On This Day: 79 years since Jews revolted at Nazi's Treblinka death camp

The revolt saw only a few Jews manage to escape the extermination camp, with only 70 surviving until the end of the war. But it crippled the camp in its final months.

Treblinka German death camp in Poland railway sign at Yad Vashem. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Treblinka German death camp in Poland railway sign at Yad Vashem.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

August 2, 2022 marks 79 years since the Jewish inmates of the Nazi concentration camp Treblinka in occupied Poland staged a revolt against their captors in a bid to escape.

The Treblinka uprising was preceded by considerable preparations in secrecy over the course of several months, all eventually culminating in a bold uprising that saw the escape of the camp's few survivors. 

The escape also came in what would be the final months in which Treblinka would be operating during the Holocaust and helped cripple the camp's functioning.

Background

The Treblinka concentration camp was operated in the summer of 1942 in eastern Poland, which the Nazis occupied following their invasion of the Soviet Union.

The camp itself was set up with showers that were actually just gas chambers in disguise along with cremation pits in order further ramp up the genocide of Polish Jewry.

The train tracks that lead to the Treblinka death camp (credit: YAD VASHEM)The train tracks that lead to the Treblinka death camp (credit: YAD VASHEM)

Treblinka, alongside Sobibor and Belzec, was created as part of Operation Reinhard, one of the deadliest phases of the Holocaust where Zyklon B gas chambers were first properly introduced, which also saw use at the preexisting Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps. It should be noted though that Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec didn't use Zyklon B and instead used carbon monoxide from engine exhaust.

Indeed, it was this time when the concentration camps stopped being mere forced-labor camps, and instead truly became "death camps."

However, Treblinka and the other camps established through Operation Reinhard differed in that while Majdanek and Auschwitz were "mixed" and had forced labor as well as exterminations, these three were almost exclusively dedicated to the efficient mass murder of Jews.

Treblinka itself was technically two separate camps. The first, Treblinka I, replaced a preexisting forced labor camp and still essentially functioned as such. 

The second camp, Treblinka II, however, was exclusively a death camp. It was divided into three parts: The administrative compound for the guards, the receiving area where prisoners arrived and the gas chambers.

However, to disguise the camp's true nature, Treblinka II was built to resemble a standard transit camp. However, only a few trains ever showed up each day, each one carrying Jews

Regardless, when Jews arrived at Treblinka, they were immediately taken to the gas chambers. 

This method was used to kill approximately 1.7 million Jews. Despite operating just 15 months, Treblinka alone was used to kill around 870,000 Jews.

Prelude to revolt

While Treblinka II was exclusively a death camp, Treblinka I was still a forced labor camp and there were Jews forced to work there. 

In addition, a number of Jews were kept alive in Treblinka II to be used as Sonderkommandos, prisoners forced under the threat of death to help the Nazis dispose of the corpses of those killed by the gas chambers. This is not to be confused with the SS-Sonderkommandos, which were part of the Nazi SS. 

Talks among Jewish inmates to stage a revolt started in early 1943 with the goal of taking over the camp and escaping. This was a long, complex planning process, complicated by a general nervousness among inmates of trusting others since it could have led to information being leaked to the Nazis. Soon, fewer and fewer Jews began to arrive at the camp. This was seemingly in line with Aktion 1005, the Nazi effort to conceal all traces of the Holocaust. As such, it sparked fears that soon, the camp itself may be shut and the rest of the Jews, even the Sonderkommandos, would be killed.

Then came the revolt.

"It was a singular and unique day, one which we anticipated and hoped for. Our hearts pounded with the hope that maybe, just maybe our long-nurtured dream would come true. We harbored no thoughts of ourselves and our lives. Our only desire was to obliterate the death factory which had become our home."

Samuel Willenberg

The Treblinka revolt

On August 2, 1943 was a Monday, the inmates had managed to sneak over to the arsenal and unlock it with a key that had been duplicated in secret. A number of guns and grenades were taken and discreetly delivered to Jews in the camp. 

That afternoon, the uprising began. 

"It was a singular and unique day, one which we anticipated and hoped for," noted Treblinka survivor Samuel Willenberg. "Our hearts pounded with the hope that maybe, just maybe our long-nurtured dream would come true. We harbored no thoughts of ourselves and our lives. Our only desire was to obliterate the death factory which had become our home."

The attack began at 3:45 p.m. when the inmates struck the guards, set buildings and a fuel tanker ablaze and stormed the gates to make their escape.

However, the scene at the gates was anything but successful, with Nazi machine gun fire slaughtering nearly everyone involved. Just 200 managed to actually escape.

"The machine gun stepped up its bursts. Behind me, at the outer fence, tragedy," Willenberg recalled. 

"The brave ones climbed up the iron and wire complex only to be hit there by a bullet. They fell with screams of despair. Their bodies remained hanging on the wires, spraying blood on the ground. No one paid any attention to them. More prisoners climbed over the still-quivering bodies and they, too, were cut down and fell, their crazed eyes staring at the camp, which now looked like a giant torch…I crawled through the open area and reached the barriers….The dead had created a sort of bridge over the barbed-wire complex across which another escapee moved every moment…With a leap, I climbed the bridge of bodies. I heard a shot, felt a blow – but another jump, and I was in the forest…."

Ultimately, despite the efforts to flee, most of the 200 didn't survive for long, with pursuing Nazis killing around half of them.

Only around 70 people were thought to actually have survived until the end of the war. Of them, Willenberg would end up being the last survivor. After he escaped, he would eventually move to Israel, study arts and found fame as a sculpture creating works relating to the Holocaust, including a depiction of Treblinka and the revolt. He passed away in 2016.

SAMUEL WILLENBERG (credit: Wikimedia Commons)SAMUEL WILLENBERG (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The aftermath

The Treblinka camp never fully recovered from the revolt.

The camp itself was already becoming redundant as Auschwitz was more or less able to take care of the rest of the Nazi plans. However, it was still in operation for another couple of months, and its gas chambers were never actually destroyed. Despite this, it became far less efficient and the process was much slower. 

Eventually, Treblinka II was fully dismantled in October 1943, with the as chambers dismantled and used to build a farmhouse, covering up traces of the camp. Surrounding villages and farmlands were also burnt up ahead of the impending Soviet invasion. however, the Treblinka I camp's gravel mine continued to operate until the summer of 1944.

Ultimately, when Soviet troops arrived in 1944, most of the extermination camp was gone, though there was still some evidence of human remains. In addition, the road leading to where the camp had once been was black from the massive amount of human ashes that had been consistently spread over the road. Further, local Poles were known to have been aware that the camp existed, despite the effort of the Nazis to cover it up.

Ultimately, the efforts of the revolt helped cripple Treblinka in its final days and represents a bold effort by the Jewish inmates to escape the slaughter of the gas chambers.

Simcha Pasko contributed to this report.