'Every night, I was surprised to find myself alive," says Edi Weinstein, his Polish accent softened by 58 years spent living in New York. The 83-year-old is the last living survivor of the Treblinka II extermination camp. The exact death toll is not known, but some 870,000 people are estimated to have died there between July 1942 and October 1943. Fewer than 100 survived.
Treblinka I, a forced labor camp, was established in 1941. Treblinka II opened on July 24, 1942, one mile away. It was founded as part of Operation Reinhard, the Nazis' plan for wiping out Polish Jewry, and it had one purpose only: to kill.
"They didn't have a count," Weinstein recalls. "There were no numbers like they had in Auschwitz. They would kill you for anything, so they didn't bother to count us." Most victims died within a few hours of reaching the camp.
Treblinka II, or what remains of it, is buried in deep forest, a deceptively still and peaceful setting for a mass graveyard. When the camp was operational, nothing could be seen from the outside other than smoke curling into the air.
Today, the barbed wire that once surrounded the camp is gone. Walk from the old station to the Treblinka II site and you will see a row of standing stones marking where the fence used to be, while the train tracks have been replaced with commemorative stone blocks. Beside the ramp where cattle cars packed with people once pulled in, the ground is uneven, still bearing the scars from the ditches that housed the dead.
Inside, the camp is filled with memorial stones bearing the names of communities that were destroyed there. Only one is dedicated to a person, the educator Janusz Korczak. These stones surround a much larger memorial, with a great crack in it to represent the evil that was perpetrated in Treblinka. There is a mass grave nearby, while another stone simply reads: "Never again" in five languages.
Weinstein says that people need to know what happened in this terrible place. His account of his experiences has been published by Yad Vashem, first in Hebrew under the name Plada Rotahat and then in English with the title Quenched Steel: The Story of an Escape from Treblinka. And recently, he accompanied a party of young people from the educational organization Aish Hatorah back to the site. "This is the last generation to be able to hear about what happened firsthand from a survivor," he says. "That won't be possible in 10 years."
WEINSTEIN WAS born Yehuda Jakob Wajnsztajn. He lived in Losice, a small town 120 kilometers east of Warsaw, with his parents and brother, Israel, who was two years younger. Like most Jewish families in Losice, they were poor. In 1939, when Weinstein was 15, war broke out and the town was invaded by the Germans.
"All Jews had to wear armbands with the Star of David on their right arms," he recalls. "We couldn't go to the public schools or city hall, or use public transportation." Two years later, on December 1, 1941, the Germans established a ghetto in Losice, forcing all Jews from surrounding areas to move there. "The overcrowding was unbearable, but we were forbidden to leave on penalty of death. If they caught a Jew one foot outside the ghetto, he was killed on the spot."
With no medicine and no way of obtaining wood or coal, sickness was rife and a typhus epidemic broke out. Weinstein caught the disease, but recovered. In March 1942, he was one of 200 young men taken to a labor camp, where he stayed for 23 days before escaping with a friend. The Jewish council found out about his escape, but Weinstein was in hiding, so they arrested his mother instead.
"My father offered to take my place," Weinstein says. "He was afraid that I would be killed as punishment for escaping. After much argument, they allowed him to go." Had his father, Asher, not made this sacrifice, he too would have been sent to Treblinka on August 22, 1942, when the SS rounded up the Jews from the Losice ghetto.
Weinstein describes seeing horse-drawn wagons waiting for them in the market square. "Women and children were told to climb aboard, while the rest of us had to line up in rows near the church. The SS pulled some people off the wagons and shot them. When the wagons left town, we were ordered to start marching. The SS men were shooting at us to make us speed up."
It was on this journey that Weinstein would get his last glimpse of his mother. "I saw her following one of the wagons. It was the last time in my life I saw her."
After a night of being shot at by SS men, Weinstein remembers being marched to a freight rail station. Another night passed before an empty train arrived and he was pushed into a cattle car along with his brother. "It filled up quickly and there was no air," he explains. "We realized we were going to die. We pushed ourselves up on the people's heads and, with a superhuman effort, we managed to get out. To this day I don't know how we did it."
The Weinstein brothers might have escaped suffocation, but with the cattle cars crammed full, the SS simply added more carriages and they found themselves on the train once again. After a three-hour journey, they arrived at Treblinka station.
"We realized that this was our final destination, where we were going to be living and working," Weinstein says. "But nobody in their wildest dreams could have imagined what they were going to do to us." He describes seeing a water pump near the train. "People started breaking the windows open and jumping. Every one of them was shot."
By the time their section of the train reached the ramp, dead bodies were piled almost up to the windows. "They were about 10 feet high. In some of the cattle cars, 60 to 70 per cent were dead."
The people were sorted as they disembarked from the train. "Young men and boys to the right. Women, children and older men to the left. They took them into a large building. We didn't know what it was. Then we were told to start pulling dead bodies into ditches. They killed a lot of people during the night, and in the morning, there was no room left for the dead."
A digging machine was used to gouge out three pits. Weinstein recalls that around 9 in the morning, a maintenance train arrived and the SS demanded that 20 boys climb aboard. "We picked up all the bodies, and also parts of bodies where people had been hiding under the train and were cut into pieces when it moved."
They were then taken into the camp, where an SS officer brought pails of water. Desperately thirsty, Weinstein stood in line. "I saw the SS man reaching for his handgun. He shot me and I fell in a puddle of blood. The bullet went in four inches under my arm and came out an inch and a half closer to the center. My doctor in New York has asked me how the hell I survived."
Israel managed to clean up his brother using a towel and some iodine that he found, ignoring his requests to call the SS man to finish him off. Weinstein recalls that his cousin, Chaim, told them that there was a doctor in the building where all the clothing was kept, bandaging a friend of his, Jolke Goldberg, who had been shot in the elbow. They couldn't find the doctor, but Israel hid his brother among the clothes and went to look for water.
"I never saw him again," Weinstein says. "I don't even have a picture of him."
After three days, during which time the only liquid he consumed was urine given to him by some other boys hiding in the same building, he sneaked out. "I saw people getting water near the pits where they took the bodies, so I joined three other people to drag one. Those corpses had been lying under the sun for days. They were bloodied and blackened and the stench was unbearable."
Weinstein discovered that only seven boys were left from his town. The rest were dead. They were working together in a special commando with a separate sleeping area. He managed to join their group without anyone noticing and worked sorting the clothes of the dead.
"Then the trains stopped coming and all the bodies were cleaned up from the ramp. People were hopeful. We thought maybe the Red Cross was going to come."
It later transpired that the commandant, Franz Stangl, had come to Treblinka II from Sobibor around the time that Weinstein arrived at the camp. "He feared that if those arriving saw so many dead people, they might revolt," Weinstein explains.
Once the trains starting arriving again, he remembers seeing a sick woman. "Her legs wouldn't hold her. The SS man said to take her to the hospital, so that the new arrivals would know how well they were looking after the wounded. The so-called hospital was one of the three big pits. The sick and wounded were taken there, shot in the neck and thrown in."
Stangl was a brutal man, as was assistant commandant Kurt Hubert Franz, whom the prisoners nicknamed "Lalke," Yiddish for doll, due to the fact that he was much younger than most of the other SS at the camp. "He was the worst sadist you can imagine," Weinstein says. "One day, he walked in with five SS officers and they said they needed 40 people." Weinstein was in the line, but managed to get out without anyone noticing. "They took them to the middle field and told them to undress. Then they told them to turn around to the grave and they shot them in the neck and kicked them into the pit."
Of all the terrible things he witnessed in Treblinka, Weinstein says that the image that haunts him the most is the memory of seeing a dozen infants sitting beside a pit of burning bodies. "The SS man had left for his lunch and they were just sitting there, looking at the big inferno and the burning flesh. Of all my memories of this factory of death, this vision of the babies is the worst. Whenever I think of Treblinka, I see their beautiful faces."
ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1942, an empty train arrived to take away the clothing that had been taken from the dead. Weinstein saw an opportunity to escape, and seized it. "I grabbed a bundle on my back and ran to the train, but the two workers doing the loading wouldn't let me in. They took the bundle away from me."
When 20 cattle cars had been filled, another 20 arrived. "One of the boys from my town, Lejzer Mordsky, let me in, along with my friend Gedale Rosenzwejg and another guy from Losice, Michael Fishman. We got in and they buried us in the clothing. The SS checked the train was full, they locked the doors and the train left the camp."
The train stayed at the station overnight, and in the morning, about 30 kilometers down the road, Weinstein and his companions made their escape. "We broke open the little windows and we jumped." Incredibly, they managed to get back to Losice, where a second, much smaller ghetto had been formed. They tried to tell people what was going on at Treblinka, but nobody would listen. "They thought we were crazy. They didn't believe us."
In the second ghetto, it transpired that Weinstein and his fellow escapees were not thought to be dead, as they had hoped. One evening, Polish police surrounded the building they were in. "The commandant asked me my name and I gave my mother's family name, Brakmann. I thought maybe he was looking for us, so I told them a different name. To this day, I don't know who squealed on us. It was such a terrible thing to do."
Weinstein jumped out of the second floor window, while Michael Fishman, who made the mistake of giving his real name, was led away with his brother. Weinstein managed to save them by giving 5,000 zlotys to a friend of the commandant. He last saw both Fishman and Gedale Rosenzwejg in November 1942, each having left the Losice ghetto in search of a hiding place, and never discovered either's fate.
Two weeks after Weinstein's return, his father managed to escape from the concentration camp. He had been working as a painter and gardener so was allowed to leave the camp, making it easy to get away. Michael Fishman had taken gold from Treblinka, which helped them to survive. But on July 30, 1944, just before they were liberated by the Russians, Weinstein, his father and his friend Berl Goldberg, whose brother Jolke had been shot in the elbow in Treblinka, were discovered by retreating German soldiers.
"They killed Berl Goldberg, but my father and I were lucky," Weinstein says. They had obtained German papers while in hiding, and managed to convince the soldiers that they worked for the Gestapo in town.
Weinstein would go on to join the Polish army. "In January 1945, I was on the front line," he says. "I was proud that after five years of brutal and bloody persecution, I was able to participate in Germany's defeat." He and his father then spent three years in a displacement camp in western Germany, before moving to New York, where his father's brother lived. His father died in New York in 1972. Weinstein has two sons and seven grandchildren, and just as he has educated his own children about the horrors of the Holocaust, he says that others should do the same.
"Don't stand idle just because it does not concern you, otherwise it might happen again," he says. That's why he decided to revisit Treblinka with young people from Aish Hatorah. "You as Jews have a duty to tell your children and your children's children what happened to the Jewish people," he told them. n