same day. It was very debilitating.
Aside from that little bit of water, the workers were no better off in this area than elsewhere in the camp. On the contrary, here in the “Death Camp,” as that place was known, the treatment the workers received was even harsher, if that was possible.
Toward noon, when the sun was burning at its strongest, I witnessed a scene which had a most horrible impact on me.
On my way back from the kitchen, I happened to pass by the barrack which housed those who were regularly employed in that area. In general, these people had no contact with the workers in the rest of the camp. There, I came upon three Jews lying on the ground. I didn’t know how they got there. Perhaps they hadn’t been able to make themselves go on working, or perhaps they had collapsed from exhaustion, and wanted to rest a little, and had been caught by an SS man. Now that sadist was standing over them with a thick whip in his hand, belaboring one of them. The man was lying naked and totally unconscious. But the German still refused to leave him alone and kept whipping him with all his might on his naked belly ... The others, it seems, had already received their share, since they were lying there bloody and unconscious. As I looked at this scene, I thought to myself that compared to this, the place where I had worked before had been like gold, and I resolved to get out of here no matter what the consequences and go back to the old place.
But the longish, not too large brick building standing in the middle of the “Death Camp” had a strange fascination for me: this was the gas chamber. Before I left the area, I felt I had to obtain a glimpse of this, the most terrible part of the camp where the sinister crime was perpetrated on the Jews.
I had already come quite close to it several times, when I and others had been carrying water for the lime and clay from the well which stood right next to the building. But it had not occurred to me to leave my group and move a little closer to see. Only as we were returning from our midday meal and our column halted for a while, did I sneak away from them and move toward the open door of the gas chamber.
I think I have already noted that this building was surrounded by a wooded area. Now I noticed that, spread over the flat roof of the building, there was a green wire net whose edges extended slightly beyond the building’s walls. This may have been for protection against air attacks. Beneath the net, on top of the roof, I could see a tangle of pipes.
The walls of the building were covered with concrete. The gas chamber had not been operating for a week. I was able to look inside through one of the two strong whitewashed iron exits which happened to be open.
I saw before me a room which was not too large. It looked like a regular shower room with all the accoutrements of a public bathhouse. The walls of the room were covered with small, white tiles. It was very fine, clean work. The floor was covered with orange terra cotta tiles. Nickel plated metal faucets were set into the ceiling.
That was all. A comfortable, neat little bathhouse set in the middle of a wooded area. There was nothing more to see. But as one stood in front of the entrance to this “bathhouse” one could see hills of lime, and beneath them the giant, still-open mass graves where tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of “bathers” lay in eternal rest. Later on, I was told that here, too, they had begun to cremate the bodies in the ditches.
The Chest for Gold Teeth. A further technical improvement for destroying the bodies of the dead Jews–and who knows if it was only dead bodies – would no doubt be introduced in the building on whose construction we were working. People said that it would be a crematorium.
Standing next to the “bathhouse” was a large chest. As I later learned, this chest was used for a special kind of Werterfassung. When the machine was in operation and batches of corpses at a time were dragged out from the bathhouse, a Jewish “dentist” would stand there with forceps, examine the mouth of each corpse and extract any gold teeth or platinum caps which he might find there. More than one chestful of gold had been accumulated in this manner. The Germans are good housekeepers.
The Open-Air Concert at the Death Camp. As I stood before the door of the Treblinka “bathhouse,” I made a new discovery. Earlier, it had seemed to me that I heard sounds of music. I had thought it was a radio loudspeaker which the Germans had installed in order not to be isolated, God forbid, from their Fatherland’s Kultur out here in the sticks. I was now to learn that their concern for musical culture went even further. Under a tree, about 40 meters from the bathhouse, not far from the path on which the Jews were driven into the “bath,” there was a small orchestra consisting of three Jews with yellow patches and three Jewish musicians from Stoczek (who were later joined by another, better musician from Warsaw). There they stood, playing their instrumental don’t know why, but I was particularly impressed by a long reed instrument, a sort of fife or flute. In addition, there was a violin and, I believe, a mandolin. The musicians were standing there and raising a ruckus for all they were worth. They were probably playing the latest hits which were popular with the Germans and Ukrainians, for whom they also used to play at shindigs in the guard stations. The Jews would play while the Gentiles danced.
A musical people, these Ukrainians. On the eve of the anniversary of the outbreak of the war–the night between August 31 and September 1–the SS men arranged a musical entertainment for the Jews. The musicians were taken to the roll call square and ordered to play Jewish tunes. Several young Jews were ordered to come forward and start to dance. An elderly Ukrainian corporal directed the show. The Germans thoroughly enjoyed the show; they were clapping and rolling with laughter ...
Later on, when I made more detailed inquiries, I found out that this sort of Jewish open-air concert was held also whenever new transports arrived. No doubt the Jewish tunes merged with the shouts and screams of the Jewish men, women, and children who were being driven into the death bath.
There they would stand and play all the time, the Jewish musicians, near the narrow path along which other Jews ran their last race, opposite the open ditches where tens of thousands of Jews lay in their last sleep. There, they stood and played. They were playing for the right to remain alive a few more weeks.
I returned to my group and continued to work, my mind bent on getting out of the death camp as soon as possible. An opportunity to do this soon materialized. Early one afternoon, I noticed a group of people coming in from the woods, carrying on their shoulders saplings which they had cut down.
These little trees were supposed to be planted in front of the big mass graves on the Death Camp, near the railroad tracks, in order to conceal the graves from the eyes of outsiders. The sadists of Treblinka, with their heavy-handed humor, referred to them as the “kindergarten.” Seeing the people carrying the saplings, I picked up a branch from the ground and yelled, “Hello there!” as if I had lagged behind and was now running to catch up with them.
As I ran, I kept looking behind me to see whether by chance there was a bullet flying after me. But I got out all right and after I had made my way through the fence of the Death Camp I threw away the branch and rejoined my “rag detail,” which happened to be working that day along the railroad tracks preparing the bundles of rags for transportation.
New Transports. Late that afternoon, preparations were begun for the reception of new transports, which were to start arriving again the next day. During the roll call 40 people who could speak German were taken out of line. I, too, reported for duty. We thought we would be assigned as interpreters in the penal camp [Treblinka No. 1]. One of the SS men even gave us a speech with the usual sweet talk, telling us that we were among the chosen few, that nothing would happen to us, and so forth. We had nothing to lose, so we easily let ourselves be gulled into believing that something good was about to happen. We were glad that we were the most fortunate prisoners in the whole camp, because we had hopes of getting out alive. Why, we would be able to leave the camp the very next morning! We listened until the end of the speech and then went to sleep. At roll call the next morning, our group was called out and told to line up separately from the others. “The Doll” then performed a special small-scale selection with us. He asked each of us our names. If the person asked gave his name in a firm, loud voice, that was good. But if, by chance, he hesitated for a second and called out his name in a somewhat less hearty fashion, he was rejected and sent back to the rest of the group. In this way only about 35 remained of the original 40, and now it turned out that we weren’t being sent out anywhere, but that we would remain in camp to help receive and process the new transports. We were given assignments, some to open the boxcars, some to separate the new arrivals–men to the right, women to the left–and so forth. I was assigned to take away the shoes taken off by the new arrivals as they undressed before going to the “showers.”
We expected the new transport from Warsaw to arrive any minute.
New Transports. What would the new transport bring us? Already we had been in Treblinka more than a week, living in terror of the selections all the while. We knew well that the execution of our death sentences had been put off only for a short time. “Perhaps it’ll be our turn today” we would think to ourselves as we got into our clothes in the morning. And we groomed ourselves and shaved as thoroughly as we could in order to look sufficiently young and vigorous to pass the selection.
After roll call, our group of 35 men was placed in our new work stations, ready to meet the incoming transport. In the meantime, the rest of the workers had gone back to their old jobs.
About 8 a.m., the train arrived from Warsaw. We saw the camp gates open and close, and in a minute or so the sinister drama was played out with gusto.
All the doors of the cars were thrown open at once. The Ukrainians and SS men leaped into action with their whips and the hot pursuit of the new arrivals was under way. Whoever had the strength to do so raced out of the dark cars into the bright light of the day. The people felt like stretching their legs, restoring circulation to limbs that had gone to sleep from sitting or lying down so long in cramped positions, but this was not the place where they would be allowed to recover from the ordeal they had endured. “Faster! Faster!” the tormentors shouted. We, the “old-timers,” who had gone through the death gauntlet only a week earlier, looked into the frightened faces of the Jews and understood their feelings.
As they ran past, they tried to communicate with us. “What’s going to happen to us? What should we do? Tell us, Jews, what should we do?” Some of them recognized among us relatives or neighbors who waved or gestured to them, trying to make them understand that it was impossible to talk now because the Germans were watching. Some tried to signal the newcomers to mingle with us, the workers. A few young people did indeed try to get lost in our crowd of “old-timers,” acting as if they were helping receive the new transport. In this way they saved themselves for the time being. But the question was, for how long?
This time, the leader of the killers, the commandant of Treblinka, had also turned out to welcome the new transport. He was a captain, 50 years old, stout and of medium height. He had puffed up red cheeks, and a black mustache; he was the very image of the active soldier. He was always full of anger; it is hard to tell whether it was only towards Jews. He used to carry a rubber truncheon in his hand, and he never failed to vent his anger when he passed some Jews. “Idiots!” was his favorite term of insult, and he used to utter it in a squeaking voice. Whenever you heard that squeak, you could be sure that someone had received his portion, because he let out the squeak at the same moment that he started hitting his victim with all the strength and rage of a well-fed man of action. “Verdammtes Volk!” he used to scream, “Verfluchtejudenbande! Verflucht! Gewitter nocheinmal!” After each blow, he would almost bend down to the ground, like a man cutting grain. And again and again he would squeak, “Ihr Idioten! Idio-o-o-ten!!!!”
On that particular day, the captain was dressed all in white–a white uniform and a white cap, and his adjutant, a tall, fair-haired lieutenant of about his age, was wearing a brand-new white jacket. As I looked at them, I thought to myself that they ought to be wearing gloves, too, because hangmen always used to wear white gloves when they performed their duties.
These two fat old Germans always went about together, strolling around the camp and beating up Jews.
This particular day seemed to be for them a sort of holiday. The death carnival had begun again.
Not all the Jews had left the boxcars. Just as in all the other transports, the new arrivals included many who had passed out or died during the journey due to the terrible crowding, filth and lack of air. We had to drag both kinds directly over to the open, always ready, mass graves and throw them in. Frequently those who had only fainted woke up along the way and begged for water and help, but there was nothing we could do for them. The only help we could give them so they wouldn’t be tossed into the grave alive was to call over one of the Ukrainians and ask him to put an end to their misery with a well-aimed bullet.
Now the mob of Jews was standing at the second gate of this hell and they were separated: men to the right, women and children to the left. Families tried to say goodbye to each other, but the tormentors had no time. “Faster! faster!” Wives were torn away from their husbands, children from their fathers, mothers from their sons, and most of them had no chance even for one last hug, look, or kiss. “Faster! faster!”-Because time didn’t stand still, the busy season was underway, and more trains were on their way, waiting their turn ...
The women and children were chased into the barracks on the left to undress. I had been assigned to gather and remove the shoes of those who undressed and I stationed myself at the open side entrance of the barrack.
“Yehudi, What Are They Going To Do With Us?” It is difficult to describe the scene inside the barrack–the confusion of the women, the terror of the children, the tumult, the weeping. I began to think that perhaps it was better that the murder operations at Treblinka were performed with such haste. Perhaps, if the processing of these doomed people, who already sensed the sinister character of this place from whose terrible grip there would be no escape, would have been allowed to proceed at a slower pace, their pain, anxiety and misery would have been even worse. But as things were, the people had no time even to consider what was happening to them, or to catch their breath. But I doubt that the hangmen were motivated by a desire to cut short the pain of the Jews. They proceeded in this manner primarily because they were afraid to have too large masses of Jews assembled at any one time, lest the Jews have a chance to talk, plan or act. The Jews were not to be given a chance to realize in full what was going to be done with them.
It was, therefore, better to confuse and befuddle the new arrivals as much as possible.
As I stood by the open door and watched the wild scene before me, a blond girl as pretty as a blossom came running over to me and asked me in great haste, “Yehudi [Mr. Jew], what are they going to do with us?”
It was hard for me to tell her the truth. I gave a little shrug and tried to answer her with a look, to calm her fears. But my bearing filled the girl with even more terror and she cried out: “So tell me right now, what are they going to do with us? Maybe I can still get out of here!”
I had no choice but to say something, and so I answered her with one brief word. “Scrap!”
The girl left me and started running all over the barrack like a mouse caught in a trap. She was looking for loose boards, doors and windows. Back and forth she ran, until her turn came to hand in her clothes and an SS man began to hit her with his whip so she should strip naked.
The older women were calmer. Some tried to find consolation with God and prepared to die with the name of God on their lips. Others prayed for a miracle, for a last minute rescue, while others had given up all hope. I saw one tall woman, wearing a ritual wig, standing with arms raised like a cantor at his lectern. Behind her, a group of women had gathered, raising their arms and repeating after her, word for word:
“Shema Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu!”10 God, my one and only God!” the woman cried to a Yom Kippur melody, and stretching out her arms as if toward some sort of heaven which Jews never look upon when they say their prayers. “God, You One and Only God, take revenge on our enemies for their crimes! We are going to die to sanctify Your name. Let our sacrifice not be in vain! Avenge our blood and the blood of our children, and let us say, Amen!”
Thus, or approximately thus, did this Jewish woman cry in a loud voice, and the other women repeated it after her. They took a few steps back, as one does on concluding the recitation of the Eighteen Blessings,” and it so happened that the soldiers did not pay any attention to these women until they had fallen silent and had gotten lost in the rest of the crowd.
Some children had come here with their mothers; others had arrived without their mothers, and it’s hard to say which of the two represented the greater tragedy. Mothers had to lead their grown daughters to their death, much as in normal times they would have led them to the marriage canopy, and they sent them off with words of love, as one would bid farewell to someone who had already died. The moans of the Jewish women in the barrack sounded like the moans you get to hear at funerals. Here, the people were the mourners at their own funeral.
‘ja chcę się Pożegnać z tatusiem!” [I want to say good-bye to Daddy!]
a little boy of about eight cried. He had come here with his father, and he didn’t want to undress before saying good-bye to him. The father was standing at the other side of the door and could not go to him anymore. He was being watched by one guard and his son by another. But a miracle happened. A Ukrainian corporal who was on duty in the barrack was somehow moved. He understood the Polish words and he complied with the child’s request. He took the boy outside to his father, who picked him up in his arms, kissed his downy cheeks and then set him back down on the ground. Pacified, the little “delinquent” returned to the barrack with the Ukrainian and got undressed. His last wish had been carried out.
Actually, I did not observe things closely. I had neither the time nor the heart for it; I did not want it to affect me too deeply. Something inside kept telling me, “Spare your nerves! You mustn’t break down!”
I heeded this warning. As I watched the scene in the barrack and heard the words and the cries, I suffered greatly. I saw beautiful children who looked like little angels, young girls in their first bloom, and my heart almost burst with pain and anger at how such beauty could be turned into ashes, but this also taught me one lesson: “Get out, get out of here, so you’ll live to see revenge, to see something else with those eyes which had to look upon scenes like these!”
I took away the women’s shoes, tied them in pairs and put them down outside on a pile, to be carried away to the assembly point.
“Idioten!” I suddenly heard the familiar squeak right next to me and that very minute I felt a sharp pain in my face. At first I thought that one of my eyes had been knocked out. The commandant himself was honoring me with his attentions; he started to belabor my head with his rubber truncheon. My offense was that I had been losing too much time from, my work. I wasn’t supposed to be tying the shoes together; this was the job of the victims themselves, as they got ready for their “showers.” They were supposed to tie their own shoes neatly together and hand them over in perfect order. The women at the barrack door looked on in fear and sorrow as this bastard tortured me, and they quickly started tying their shoes together, just to get rid of the mad German dog.
Someone said very correctly that the Jews were more afraid of the Germans than they were of death. They ran right into the arms of the Angel of Death just so they did not have to look into the faces of any more Germans.
When the captain finally got tired of beating me and, exhausted, left me alone, I had to start shouting at the women to hand me their shoes. A few minutes later, after the captain had rested, he again felt like beating up somebody, and so he started “helping me out” in teaching the women how to hand in their shoes. With the same strength that he had used on me, and with the same squeak, “Idioten!” he burst into the barrack, fell upon the women and children like a hawk upon a chicken coop and started to beat them all mercilessly with his truncheon. There was a lot of pushing as everyone tried to get as far away as possible from the killer with the red cheeks and the black mustache ...
Meanwhile, work went on as usual. Somewhere, deep in the woods, the kettles already had been heated and the pipes filled. The Germans and Ukrainians began to chase the first batch of naked women and children along the path to the “showers.”
Now there was a new outburst of screams and cries. The last chase had begun and instinctively, perhaps like animals in the slaughterhouse, they sensed what was in store for them. But among the women there was also no lack of naive and the credulous creatures who really believed that they were only going to be given a shower, and they took with them a towel and a piece of soap ...
Before the men were taken to the “showers,” they too, were divided into categories. The entire group was inspected and 500 of them were told to move off to the side. The older men were told to move into the barrack which the women had just vacated. They were ordered to undress and to hand over their shoes, and so the whole procedure was set in motion. The only difference was that the men were much calmer than the women, more composed and resigned. If someone wept, he did so quietly, to himself Some of the more religious people recited the Kaddish or the Vidduy [final confession] and told each other that they were dying for Kiddush Hashem.12 When the doors of the barrack were shut behind them, after they had been driven out naked to their last walk, no weeping, no shouts were heard coming from the woods ...
The first transport from Warsaw had already been taken care of, but what was going to happen to us? We had seen how another group of 500 people had been selected ...
Suddenly, a rumor spread that a Jew had told the authorities about the inmates plotting an uprising against the German and Ukrainian personnel at the camp. We understood that there would be real trouble now. And before we knew it we realized that we, the old-timers, were now beyond the barbed wire fence that surrounded the two barracks and the roll call square. It was noon but we had not been given any soup from the field kitchen. Our soup had been given to the newly-selected crew. We all grew tired and weak: how could we be able to save ourselves? There seemed to be no way out.
Goaded on by my constant, stubborn idea that I had to get out of there alive, I began to explore every possibility, determined not to give up hope. First of all, I went over to the Scharführer who was hanging around our area, and told him that I had accidentally been left behind outside the fence and I really belonged to the group that was inside. The answer was a flick of the whip: “Halt die Schnauze, Jude!” [Shut your trap, Jew!]. There was nothing I could do. But a few minutes later, when the Scharführer had wandered off, I tried again. I went over to the Ukrainian guard at the entrance to the enclosure. I picked up a gold twenty-dollar coin from the sand and pressed it into his hand so that he should let me through. “Na chto mnye dyengi? [What do I need money for?]” he growled, but I was in luck anyway. I don’t know whether it was on account of the bribe or not, but he let me through. I went into the area farthest inside and joined the group of workers with red patches who had separate quarters in our barrack. Reluctantly, they allowed me to join them. I found a piece of red rag, cut out a red triangle patch for myself, and acted as though I was doing the same work as they were. I was already glad that I had managed to save myself for the time being.
It wasn’t long before we heard heavy gunfire over to the right, from the big field of mass graves. The shooting continued for about half an hour. We knew very well what it meant. They were finishing off the 500 men from the previous shift. I had been able to slip away from them.
“Was machst du hier, du verfluchter Sauhund? [What are you doing here, you filthy dog?]” I suddenly heard the familiar squeak beside me, and felt his whip coming down on my head. I was still hurting badly from the whipping I had received that morning from the commandant; now this new heavy blow almost knocked me unconscious. But my will, my determination to remain alive, constantly gave me new strength. This was the same Scharführer whom I had previously told that I belonged to the group working inside the fence. He had recognized me and remembered that he had forbidden me to come here. Now I could already feel his paw dragging me away by the collar to be shot.
Mustering my very best German, I answered him. “All I did was join my own group. I’m supposed to be working with these people. just ask the kapo.”
The trick with the kapo worked. A few days earlier, I had had a little chat with the Jewish leader of the group with the red patches. It turned out that, like myself, he had relatives in Mauritius,13 and he knew me.
“Kapo, come over here!” The Scharführer barked at him, without relinquishing his grip on my collar. “Is this man working with you?”
“Jawohl, Herr Scharführer, and he’s a very good worker, too,” the kapo replied. Once again, I was saved.
As we cleaned up the roll call square we were in a deep depression. The new setup wasn’t clear as yet. The new group of workers selected from the Warsaw transport was also in the roll call square, but they hadn’t received any assignments yet. A little later, the lieutenant showed up in the yard, called over the Jewish kapo, and, officially notified him that the 500 people had been shot because they had been plotting a revolt.
Clearly, this notification was no accident. It was only another link in the chain of lies and terror in which the bosses of the camp kept us enmeshed. The fact is that the Germans really were afraid that the Jews might commit some act of revenge or make attempts at self-defense, and so their entire policy was designed to forestall any possible chance of danger to their own people, no matter how remote. That was why they didn’t allow those who had become familiar with the camp to remain alive too long. But at the same time they kept these people captive with false hopes that they would remain alive if only they would do their work, keep quiet and wouldn’t try to plot anything. This strategy did indeed sow defeatism and demoralization among the young workers, who in their desperation might otherwise have been able to unite for some concerted action. Actually, this was just a continuation of the strategy which had been employed during the Aktionen in the larger cities. The people were led by the nose so that each one of them would be fully occupied, with his own problem and cherish the illusion that he could be able to avoid the worst as long as he conformed to each day’s new demands. And, just as in the workshops in Warsaw, everyone saw the specter of a selection before his eyes.
As far as I know, there was no effort at collective action by the Jews in Treblinka.14 There were only some individual attempts, as I will have occasion to tell later on. Perhaps the plotters had been given away by an informer. It was rumored that a young man from the provinces–he was even pointed out to me among the workers–had wanted to get into the good graces of the Germans and had run to them with the tale that the Jews were plotting an uprising. This is the sad truth.
I spent that night in the barrack with the red-patch workers, who occupied a separate section there. Not a trace had remained of my former comrades. They were already sleeping that night on the other side of the wall, on the other side of the fence, in the mass graves. I was to meet only one of them the next day–but what a meeting it was! This was quite a young man, perhaps 17 or 18 years old; I think he hailed from the Kielce district. This is what had happened to him: The execution of the 500 had been begun with 10 men at a time being taken, ordered to strip naked, stationed next to the open ditch and getting a bullet in the neck. After a while, the hangmen saw that this was taking too long; so they finished off the slaughter with the aid of a machine gun. This young man had been part of the first group and it just so happened that in his case the bullet had missed its mark. It had only grazed his cheek. But the young man had enough sense to pretend that he had been shot. He remained lying in the ditch until that evening. He then crawled out, found something to wear among the rags [left there by earlier arrivals] and remained there in the pile of rags until the next morning. That’s where we found him–I, and a young man from the red-patch group. He had developed a fever from his wound, but otherwise he was ready to fight for his life no matter what he felt. As soon as he saw us he started to beg us pitifully for a little water to wash the blood from his cheek so nobody would see he had been hit. His cheek was quite swollen. I can still see his face before me and his plea still rings in my ears. “Have pity on me, dear Jews ... Water ... Some water!”
There could be no question of getting any water. It was impossible to go to the well for water, and we had no cologne or any other liquid on hand. We tried to look through the packages and bags, but before we could find anything there, one of the chief sadists in the camp, the Scharführer whom I had encountered on my first day there, noticed that something unusual was going on. He came over to us, led the youth to the ditch, and ordered him to undress once again. This time the bullet did not miss its mark. . . .
Meanwhile, on that day, the fun really began at the camp. Transport after transport arrived. So as not to have too many people at a time in one place, some of the cars were detained at Małkinia, and whenever one batch had been finished off, the next one was brought on.
I am neither able nor willing to dwell on the horrible scenes I watched. The yellowed faces, the eyes, the bent backs of children who looked like little old people ... I don’t want to dredge up the nightmare. The wound will never heal, anyway ... All I want to tell is how one young girl tried to save herself.
Women were much worse off in Treblinka than men. Some of the men, young people, were allowed to remain alive, and in a few isolated cases even managed to escape from this murder establishment, but I believe that not one woman has survived here for more than one day.
One young girl from Warsaw had a bright idea. She would put on men’s clothes and mingle with the men working here. Somehow, she got hold of a suit and had actually managed to leave the barrack, but the game was over soon. She was found out, beaten, and forced to strip naked once again. And so she vanished along with the others. . . .
I avoided the barrack that day. I was still sick from the blows I had received from the commandant the day before, in the incident with the shoes. I tried to keep away as far as possible from the commotion. I spent my time baling rags; I could not bear to watch all that suffering. I became more determined than ever and strained every nerve to find a way of getting out of there.
That same evening, I had a pleasant meeting–if meeting a friend in Treblinka can be called pleasant. As I stood in the ranks at roll call, I heard a familiar voice behind me whispering. I turned around as soon as I could, and there, to my joy and sorrow, I saw Żelichower, an old acquaintance from my home town, Danzig. He had arrived the day before, had joined the new labor crew, and now he was in the woodcutters’ group which was working in the woods. This group consisted of 30 men. Half of them were cutting down saplings in the woods, and the other half were carrying the saplings to the railroad tracks, where they were used to make a hedge around the barbed wire fence, to camouflage the camp from the eyes of outsiders traveling past. I asked Żelichower what the work in the woods was like, and I learned from him that they were guarded only by a few Ukrainians and one SS man who was not very strict. The only problem was food, because they received nothing except their daily ration of soup, and they couldn’t find anything on their own because, naturally, there were no packages left there by Jewish deportees where additional food could have been found. I gave Żelichower some bread and sugar which I happened to have on me, and we got to talking about how to find a way of getting out of Treblinka. He tried to persuade me to join the workers in the woods; it might be easier to think up something if we were together.
Żelichower told me that Warsaw had been heavily bombed the week before and how weak the German defenses were, and we told each other that deliverance might be closer than we had thought.
I let Żelichower persuade me to go into the woods. But it took a few days before I was able to join his group.
The next day, the following incident occurred: several hundred men from a transport had been selected and sent somewhere outside the camp. As I watched the people being selected, I didn’t know whether this would be good or bad, for us, and so I passed up the opportunity to mingle with them. About an hour later, a horde of tattered, worn-out, starving and beaten young men arrived at the camp on foot. They were immediately taken to the “showers” with the next shift of men. This had been a sort of exchange between Treblinka I and Treblinka 2. The Jews over there also were put through selection. New human material was taken from our group and we received the rejects from the penal camp, who were ready to be turned into “scrap,” as the saying went.
That night, I had another meeting with my friend from Danzig. He could speak German well and from time to time had a chance to talk with one of the SS men. He told me that in his opinion neither the Germans nor the Ukrainians in the woods were as wild and dangerous as those inside the camp. One of the SS men had confided to Żelichower that he was sick and tired of this work and that he would have run away long ago if only he could speak Polish. He would have changed into civilian clothes and fled.
I now wanted to get into the woods as soon as possible. But no opportunity offered itself the next day, either. I was still working among the rags at the very hub of the murder orgy. Dozens of times a day I almost collapsed at the sight of so much human suffering and fear. My heart burned with pain and anger when I saw the confusion, the terror, the disarray of these thousands, the helplessness of weak souls quivering in the clutches of the devil–the women, the little children, men who were as strong as oak trees and yet as helpless as little children. They were not able to use their brains, their experience, their strength. They felt abandoned by God and man alike.
“Verdammtes Volk!” squeaked the commandant and sent his club down on the heads nearest him. Damned people, indeed, pushed down in the caverns of hell, and this was one of the devils, a minion of hell with red cheeks and a black mustache. This SS man had no horns, he merely used fire and brimstone, heat and steam ...
“Away! Away! Let me out of here before I go crazy! I’m getting into a state where I’d be ready to jump into the death cauldron on my own!” I thought. I tried to calm my nerves and to allow myself not to become so upset. Just one more time in my life I wanted to see people with calm faces, with other things to do than running beneath the whip in a death chase. Herds of human beings like herds of oxen, herds of sheep, driven to the slaughter, with the only difference that oxen and sheep don’t know what will happen to them until the last minute, while in the case of humans, even the youngest children understand the situation sooner and can see and sense what’s coming. Even animals sometimes have feelings, and a human being who sees their suffering will sympathize with them. But many, many Germans have hard, cold nerves; they are capable of looking at men just like themselves without noticing or feeling anything. They don’t feel the pain of others; they have never felt pity or sympathy, although the German language has words for such emotions. They are born material for murderers and hangmen.
They are only capable of fear for their own lives. It’s really a pleasure to see how good these hangmen are at looking out for themselves.
Before I left the German murder factory in Treblinka, I was fated to see how much afraid Germans can be, how the murderers of millions can tremble when danger comes too close to their own vile skins. If only I could see many more such pictures, they might blur the memory of other scenes.
Twice in Treblinka did I have occasion to see how frightened Germans can get, but I’ll talk about that later.
Meanwhile, I was still working at sorting clothes. Every day I would march through the German camp to the barracks of the Werterfassung. When transports arrived, they would take us away from the work we were doing and draft us for the extra duty of taking away the clothes of the new arrivals. Something new was now introduced when the men got undressed. To prevent them from getting lost among the workers in the confusion of arrival, the new arrivals were ordered to take off their shoes as soon as they were separated from the women and to stand in line, holding their shoes, tied together, in their hands. Nevertheless, a few young people managed to sneak in among us from each transport and, at roll call a few days later, a curious thing would happen. Five hundred had grown to five hundred fifty-six. When this total was sounded off, it became unnaturally quiet in the square. About a minute later, the Scharführer’s voice was heard: “All new arrivals, fall out! Don’t be afraid; nothing will happen to you.”
We knew from experience that German promises were never to be believed. The Scharführer did not threaten to punish us if his orders were not obeyed, but it would have been impossible to hide because the Germans knew the faces of the previous group of workers and would have recognized the new people anyway. The young men stepped out of our ranks and stood off to one side. We watched these youngsters with sorrow and our hearts froze at the thought of what was about to happen to them. We thought that these people were as good as dead. After all, they had taken unto themselves the right to live a few days longer without permission from the Germans. Every moment we expected to hear the command: “Fall out! Turn around!” and then, bullet after bullet in the back of the head.
But then, wonder of wonders! The Scharführer counted them, 56 individuals, and divided them among the various groups of workers.
“Humph!” he said. “So you want to work? Well, now there’s work for you to do!”
The way he handled the situation was so unexpected that everyone wanted to know who he was.
“What’s his name? What’s his name?” we all asked each other, and eventually we learned the name of this saint among Gentiles: he was Max Bieler [Bielas].”
I made a mental note of this name. I had already observed previously that this particular SS man was not the worst in the lot; that is, he didn’t shoot or beat anyone on his own initiative. He only did what he was ordered to do.
Additional transports from Warsaw brought in some more people that I had known from before. Together with other workers, I stood near the railroad tracks sorting out clothing and looking at the people who were getting up out of the boxcars. In the line which was chased to the entrance of the square between the two barracks, I suddenly recognized a friend of mine from my kibbutz of halutzim16 and I shouted: “Moshe Blanket!”
Pale, worn out, parched from heat and thirst, the young man gave a glance in my direction and joy suddenly flickered in his eyes. He almost leaped up in surprise.
“Ah! Krzepicki is here!” he called out in a voice full of hope.
Alas, he was happy to see me for the wrong reason. Seeing that I had been given work, and aware that I had arrived here from Warsaw a good two weeks earlier [and was still around], he probably thought that this was really just a labor camp. Secondly, he no doubt thought that since I was an old-timer by now, I would be able to help him in some way. But I couldn’t even get closer to him because that would have meant joining the new crowd and going along with them into the “showers.” In the midst of this commotion no argument would have swayed the Germans or Ukrainians. I thought that I would be able to see him once more while they were taking off their shoes. But our group was not drafted for this work today and so I never had a chance to say good-bye to this friend.
Another one of my encounters was with Samuel Kaplan, the well-known youth leader, who had been the head of the halutzim organization in Poland. When I caught sight of him, he was in a very bad way .-He was already barefoot, holding his shoes in his hands not far from the well near the Ukrainian guard. Bent all the way over the well with his head hanging down, with eyes half-closed and lips parted, he looked as if he were trying to breathe in the very smell of the water. It was a picture of horrible thirst and prostration. The Jewish workers were ordered at that time to form a cordon along the length of the disrobing barrack so that men from the new transport would not be able to mingle with the workers who had arrived earlier. I was then in the yard, with some Ukrainians and SS men standing behind me guarding us. I very much wanted to walk over to Kaplan, to give him something to drink, but it was the same story all over again: to go to him would have meant to join those who were going into the “showers.” As I later learned, they had taken away Kaplan’s wife and his wonderful little boy, who had been the pet of the whole organization, and he had gone to the Umschlagplatz of his own accord in the hope of joining them. Maybe I should have sacrificed myself to help my comrade and leader in his last hour; or perhaps I should have died with him. But I admit that I was too weak to do that. Or maybe the voice within me which said I must get out alive was too strong.
On the last day I was at work sorting clothes, I discovered something odd in the German camp.
I had gone with one of the Ukrainians to get a bucket of water for our “rag detail,” which was working that day at the Werterfassungsstelle. The well was located inside the German camp. Next to the well, there was a tiny trap door with a glass window sunk into the ground. I had never noticed the tiny door when I had passed by before. Imagine my amazement now, when I looked through the window and saw a Ukrainian sitting beneath it. It turned out to be a kind of dungeon for Ukrainians who had been found guilty of some offense. While I was at Treblinka, it happened once that a Ukrainian had escaped; another one was shot. In general, the Germans treated the Ukrainians as second-class citizens. When they thought the Germans weren’t looking, some of them would start conversations with us. They spoke Russian, and some of them knew some Polish; but actually, they were Soviet prisoners of war who, if they did not want to die of starvation, had no alternative but to join the special Ukrainian formations which the Germans had set up for political reasons. The Ukrainians felt just as much a part of these formations as they felt part of the Soviet army. One of the “Ukrainians” with whom I had a conversation was the son of a woman who taught school in Moscow. These “Ukrainians” had the feeling that, one way or another, they would come to a bad end, and that they would be spared from ever having to give an account for their treason [to the Russians] because the Germans would shoot them all as soon as they no longer needed them to do their dirty work. I hope that they are right.
That same evening, at roll call, the following scene took place. As usual, the Jewish kapo, Engineer G[alewski], stepped forward in front of the assembled ranks and reported the numbers of the day’s roll call to “The Doll.” “Report 525 Jews present, including 10 sick.” He had the 10 sick men move off to one side.
“The Doll” and another Scharführer strolled between the ranks with notebook and pencil in hand. “The Doll” quickly and neatly counted off the ranks with a gesture of his outstretched hand, like sticking roasted meat on a long spit, counting, noting down numbers, counting, noting down numbers, and when they got through counting, and as they were about to leave the roll call square, they pointed–as if by way of parentheses–to the group of sick inmates who were standing on one side, and they said: “Hans, take them with you!”
Hans took them along. Their destination was clear. The path led through the opening in our fence leading to the large field of open mass graves. Before long, we heard a volley of pistol shots coming from that direction.
Working in the Woods
That evening, I spoke again with Żelichower about moving to the woods. I was anxious to get to the new place of work, because there I would have hopes of finding a way to escape. We waited for an opening to appear in the group of men working in the woods. They were 30 men, but constant selections and incidents like these which had occurred at the last roll call often created openings for new workers. And that is exactly what happened. At the next day’s roll call 2elichower gave me a signal that the moment had come and that now I could join his group. When Żelichower Biel[as] (it was he or “The Doll” who always conducted our roll calls now) called out, “Woods detail, fall out!” I slipped to the side and a moment later I was standing among the 30 as if I had always been one of them. “Extend arms!” came the next command, and I turned sideways and placed my hands on the shoulders of the man in front of me. This was the Germans’ latest device, making the workers stand in line with each man’s hands on the shoulders of the man in front of him. It made it easier for them to count us.
A few blows were struck right and left because our line was not straight enough and we had been too slow forming it. We were counted once again, the command “March off!” was given and off we marched, four abreast, into the woods. I was in the second row.
We left barbed wire enclosures behind us, entered new enclosures, marched through the German camp, away near the barracks, where only the day before I had been working at sorting the rags. And then, lo and behold, I found myself beyond all the wires and fences, on a sandy wooded path. I allowed myself a look at the clear sky above and the green, rustling foliage around me. Would this be my way to freedom?
One-half of our group of 30 had the job of cutting down trees— the other half carried the trees into the camp to the railroad tracks, where German Jews of the Zaunkommando [fence detail] were employed at reinforcing and increasing the height of the wooden fence along the tracks, to make it harder for the passengers on the passing trains to look into the camp and become unduly curious about what was going on at Treblinka No. 2. The group which cut down the trees was given three saws and several axes to do their job. I walked along with a saw over my shoulder and felt as if something were breathing down my neck. We were escorted by four or five Ukrainians and one SS man. But then the SS man went off and stayed behind, and we were left alone — just Jews and Ukrainians.
We marched about a kilometer from the camp and arrived at a clearing, where we stopped. I quickly observed that there was a close understanding between the Ukrainians and the Jews who were working here. The days when the workers in the woods were hungry and I had to get Żelichower something to eat were a thing of the past. Now they were dining like kings in the woods. A Ukrainian went around whispering to the workers, and money was counted out. Then the Ukrainian went deeper into the woods and there was still more whispering. It seemed to me that there was a peasant couple somewhere off in the distance, passing among the trees, and then another peasant. By and by, the Ukrainian came back with two heavy baskets in his hands. Somebody gave us a sign that the German guard was coming our way and that we should hide the baskets. The baskets promptly vanished beneath a pile of moss, the workers smoothly went into action and started working. The German disappeared; now the baskets came out into the open again, and the crowd took the food they had ordered.
A meal in Treblinka was always like the meal Jews are supposed to eat after a funeral. Its purpose was to keep up our strength and, above all, to keep up our spirits. And if there was a shot of brandy, too, so much the better. I myself have shared meals like that in Treblinka. When two or three relatively peaceful days had gone by, our appetites would get better and when the people returned to the barrack to go to sleep, a lively barter trade would begin among the workers. “I’ll trade you your sausage for some sugar,” or, “I’ll give you some cocoa for your sugar and ham.” Cognac, rum, and good wines, sardines, rice, chocolate, and raisins—whatever anyone had in his possession, whatever he had saved up from before the war, whatever anyone had received in packages from relatives and friends overseas—the finest, the best, the nicest—he had packed it into his knapsack and taken it along to Treblinka. Even the poorest pack contained something which had been put away for an hour of need, but when the hour of need arrived, the people had to strip naked and nobody had a mind to reach into their packs. Most of the people threw away their packs as soon as they set foot on the soil of Treblinka. There was more sugar and tea in Treblinka than there is in the Warsaw ghetto today. There was no barter trade in the woods, no regular cash transactions, although these, too, were done with goods left behind by those who had perished. Each of the Jewish workers had money to burn; they had picked up the money that could be found underfoot wherever you went in the camp. The peasants in the district knew this well and they understood that nowhere else in the world would they be able to beat the prices for their products that they could obtain in Treblinka. They had learned about the workers in the woods and very quickly perceived the opportunities for doing business. They made arrangements with the Ukrainians, who acted as middlemen here. And so it came to pass that baskets filled with white rolls’ roasted chickens, cheese, butter, cream, and so forth began to arrive each day at Treblinka. The young men gave money to one of the Ukrainians and afterwards he brought back the food that the workers had ordered. The Ukrainians’ profits also included foodstuffs. The Ukrainians were quite ready to have friendly chats with the Jewish workers, but they ate separately from them because they were afraid of the Germans. They didn’t rush us too much at our work, and so, gradually, we were able to rest up in the woods, catch our breath, and even talk to each other. But what was there to chat about in Treblinka during lunch, when the wind now and then brought us echoes of screams just like from a slaughterhouse, from that little “bathhouse” in the middle of the woods. . . .?
“How do we get out of here, fellows?” Most of the young men were strangely dependent and passive when it came to discussing that question, as if there were some other way to escape the sure death which lay in wait for everyone, if not today, then certainly tomorrow. It was amazing how people could become accustomed so quickly to living not just from day to day, but from hour to hour and literally from minute to minute, and how skillfully they could blank out the thoughts of certain death. Others earnestly looked out for deliverance, which they expected to come from the air, from the fields, or with an early end to the war . . . . It was really heartbreaking to see how the urge to survive had made men childish, feeding on hopes which weren’t worth an empty eggshell. The conditions which the Germans had so ingeniously created at the camp resulted in most of the healthy young people walking around in a sort of daze, incapable of any action or decision . . .
“Maybe we could attack the Ukrainians in the woods? They often put down their guns. We could grab a few of their guns and run off into the woods.”
“All right, supposing that this could be done—where would we go? The Aktionen are still going on in Warsaw and in all the other cities and towns. The woods are surrounded, the Poles are against us. We can’t do a thing.”
Such discussions always left me with a very heavy heart. I could never resign myself to the idea that I would have to die here. The conviction that we must do something, that at any moment it might become too late to act, gave me no rest day and night. Am I really made of different stuff than these young men? I wondered. What are they fooling themselves with? What are they waiting for?
But later it became clear that I was far from alone in my planning. On the third day after my arrival in the woods, two of the workers suddenly disappeared at noon, our Scharführer discovered that two men were missing and he began to scream bloody murder. Our kapo, whose name was Posner, had a bright idea. He said that the men were sleeping in their barracks. He figured that there were always some reserves around, the figures would get confused and everything would turn out all right. Meanwhile, several Ukrainians went searching deeper in the woods and an hour later they returned with the two missing men. They had found them sitting high up in the branches of a tree. Probably they had figured on sitting in the branches until nightfall and then continuing on their way. But alas, they had been out of luck. They were ordered to undress and got their punishment on the spot. Posner, the kapo, received 25 lashes in front of all of us, because he had “lied.”
But inside me, a voice kept crying, “I must get out! I must!”
We would return from work in the woods at about 5 p.m., when it was still daylight and we’d find the rigmarole going on full steam.
Transport followed upon transport. Boxcars stood waiting, not yet opened. A crowd of people would be standing in the large reception area. Meanwhile, in the smaller enclosure inside, an earlier transport of women, men and children was being finished off. Other trains were being detained at the Małkinia station, waiting their turn to enter Treblinka.
We would be ordered to put down our axes and saws and to help out in the work, taking away the shoes and clothing of the newcomers, forming a cordon, dragging the dead and unconscious to the mass graves, running here and there, joining in the demons’ dance which was in full swing.
September 6 had already passed.17 The great slaughter had already begun in Warsaw, and the number of victims was growing day by day. Jews from the newly arrived transports told us about the giant “cauldron of death” which had been set up in an area of four square blocks in Warsaw. The wholesale business of murder and death was operating full steam. The air was filled with shouts and smells. A heavy stench of rotting bodies and burning flesh spread for miles around. The workers in the woods could hear the cries of the women and children, like the squeaking of chickens or of pigs in a slaughterhouse. At times we thought we could hear deeper voices, the voices of men bellowing like oxen in a slaughterhouse. Was this, perhaps, because the doors of the “bathhouse” in the woods had been unsealed a minute too soon?
Nor were we ourselves forgotten in the great rat race. The Germans knew how to organize each job perfectly. Every man did his duty to perfection. The workers must not be given a chance to rest too long from their terror and fear. Not a day passed when they didn’t lay out a few boys at their work with bullets in the back of the head. Not a day passed when the dreaded selection wasn’t carried out while everyone else watched.
If not today, then certainly tomorrow, it’ll be your turn.
While we had our little snacks and talked to each other in the woods, I made the acquaintance of a Jew from Warsaw named Berliner.
Berliner was about 45 years old and had lived in Argentina for years. He had served in the Argentinean army and was an Argentinean citizen. It would take us too far afield to relate how he had happened to be stranded in Poland, unable to enjoy the protection of his foreign citizenship, and how he, his wife and his daughter had come to Treblinka.
By the time I met him his family was no longer alive. They had entered the showers a week earlier, as soon as they had gotten out of the boxcar. He, a dark-complexioned, broad-shouldered, healthy man, happened to be among the lucky ones; he was one of the workers who had had their death sentences postponed for a week or two—perhaps even three. Berliner was a man of real integrity, a true friend. At every opportunity, he would share a bite to eat, a cigarette or a drink of water; if there was any chance to help somebody out, he would come running. As a result, he had become well-known and well-liked.
But in our talks in the woods about finding a way to escape, Berliner would not go along with us. “We’d be killed! We’d be killed!” he would say. “But there is one thing I want: revenge.” He did like the idea of jumping the Ukrainians and disarming them, but since most of the workers were opposed to this plan and no consensus could be reached, nothing came of it.
As we passed through the enclosed area into the woods, we would often see from a distance peasants working their fields. I looked at them, and I would feel a furious jealousy eating away at my heart. These were human beings, and I was a human being too. But they were free and I was under guard all the time. The sky and trees were beautiful, this world was not big enough for me. However, as I went to work one day, I realized that no one could be free under Nazi rule—not even Poles. We met up with a group of about 60 Poles who were being led through the woods with their hands up. They were followed by several gendarmes with rifles on their shoulders and canes in their hands, driving them on like a herd of cattle. They looked like intellectual types, who probably had been arrested because they had been betrayed by informers. There were also some women in the group. As they passed by, we exchanged glances, Jews doomed to death- giving a last salute to Poles condemned to a similar fate. When we got back to the camp that evening, we learned that the 60 Poles had been shot in our own field of corpses, next to the open graves.
As we marched back to camp each night, our hearts grew heavy on the way. Would we be able to sleep through the night? Would we still have our eyes open at this time tomorrow? Would we still be among the living? I was even more nervous than the others, because I had been in Treblinka more than two weeks now and I constantly felt that my turn would soon come.
We arrived at the guard station. The gate closed behind us. In the woods we felt a little more free than in the camp. We didn’t have the dog-catchers before our eyes all the time. But as soon as we passed through the camp fence, we felt as if our world had come to an end. Once again we were on the territory of the Treblinka murder factory.
And so September 11 arrived.
That day, as usual, we bought food in the woods from the peasants. The Ukrainians came dragging two big baskets and everything was divided up according to the orders placed by the workers. Some of the young men brought brandy. Berliner, too, bought a bottle of brandy that day.
When we got back to camp at about 6 o’clock that evening, our whole world turned black. Even from some distance away, we could see something new going on in the roll call square.
This was the selection which we had been expecting for so long and with such great fear.
The groups of workers were standing in rows, as usual, but the Scharführer was counting them in a way different from the usual procedure. They were ready to do anything, any kind of work, to submit to any kind of degradation, but the hangman no longer needed their work. They were cheap and worn out, their whole lives and their skins weren’t worth a broken penny. They were nothing but human junk-scrap.
“Boys, this is trouble! This is it!” I felt a big void opening up inside my heart: Why, oh why, had I waited so long? Why had I dithered so long about escaping; now probably all was lost. “Oh, God, my God!” I prayed silently, “Let me come out of this mess in one piece just this one more time, and I won’t wait another day!”
A few individuals, and then the whole group, tried to pull a fast one and slip away into the barracks, to crawl into some hole, but it was impossible. The earth refused to open up beneath our feet and there was no other hiding place. “Line up! Fall in!” We were driven forward, and here we were, like little lambs ready to let themselves be chewed up by the wild wolf. Several hundred healthy young Jewish men stood there, as meek as little children, and two Germans plus several Ukrainians, arrogant and insolent, had their way with us. A finger pointed at this one, then at that one. A couple of bums, a few spoiled Gentile youths were the masters of life and death, ready to finish off a man with just a wink, to finish off a whole world represented by the soul of one human being.
Sometimes we didn’t even know where danger or death was lurking. The Scharführer divided us with his whip—this one to the right, that one to the left. I was put with those who were sent to the left—to the “showers.”
Terror shackled our hands and legs. We stood like statues and, though we had nothing left to lose, meekly obeyed, still trembling before the anger of the hangman, as if a man had more than one life to lose and the hangman could do more than take away that one life. Would it really have made such a big difference whether we would die from a bullet in the back of the head or whether we would be asphyxiated in hot steam a few minutes later?
“Who will avenge all these lives that have been cut off?” something cried out within me. “Why aren’t these shameless murderers afraid of us? How did they manage to break our spirits, so that there was not even so much as one shout, one scream of protest, no resistance worth the bite of a drowning cat?
No! No! It couldn’t be. Not all of us were such cowards. What had gone wrong? What had gone wrong?”
I was standing right next to Berliner. I didn’t notice anything. I never saw when, or from where, he pulled his knife. I looked at him only after he had leaped out of our line and with all his strength had plunged his knife into the back of the Scharführer who was doing the selection.
The German groaned and turned deathly pale. Two men rushed to the scene and carried him away half-unconscious.
It would be hard to describe the turmoil which ensued in the roll call square. Jews, Germans and Ukrainians alike were plunged into utter confusion.
SS men came running. Was z’st los, was ist los? [What’s the matter? What’s the matter?]. They seemed to be terrified. They drew their revolvers from their holsters and didn’t know in what direction to shoot, upon whom to throw themselves like wild animals, or from whom to defend themselves. It was a real pleasure to see how they lost their heads.
Berliner made no attempt to flee or to hide. He just stood there, cold-blooded and calm, with a strange little smile on his lips, his hands opening the flaps of his jacket, leaving his chest bare.
“Please,” he said, “I’m not afraid. You can kill me.”
His death was terrible. I don’t know from where the shovels with which the Ukrainians and SS men attacked Berliner had come to the roll call square, or whose order it had been to kill him with these tools. But minutes later, he was stretched out on the ground, his face terribly mutilated and blood gushing from his mouth. The SS man whom Berliner had stabbed was perhaps the nicest—if such an adjective can be used—of the Treblinka Germans: Scharführer Max Bieler [Bielas] . . .
Biel[as] died of the stab wound only a few days later. But by that time I was no longer in Treblinka.
Two other Jews fell beneath the shovels along with Berliner. The Ukrainians and SS men struck out to the left and right without knowing what they were doing. They drove us up against the fences with their whips and the fences were flattened.
We who had been destined for the “showers” immediately wanted to take advantage of the confusion and mingle among the remaining crowd. But the other Jews were afraid to have us mingle with them. Only after the chaos had spread did everybody else break ranks so that it all became one tangle of terrified people, like a herd of frightened cattle during a fire. The commandant was shouting at the SS men for having remained idle in their barracks; then he started whipping the kapo, the engineer Galewski, in the face with all his might. “The Doll” started choking a Jew from Prague, who had served as a captain in the Czech army before the war, and who was now the kapo’s deputy. In short, everybody was having a merry old time. After the two Germans had finally blown off some steam, they apparently decided to act with “moderation” for the time being, and the captain ordered “The Doll” to shoot 10 men. Naturally, the latter carried out this order with pleasure; together with another SS man he took his victims out of the ranks, lined them up and, after keeping them on the rack for a while by pulling the trigger without the gun going off, he gunned them all down. Actually, the two Germans divided the job between themselves: the first one shot the first, third, and fifth Jew, while the second one shot the second, fourth, sixth, and so on.
I was standing right there; however, fate so willed it that the two Germans took out one man at my right and one man at my left, but I was left behind. For the moment, we did not think about the selectees’ being sent to the “showers,” but we asked ourselves what the consequences would be for us. “The Doll” gave a speech, in which he said, ‘Es wird euch teller kosten! [You’ll pay the price!].” We got no supper that night.
It was another execution eve: we recited the Kaddish, there were calls for repentance, and all the rest. The next morning there was no roll call. Six o’clock went by, then seven and half past seven. At half past seven, we were driven outside and another selection began. But at the moment they took only 60 men. It seemed as if the hangmen were continuing their policy of circumspection.
I remained rooted to the spot, stupefied; Żelichower was standing on my left in my row. The killer-prizefighter pointed his finger at the man on my right and the one on my left. Before long, 60 men had been set aside in a separate group, and I remained standing, wondering what to do with myself. Were they selecting people to remain behind, or were they selecting people to be shot? Both cases had occurred also in the past. Should I, then, try to join the group in which Żelichower was? In the end, I remained in my place; to this day, I don’t know what held me back. Perhaps it was a feeling of paralysis, or maybe it was instinct that told me not to mingle anywhere this time. Be that as it may, I remained alive for the time being, while Żelichower and the others were all gunned down within 20 minutes.
Berliner, too, was dead. His body was thrown along with the others into one of the huge mass graves at the edge of the great field of corpses. But Berliner did not die like a mouse caught in a trap, or like a lamb slaughtered for meat, for skins, for some old rags or a gold tooth. He had died only half a day before Żelichower, but he died like a hero. He told the hangmen that the day would come when they would have to pay for their crimes, that some day they would be called to a strict accounting for their mass murder and mass robbery and on that day their heads and their lives would not be worth any more than the life of the most humble among their victims, of the Jewish paupers and beggars whom they had cleared from the streets of the Jewish ghettos.
The hangmen and murderers sensed this. Somehow, the terror, no less great than their crime, had settled in their bones. They trembled before the hands of the Jews. I still spent an entire day in Treblinka after Berliner’s act, and until I left I saw Jews passing near Germans with their hands up. That’s what the Germans had commanded: “Hände hoch! [Hands up!].” And whenever the Germans came near a Jew they looked closely at his hands. They were afraid of what the Jews might do to them with those hands.
Night came to the newly-cleared barrack—execution night. No air, no food. At 5 the next morning—5:30—7:30—there was still no roll call. Everyone was sure we’d be going to the “showers.” Meanwhile, people called out, “Line up five abreast! Selection! Control yourselves! Don’t give in!” Commands were called out. I went along with the woods detail. Today, I must get out of here, no matter what befalls, to clear my conscience. Then, even if I’m killed, I’ll know why. I decided that when it got dark, I would move away from my group. I was restless at my work. This went on until 4 p.m. The cries from the murder site continued that day as usual. I was happy to be here in the woods, away from the noise.
At about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, we learned that boxcars had arrived to take away the rags from the camp. I wanted to flee, climbing into one of those cars as quickly as I could to try my luck, but unfortunately it wasn’t up to me. We continued working until 7 and I became very impatient. By the time we went back to the camp I was very nervous and determined to run away.
Near the railroad tracks I met another old acquaintance, Jacob Lichtenstern of the Ha-Tehiyah [Zionist youth] movement. He cried bitterly and told me that he was hungry. I ran over to the pile of rags and got him some bread and honey. The Germans ordered us to join in and help load the rags onto the cars. But most of the boxcars were already loaded to capacity and I was sorry I had not come here from the woods any sooner. Now it was too late. The Germans were urging us on—”Faster! Faster!”—and dealing out blows with their whips. They ordered us to place packs of the rags along the tracks. A little later 12 additional boxcars arrived. I went through all the cars, looking for a place to hide, and when I saw the kapo I went over to him and begged him to save me by letting me into one of the cars. He categorically refused to do that. I tried gentle persuasion, but I could see that it was a waste of time. I went to one of the other cars and started to talk to Lichtenstern—“Do you have any money on you?” I asked him. He had 600 dollars, and also some Polish currency. I tried hard to persuade him to run away, but at the last moment he disappeared. I got hold of a bottle of water—money didn’t interest me. I only took a bottle of water and some foreign currency. I noticed a whole suitcase full of money, and valuables, but I didn’t have the mind to take any of the stuff, although all I would have needed to do was cover it with a blanket and pick it up.
The Herschkowitzes, father and son, helped me and wanted to come along with me into the boxcar. I saw a little later that someone had thrown a coat into the car. It turned out to be my own coat and I took this as a good omen. But I didn’t take it along with me. Instead, I grabbed a long Hasidic coat in the dark. There was a fourth person in the car who was covered up by the others. We sat in fear and trembling as we waited for the train to start moving. Perhaps, God forbid, it would not leave until the morning. About 15 minutes later a German came by to do an inspection. He passed us by without incident. Then we heard somebody running beneath the wheels of our car, and German and Ukrainian voices. Again, we got by all right. The train started to move. We were riding along. We passed the first station about two kilometers away. We wanted to jump off the train after that station, but we heard Ukrainian voices and agreed to wait for another three kilometers. We agreed that the last to jump would wait for the others. Only three jumped out. I don’t know until this day what became of the fourth one. Perhaps he was smothered by the rags.
1 a.m. My first feeling—I had freed myself from Treblinka. The others were with me. Where should we go? I led them to the left, towards Warsaw. We walked along a few kilometers through gardens ... Terror ... We turned to the right. Until morning. Along the way, we refreshed ourselves with a can of sprats. At 6 a.m. we reached a small village 12 kilometers from Kósow. We knocked on the door of a house and offered to pay 300 zlotys for a place to sleep and some food. The peasant didn’t want to take us in; this was a border point, he said, and there were German guards. We knocked on a second door and got the same answer. I suggested that we leave the village. We ought to hide out in the bushes and wait out the day. We should proceed only at night. That’s what we did, and we lay down on the ground. Two peasant women came by and we bought bread from them for 20 zlotys a loaf. Later in the day another peasant came along and agreed to take us in, but said he would have to talk it over first with his wife. Herschkowitz gave him a watch. After a while, he came back with another man and said he would take us to his house one by one; I would be the first to go. . . . They took 5,000 zlotys, other valuables and a watch. Then, they left me by myself. I asked them to tell me where I was, but they didn’t want to say. Now I was all alone, you may determine for yourself whether happily or unhappily. I went back to the bushes, but there was no one there.
A beautiful sky, a big world, but there seemed to be no room in it for me. I gathered all my strength, reminded myself of the motto “Revenge!” and marched off on my own. In another village, I saw a cottage, knocked on the door and tried to buy bread, but they didn’t want to sell me any. I was thirsty and went to a well to drink my fill. I went on. More fields. Late that afternoon, I came upon a peasant pasturing horses in meadow. I struck a bargain with him for 2,000 zlotys. He asked where I had come from. I replied that I had been resettled from Jędrzejów. The peasant said that if he were not afraid of the Germans he would help me free of charge, but it just couldn’t be done; the risk was too great. The peasant took me with him, he was on horseback and I ran behind his horse. He asked me to stay outside his house so his large family wouldn’t know anything about this. He said that after they all had gone to bed he would take me into his barn, spread some hay, and bring me some bread and milk. He kept his promise. At about 3 a.m., the peasant awakened me to drive me to Stoczek. When I learned that we would have to pass by Treblinka, I didn’t want to do it, but I had no other choice. And so I got to see the original village of Treblinka, where there was not a trace of the murder factory. It was a village just like any other.
We arrived at Stoczek on market day, at 7 a.m. Life here was normal; there were Jews doing business. When the people learned that someone from Treblinka had come to town, they started bringing me photographs and asking whether I recognized any of their loved ones. I did indeed see some carpenters. There were also other people from Treblinka in town. I talked with them. “What should I do? Where should I go?” They answered, “Don’t rush to Warsaw because it’s dangerous there.” Two men had returned from there and told that you could get neither into the ghetto nor out of it. They had run afoul of a Polish policeman, who called them over and said that he also wanted to live, and asked them for 100 zlotys. They had given him only 50. They told about labor service in the ghetto and selections. They had returned to Stoczek on the day when 800 had been killed in the ghetto. They had traveled on the train passing as Gentiles. I made arrangements for myself in the ghetto; I rented a place to sleep from a woman called Freyde-Dvoyre, a butcher’s daughter. She treated me well and asked plenty of money for everything. It really would be proper to stop here and describe the little town and the troubles one had there from the local Judenrat and ghetto police, who were afraid that if they would help any of the escapees from Treblinka they would be deported themselves. I was dying of thirst for water, but the water there was disgustingly bitter. In the synagogue that Sabbath, I was called upon to recite the prayer said in public by one who has narrowly escaped a great danger. The Jewish population there actually did want to become acquainted with escapees from Treblinka, because they knew that Treblinka people had a lot of money, and so they could charge them prices ten times what they charged normally. From time to time a certain gendarme would come to that town from the countryside and kill a few Jews each time. They used to call him the “Little Black Head.” The terror in the town was very great. Nevertheless, they actually believed the women’s and children’s prattle that nobody would harm them; the commandant of Treblinka, they insisted, had said so because the Jews from Stoczek had built the camp. Wherever I went in that town, I blamed them for having known about the camp but not telling the Jewish community of Warsaw what was really going on. Some of them claimed that they had in fact written letters to Warsaw [on this subject].
The population tried to milk Treblinka for all it was worth and some brisk trading was done. They bought everything from the Treblinka people: gold and securities.
I tried to get out of that town as soon as I could because there were more and more rumors about an impending “resettlement” and I did not want to take any chances. Some people didn’t want to face this possibility, but I didn’t want to let myself be fooled. On Yom Kippur eve, I heard a commotion some distance away. When I came closer, I saw a Gentile beating up a Jew in the street where the Jews lived. People were so scared that at first they did not want to attend Yom Kippur Eve services at the synagogue. But things quieted down and everybody flocked to the synagogue. They returned home and weather was so nice that people were not eager to go to bed with the fleas. I was standing with a certain Dr. Halpern from Lwów and another man named Heniek and we discussed ways of saving ourselves. Suddenly, we heard footsteps. A fireman opened the door and called us to the Police Precinct to present our documents. We bought our way out with 50 zlotys. This whetted the fireman’s appetite and he grabbed a young man in the street and asked him to point out Treblinka escapees. The young man, frightened, pointed us out and the fireman used the opportunity to squeeze more money out of us. I thought of going back to Warsaw but I was afraid and decided to put it off until after Yom Kippur. There was a commotion at the Yom Kippur services: “Little Black Head” had arrived and all the Jews ran home from the synagogue.
The day after Yom Kippur, I got up as usual; and at about 10 or 11 a.m. a panic broke out. It was reported that Węgrów was surrounded. One person telephoned here, another person telephoned there, but none of the calls went through. A little later, extreme panic set in and everyone started running. I was running together with a young man from Stoczek. We wanted to go to Ostrowiec, because from there you could take a train to Warsaw. On the way we met a Gentile woman who told us that a big manhunt was going on because a gendarme had been killed. It was said that this had been done by partisans, who were supposedly operating out of the Sadowna woods. I had already thought on several occasions about joining them, but I heard that they didn’t take in Jews.
* * * * *
Stoczek. People brought me photographs to see whether the people in the pictures were still in Treblinka. I did recognize several men from the group with the yellow patches.
I was robbed of 50,000 zlotys in Polish currency and foreign currency. One of the robbers pinned back my arms while the other one searched me and also took a gold watch. Since I saw that it would do no good to resist them, I let them take what they wanted.
As I traveled through the villages, people stared after me. I tried to hide in some hay; the peasant didn’t let me, it would be just plain theft, he said. As we walked along, I saw that he took off his cap before a wayside cross. I was afraid to ride into Stoczek and got off a kilometer outside of town. I asked a peasant whether there were Jews in Stoczek. He answered, “Yes, they are all in one neighborhood.”
The first night I slept with the Hasid, at 4 a.m. I heard shooting and screams. I realized that the Aktion in Stoczek had begun. So I went deeper into the woods. Soon we began to see groups of people, mainly young people, who had fled from the town and were looking for a place to hide. We also heard screams and pitiful weeping. Children who had lost their parents in the turmoil ran around crying, “Mama!” The two of us were joined by a third person, a boy from Warsaw who was working as a shepherd for a peasant. He was from the Warsaw kibbutz [group of young Zionists] on Dzielna Street. We stayed together that day. As we moved through the woods, we met some shepherds from whom we bought food, bread, milk and potatoes. The shepherds charged us a lot of money. We made a fire and roasted the potatoes. That’s how we got through the day. Looking out from among the bushes along the highway leading to the Sadowna station, we saw groups of Jews a few hundred meters from us being chased to the station; from there, they probably would be taken to Treblinka. The Jews were walking four abreast, tied to each other by the hands.
The cries in the woods didn’t cease. We kept on hearing the echoes of children’s voices; the children were still searching and crying for their parents, who were now, perhaps, marching in the columns we had seen from a distance.
Thus the day passed. Towards evening, we waited until the peasants had left the fields and then we went into a meadow where there were haystacks. We burrowed into the hay and slept until 4 the next morning. We got up at 4 a.m. I decided to go to the Ostrowek station in order to get closer to Warsaw. The third member of our group, the halutz,18 said that we shouldn’t go. We should rather wait in the woods until the Aktion was over and then go back to town. I refused to allow myself to be persuaded, and so we separated. The halutz remained on the spot, and the two of us (the Hasid and I) proceeded to the station. We walked through fields and meadows. On our way, we came to a little stream. So we took off our shoes and waded to the other side. It was worse when we had to cut across a highway that had continuous automobile traffic. We decided to crawl up to the highway, lie down in a ditch and wait for a quiet moment to run over to the other side. In addition to everything else, the behavior of my companion, the Hasid, made me very nervous. Instead of watching whether there were any Germans around, he prayed all the time and didn’t seem to care about his own safety.
After crossing the highway, we went to a cottage to buy some bread. The peasant would not sell us any. We went on to another cottage. I saw that we wouldn’t be able to buy anything, so we tried begging. Somebody told us that there was no bread around, but that he could spare some potatoes. I didn’t want to take any, and we resumed our journey towards Ostrowek. Along the way, we met a very decent Gentile, who told us what had happened at the “evacuation” in Stoczek. A great number of Jews had been killed right on the spot and the rest had been sent via Sadowna station to Treblinka. He told us that we should try to save ourselves; we should never use highways but only fields, because we could run afoul of gendarmes. We had earlier talked to a Gentile woman at this place who had told us that we had no place to run to. The Jews had been expelled from everywhere; besides, the Germans would kill us anyway.
We went on and came to a thick stretch of woodland. Suddenly, I saw something moving in the woods. As we came closer, we noticed a group of ten people and saw that these were Jews from Stoczek with a few Treblinka escapees included. They started to question us about Stoczek and in fact we did know a little more than they did. We described for them what the “evacuation” of Stoczek had been like.
It was now 7 a.m. We had remained together with the Stoczek people. We were very hungry, so they gave us something to eat from the supplies which they had bought and which had already cost them 800 zlotys, because, as always, the peasants charged the escapees very high prices for food. We remained stretched out in the thicket, where it was extremely still. We became very thirsty, but we were afraid to go out and look for water. At about 6 p.m., we saw a Gentile pass by, and soon someone began to throw rocks at our little hideout. We were terror-stricken because we were expecting the Germans, helped by Poles, to carry out manhunts in the woods for Jews who were hiding out there. We decided to leave the place and waited only until it got dark. When night fell, we started off for another wooded area. Some of these Stoczek Jews knew the area well.
At night, we walked single file, cautiously and in great terror lest someone might hear us. Everything was still. The calm in the fields was almost unnatural, as if a herd of homeless, frightened, hounded souls had never blundered by. And then we arrived in another forest, crawled into a thicket and lay down to sleep. It was the [holiday] season, toward the end of September, and the nights were already quite cold. We really couldn’t find a good place to bed down because of the cold. There was nothing to lie down on and nothing to cover ourselves with, and we couldn’t even fall asleep because of the cold. Some of those among us were ready to give up “Look, fellows,” they argued, “there’s no way out. The world had no room for us. It’s no good. We’ll all get killed!” Two of us went away to search for provisions, and towards 1 a.m. they came back carrying 12 kilos of bread, some small pears and several bottles of water. They had spent several hundred zlotys.
At last the night was over. We became a little more lively and enterprising. Since it had become a little warmer, we gradually dropped off to sleep and slept until noon. At around noon, some more Jews appeared. They told us that there were manhunts in the woods. Several men who had been found in the woods had already been shot. We lay in great fear until nightfall. We decided to prepare hideouts for ourselves. We borrowed a spade from the Gentile who had sold us provisions and we dug two ditches, each one of them big enough to accommodate six men. They were one and a half meters in depth and width and about two meters long. We worked very hard and with great care to leave no visible traces. We gathered the dirt we had dug up, wrapped it in our coats and carried it some distance away. In order to camouflage the ditches, we cut down some saplings with a couple of butcher knives which the Stoczek people had with them. We laid the saplings across the ditches and covered them with squares of turf which we had brought from some distance away. But as we worked, we literally dropped like flies because lack of food and sleep had left us too weak for hard work. We left a small hole in the top of the ditch for getting in and out, and camouflaged it with another sapling. And so our difficult job was done. Late that night, we got through and dropped off to sleep. Some of us crawled into the ditches to sleep. We were too exhausted even to feel the cold, and we slept until the next morning.
I had more trouble with my Hasid. While everybody was hard at work digging the ditches, I asked him, “How come you’re not doing anything?” He answered that this was the Sabbath, so he wouldn’t work. This was on Friday night.
We spent quite a few days in the ditches in the thicket. Our lives became very tedious and boring. We had nothing to wash with, so we became filthy and unkempt. Some of us, having nothing to do, sat in the sun and searched our bodies for lice. Fortunately, there was never any need for us to take cover in the ditches. The days and nights passed quietly, except for the fear which made us gasp for breath every time we heard the noise of a bird or a squirrel in the branches. Every night, two men went out for provisions, but our cash was getting low because of the high prices which we had to pay for even the smallest bit of bread.
We stayed where we were until our hiding place was discovered by a Pole. Early one morning, a Gentile youth suddenly appeared before us. He gave us some sweet talk, telling us not to be afraid of him, and when we asked him to get us some bread and water, he promised to do it. We gave him a few dozen zlotys; he was sup posed to be back in about an hour. The Gentile boy did return an hour later with a bucket of water; he said he’d get the bread later, when he would go into town. That town was our own Stoczek ‘
I and another Treblinka man asked the Gentile how to get to Warsaw. By now the life here was grating on our nerves and we wanted to move on to Warsaw no matter what befell. Our friend quickly agreed to help us. He said he would take us into his house at night, buy us train tickets and see us off to Warsaw.
After he had left, other Gentiles appeared, including the peasant Klimek, from whom we used to buy food. He had never visited us before and hadn’t known where we were holding out. We could see now that our hideout had been discovered and was no good to us anymore. We discussed what to do next; we decided not to remain together as a group, but to split up and let each man look out for himself. I decided to part from my Hasid (he had fled naked through the barbed wire on the path to the gas chamber; there were wounds all over his skin and he didn’t have a penny to his name). I had been glad to help him out but his fanaticism had repelled me and I decided to pick another friend. I asked him how much money he needed and he answered four zlotys. I gave him ten zlotys and we parted. His name was Wiener. The name of my new friend was Anshel Mędrzycki, a bigshot and a loudmouth. He turned out to be a nicer guy than the Hasid and we decided to stay together. He, too, had run away naked from Treblinka, and I undertook to finance his trip. In order to get some cash, I proposed that I should sell a gold watch to the peasant Klimek. Mędrzycki agreed to come along, and we struck a bargain for 500 zlotys and 5 kilos of corn which I wanted to take along so I could create the impression that I was a smuggler. I went with Klimek to get the corn, so we would be ready when the boy came back.
I returned with Klimek at about 4 p.m. just then I heard shouts from the woods and I recognized Mędrzycki’s voice. As I approached, the shouting stopped. I found Mędrzycki confused and bewildered. He had been robbed. The Gentile boy, our supposed benefactor, had returned with a friend, held up my traveling companion and robbed him of 200 zlotys which he had on him. Other Jews had come running up, and it was my luck to arrive five minutes after this thing had happened. My partner was in despair and kept asking me and the other Jews whom we met to chip in 50 zlotys each to make up for his loss. I later learned he still had some money hidden away, but he was an exploiter, a creature without a moral sense, who had come from the Warsaw underworld, and he tried to take advantage of me as much as he could.
After the incident with the Gentile, we went back to Klimek to spend the night at his place, but he asked 100 zlotys from each of us. So we only ate supper with him and went off to sleep in bushes which the money grubber pointed out to us after charging us 20 zlotys for lending us an old rag quilt to cover ourselves with.
The next morning we went to other bushes to hide out for the day and wait for a chance to set out for Warsaw. At about 10 a.m. Klimek came to us and we talked about getting a ride to the station. He wanted 500 zlotys for each of us, in addition to 100 zlotys for buying railroad tickets. He suspected that I still had some money on me, so he tried to persuade us not to go to Warsaw, telling us that the trip was dangerous and that some men had just been shot. Manhunts for Jews were going on everywhere. But I refused to give up the idea of going to Warsaw. Since we couldn’t come to terms with Klimek, we remained in the bushes.
At about 1 p.m. I saw an older Gentile woman passing by. My partner didn’t want to let me make a move, but my heart told me that I must get hold of this woman, that she might be the one sent by fate to save us. With utter disregard for possible consequences, I ran over to the Gentile woman.
As I came near, I saw before me a friendly face with kind eyes. I briefly told her who we were and what we wanted, and I must say I was amazed when the woman told us without hesitation to come along with her. She didn’t ask us for any money; on the contrary, when I handed her 50 zlotys, she replied that one doesn’t take money for doing a thing like this. This was the first time since my escape from Treblinka that anyone, Jew or Gentile, helped me get to safety without trying to extort money from me. I called Mędrzycki and the next thing we knew we were walking along as a threesome, with the Gentile woman in the lead, toward her village. Klimek lived in the village of Mala Wielga, and the peasant woman lived a few kilometers further on, in Duża Wielga, which was only three kilometers from the Ostrowek station.
After we had walked some distance we were overtaken by a man in a jeep. We both heard him coming and hid on the side of the road. The man in the jeep turned out to be the bailiff of the village of Wielga. Our peasant woman chatted with him for over half an hour while we waited very impatiently for the conversation to end. At long last, they bade each other good-bye. The bailiff in the jeep drove away and we and our Gentile woman continued on our way. Farther along on the highway, we encountered a car full of Germans. Once again, we hid on the side of the road. Afterwards, everything went all right until we got to Wielga. The Gentile woman’s house was one of the first as we entered the village. She went on ahead and told us to sneak in a little later. That’s how we did it; we walked into her yard and lay down in the garden behind the house so that no one would see us. It wasn’t long before the Gentile woman came out together with her husband. They led us to a potato cellar in the yard. They told us to get into the cellar and stay there until they would come for us. Soon the woman also brought us some food, beans and bread and a pot of boiled warm milk. After I finished eating, I took out 25 zlotys and wanted to pay for the food. The peasant woman said that this was too much, she didn’t want to derive profit from us unfortunates. But I refused to take the money back. After we had eaten, the husband came out and advised us not to be in a hurry to get to Warsaw, but to be careful and wait until he got us a guide. Meanwhile, it had become dark outside and he led us from the cellar to the barn, brought us a warm blanket to cover ourselves, and we went to sleep in the barn.
We slept long and quietly, a deep and healthy sleep. Even as we slept, we sensed that we were at the home of good people.
We started a whole new life in that barn. The peasant had instructed us not to show our faces outside the barn. We were supposed to wait until some of his relatives would come visiting from Warsaw; these people would take us back with them. These relatives were smugglers who traveled back and forth all the time with merchandise.
[Our hosts] would bring us food to the barn three times each day-potato soup, dumplings with milk and similar village foods. We were getting bored, but we slept most of the time. We got enough sleep and rest to last us a lifetime. A few days later, a Gentile woman arrived from Warsaw and [our hosts] asked her to take us back with her. She promised to do so, and showed us great compassion. When we told her about Treblinka, she sighed and wept. She had worked for Jews all her life and she was truly upset at what was happening to the Jews. Nevertheless, nothing came of the proposal that we should travel with her. She promised to come back for us, and she remained in the village for several days, but we never saw her again. Our host tried to cheer us up and promised that when his brother-in-law came from Warsaw he would certainly take us back with him. And so it really was. A week later the brother-in-law arrived, a middle-aged Gentile whose business was trading and smuggling. We paid him 450 zlotys to take us to Warsaw. He confirmed the reports we had heard that the Aktion in Warsaw was over and that we could go back there.
At 7:30 that evening, the train left Ostrowek station for Warsaw. We said good-bye to our hosts and thanked them for their genuine humanity and goodness. Then we were on our way. I’ve forgotten to add that not even the children of this peasant were aware that we were in the barn; that’s how closely those old folks kept our secret and watched over us.
I had exchanged my package of corn for bread, and had outfitted myself like a smuggler. When I arrived at the railroad station, a German stopped us for an inspection. I pulled the brim of my hat down over my eyes, positioned myself in such a way that the shadows of the early autumn evening covered my Jewish face, and pretended that I didn’t understand a word of German. I kept repeating “Chleb, chleb! [bread, bread!]” until the Kraut let me move on.
This was my last encounter on the journey from Warsaw to Treblinka and back. They took our tickets, we got on the train and about two hours later we arrived at the central railroad station in Warsaw. Our guide lived on Zlota Street. He took us with him into his house and put us up for three days. On the third day, just before dark, he took us to the corner of Żelazna and Leszno. We joined a group of workers and entered the ghetto.
The Gentiles from Zlota Street were decent people too. They took next to nothing for keeping us for three days and when we parted they promised us that we had a standing invitation at their home if we ever would have to flee from the ghetto and look for a place to hide. After meeting so many exploiters and other mean characters, these fine Gentiles from the village of Wielga and their relatives in Warsaw became our helpers and saviors at the hour of great need and danger. May they in future receive as much goodness as they gave us!
Translated from the Yiddish
1. Toporol (Towarzystwo Popierania Roinictwa)-Society for the Promotion of Agriculture. This organization utilized every inch of soil in the Warsaw Ghetto to cultivate vegetables.
2. Brandt: head of the Jewish Section of the Warsaw Gestapo.
3. Jakub Lejkin, deputy commandant of the (Warsaw) ghetto police.
4. Shaulis: uniformed Lithuanians in the service of the Nazis.
5. Smattes: in Krzepicki’s Lithuanian-Yiddish dialect. The proper pronunciation is shmattes (rags).
6. Treblinka No. 1 was a penal camp which was intended mostly for delinquent Poles. It was about 3 kilometers away from the extermination camp, which was officially known as Treblinka No. 2.
8. This is not correct. Lalka (Kurt Franz) was by trade an apprentice cook.
9. Dollar bills.
10. “Hear 0 Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
11. At the conclusion of the Eighteen Blessings, the main prayer at the daily services, the worshippers take three steps backward, then three steps forward, as if leaving the presence of a king after an audience.
12. The sanctification of God’s Name; i.e. martyrdom.
13. An island in the Indian Ocean where the British had interned some 2,000 Jewish refugees who had tried to enter Palestine.
14. This was, of course, written prior to the Treblinka revolt.
15. The correct name was Max Bielas. Other prisoners didn’t share Krzepicki’s favorable opinion about Bielas.
16. Zionist groups which had trained in Europe and America to work as pioneers in what is now the State of Israel.
17. September 6, 1942 was the date of the “cauldron of death” discussed by the author here.
18. Lit., “pioneer.” Before the war, this man had trained for emigration to Palestine as a pioneer.