The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Organization of the Underground in the Extermination Area
(2 of 2)

The leaders of the underground, Galewski, Kurland and others, gathered in the square near the lazarett in the southwest section of the camp. Most of the prisoners were in this section, which was also close to the extermination area, a fact that was supposed to facilitate contact with rhe underground people there.

The assembly of the prisoners and their organization for escape during the uprising were also to take place in the southern part of the camp. A shortcoming of the concentration of the leaders of the revolt in the southern part of the camp was their remoteness from the place where the removal of the arms was carried out and from the attack on the SS and Ukrainian quarters.

At 14:00 hours the removal of the arms and their transfer to various places got under way. Sadowicz, a member of the "organizing committee," was in charge of this operation. A group of youngsters, among them Markus and Salzberg, made their way into the arms store and filled sacks with grenades, firearms and ammunition. The sacks were passed out through the window and loaded on garbage carts. on which they were taken to the nearby garage, where two other members of the underground worked -- Rudek Lubernicki and Srenda Lichtblau. From the garage some of the weapons were transferred in pails and carts of building materials to the assembly points of the combat groups, especially to the area where the leaders of the revolt were located. (Platkiewicz, op. cit., pp. 548-549; Sereny, opt cit., p. 246; Rajzman, op. cit., p. 221; Kon,, op. cit., pp. 537-538) Up until about 15:30 everything went according to plan, but then the operation was disrupted. A SS man called Kurt Kuttner suddenly appeared in the area of the prisoners' quarters. After having a short talk with the prisoner in charge of Barracks Number 2, Kube, who was known to be an informer, Kuttner seized a young Jew and found money in his pockets. He began to interrogate the youth and to beat him. Word was immediately dispatched to Galewski and his colleagues, and they, fearing that Kube may have noticed unusual activity in the camp and had told Kuttner, and fearing that the youth might break under interrogation and give away the uprising, decided to eliminate Kutlner on the spot and proceed directly to the second stage of the revolt, before Kuttner would be able to alert the camp guards. This decision was reached even though part of the arms had not yet been removed from the storeroom and the rest had not all been distributed. Committee member Salzberg conveyed the decision to the underground people who were near the prisoners' quarters, and one of the men killed Kuttner with a pistol shot. That shot was the signal for the outbreak of the insurrection. (Testimony of Strawczynski, op. cit., p. 57; testimony of Schneidmann,, op. cit., p. 4) From that moment the "organizing committee" was no longer in control. The groups of fighters acted separately. Rudek Lubernicki and Stenda Lichtblau set fire to the large fuel tank, and when it exploded all the nearby buildings caught fire. The two also immobilized an armored vehicle in the garage. The prisoners' quarters and the ware- houses were also set aflame, and the group working in the potato silo hurled hand grenades at the SS quarters. The explosions and gunshots were heard in all parts of the camp. Prisoners began running in the direction of the square and the eastern and southern fences of the camp. The Ukrainian guards and SS opened fire from the guard towers and elsewhere, and some of the insurgents who were armed returned the fire. Several Ukrainians were wounded and their weapons taken from them. The few grenades and meager ammunition that the rebels had was running out very quickly. The camp was going up in flames and in total disarray, and the prisoners began to break through the fences and get themselves over the anti-tank obstacles, throwing blankets and coats on the barbed wire. Many of those fleeing in the area of the fences were hurt and fell, but the others trampled over them and continued to run. All the members of the "organizing committee," including Galewski, and other members of the underground who were actively involved in the revolt, were the last to make for the fences; most of them were hit and fell within the camp. (There are several versions concerning tne death of Galewski. Leon Perelstein, a prisoner who escaped from the camp together with Galewski, relates that after they had gone a few Kilometers, Galewski felt that he did not have the strength to go on. He took some poison out of his pocket, swallowed it and died on the spot. See YVA, 0-16/106,, p. 5. Rachel Auerbach, however, wntes that Galewski killed himself after being surrounded. See her book, Be-Huzot Varsha 1939-1943, Tel Aviv, 1954, p. 346, note 106. Also see testimony of Strawczynski, op. cit., pp. 58-59; Platkiewicz, op. cit., pp. 549-550; Wilenberg, op. cit., pp. 56-58)

Stangl, the commander of the camp, relates about the outbreak of the revolt: Looking out of my window I could see some Jews on the other side of the inner fence--they must have jumped down from the roof of the ss billets and they were shooting... In an emergency like that my first duty was to inform the chief of the external security police. By the time I'd done that, our petrol station blew up. That too had been built just like a real service station, with flower beds round it. Next thing the whole ghetto camp was burning and then Matthes, the German in charge of the Totenlager, arrived at a run and said everything was burning up there too...(Sereny, op. cit., pp. 239-241)

The Uprising in the Extermination Area

The decision to begin the insurrection on August 2 was communicated to the extermination area several days before. On the day of the uprising itself, around noon, Wiernik arrived in the extermination area and confirmed that it was definitely decided that the uprising would take place that very day. Because of the summer heat, the work hours for cremating the bodies were from 4:00 A.M. until noon, after which the prisoners were kept under guard in their fenced-off and closed barracks. In the extermination area there were usually four SS men (three of them operating the bulldozers) and another seven Ukrainian guards. However, when the uprising began only one SS man was there, as the three bulldozer operators had already finished their work. In order to enable the members of the underground to be outside the barracks at the hour set for the revolt, Bloch and Friedman decided to leave some bodies for burning so that it would be necessary to continue the work in the afternoon. Friedman, who was the head of a work group, inforrned the SS man in charge of the cremations that they had not managed to finish the work, and he gave permission to a group of thirty men -- most of them members of the underground -- to go out to work again at 3:00 P.M. (Testimony of Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 3; testimony of Goldfarb, op. cit.,p. 26) Four other members of the underground were also allowed to be outside the barracks, ostensibly for drawing water for the kitchen, with a Ukrainian guard close by. All of them were tense and ready for the agreed-upon sign to be given from Camp A.

At about 15:30 a shot was heard from the direction of the lower camp, immediately followed hy the sound of exploding grenades. The members of the underground in the extermination area then went into action. The group of water-drawers killed the Ukrainian guard, and another group killed the Ukrainian guard who was positioned at the entrance to the living quarters. Zelo Bloch took one of the rifles and fired at the guards in the guard towers. The insurgents took over the guardroom, taking a number of rifles from it. At this stage the insurgents were successful. While the underground members were fighting, the other prisoners burst through the fences that were behind the barracks on the southern side of the camp and began escaping into the fields in the direction of the forest. A machine gun fired on them from the guard tower in the southeastern corner of the camp. Block and Friedman, who stayed behind to cover the escapees with rifle fire, were killed by the gunfire. The gas chambers themselves were not damaged in the exchange of fire that took place in the camp. (Wiernik, op. cit., pp. 59-60; testimony of Rosenberg, op. cit., pp. 3 4; Rajgrodski, op. cit., pp. 115-116; testimony of Sonia Lewkowicz, YVA,0-3/4181, p. 5)

Escape and Pursuit

On the day of the uprising there were 850 prisoners in the entire camp. About half, including most of the members of the underground, were killed trying to escape, gunned down in the camp itself, between the fences or near them. About 100 prisoners decided io remain in the camp and made no attempt to escape. Despite the heavy gunfire, about half of those who tried to escape did manage to get over the fences. In order to reach the forest they had to cross a distance of 5-8 kilometers. In the meantime Stangl the camp commander, alerted the German security forces by telephone (because of the disruptions in the plan the insurgents had not had time to cut the lines). They arrived from Malkinia, Kosov, the Treblinka labor camp and elsewhere and cordoned off an area at a radius of 5 kilometers from the camp. (Sereny,, op. cit., p. 247; Rajgrodski, op. cit., p. 116)

The pursuit, the combing of the area and the roadblocks resulted in the capture of most of the escapees, most of whom were shot on the spot. The local population was of no help. Prominent in the testimonies of the survivors is the assertion that the peasants in the region caught the escapees, took their money and then handed them over to the Germans. (Rajzman, op. cit., p. 190; Greenberg, op. cit., pp. 63-64; testimony of Schneidmann, op. cit., pp. 4-5; testimony of Tajgman,, op. cit., p. 20) Nevertheless, some of the survivors of the escape from Treblinka owe their lives to the help they received from the local inhabitants. (Testimony of Goldfarb, op. cit., p. 28)

There is no way of knowing the exaet number of prisoners who successfully escaped and found places to hide. According to various estimates, about 60-70 of the Treblinka escapees were still alive at the end of the war. It may be assumed, however, that a larger number escaped during the uprising but that some met their death under various circumstances in the year between the uprising and the liberation of the area by the Soviet and Polish armies, or until the liberation of all of Poland. Thus, of the 850 prisoners in the camp, it is probable that at least 100 escaped and successfully eluded the pursuit forces. This estimate is higher than the figure generally accepted until now. (See, for example: The Death Camp Treblinka -- A Documentary, Alexander Donat, ed., New York, 1979. A list of sixty-nine survivors is given in this work, but it contains mistakes and duplications. Testimonies of twenty-seven of the survivors are in my possession.)

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