This Week in History: Prisoners revolt at Treblinka

Jews who noticed the slowing flow of prisoners marked for death, heard of Nazi losses on the Eastern Front, began planning their uprising.

concentration camp in Mauthausen (R) 311 (photo credit: Herwig Prammer / Reuters)
concentration camp in Mauthausen (R) 311
(photo credit: Herwig Prammer / Reuters)
There were around 850 Jewish prisoners in the Treblinka extermination camp the night of August 1, 1943. Twenty-four hours later, less than 400 remained. On August 2, 1943, a long-planned, much delayed, hastily executed revolt and mass escape took place at the Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
Already in late 1942, prisoners in Treblinka I and II, two branches of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland, began noticing that fewer transports carrying prisoners were arriving. The prisoners, many of whom were forcefully employed disposing of the bodies of European Jews, noticed that stockpiled possessions of the dead were being shipped out of the camps. There was a growing suspicion that the remaining prisoners would soon be exterminated.
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Dozens of prisoners at Treblinka had escaped during year the camp was in operation. During that time, however, a constant flow of Jews and Gypsies were sent there for near-certain death. Towards the end of the camp’s existence, one population remained constant: the Jews who were forcibly employed in its various operations.
Those Jews, who noticed the slowing flow of prisoners marked for death and heard of Nazi losses on the Eastern Front from smuggled newspapers, began planning a revolt. Several smaller attempts to murder Nazi commanders and Ukrainian soldiers, as well as escape attempts, had resulted in the collective punishment of those left behind. It was therefore decided that the only chance of escape was for all the prisoners to revolt at once, overwhelming the camp’s guards.
In mid 1942, organizers of what would become the Treblinka Revolt began efforts to bribe Ukrainian soldiers stationed at the camp for weapons. Prisoners had been stockpiling money and valuables taken from murdered Jews, regularly paying the Ukrainian sentries for extra food. The guards were unwilling, however, to provide weapons.
Prisoners in both Treblinka I and II managed to coordinate plans for revolt. The go-between was a Jewish carpenter, Jacob Wiernik, who was regularly sent between the two adjacent camps to perform woodwork.
In late summer in 1943, the sense of urgency of staging the revolt spurred a renewed effort to plan the daring prisoner coup. A planning committee that was originally comprised of 10 people quickly grew to over 60. The organizers, with the help of a Jewish locksmith forcibly employed by the Nazis managed to make a copy of a key to the camp’s weapons store. Organizing members of the revolt were divided among the various work details in the camp.
In late July, a party held by the Nazis at the camp to celebrate the end of their “mission” prompted the organizers to set a definitive date and time for their revolt and escape, August 2. The time was set for 4:30 p.m. in order to allow the escape of all the prisoners under the cover of darkness.
At the time, there were only some 850 prisoners left in Treblinka. On the eve of the revolt, the plans were finally revealed to a large number of prisoners to prepare them for the planned escape, many more learned of the plot on their own.
The day of the escape, many of the Nazi and Ukrainian soldiers had left the camp to go swimming at a nearby river, a coincidence that would ultimately aid the revolt.
According to plan, at 2 p.m. on August 2, two young prisoners took the forged key to the weapons store and began passing grenades and firearms through a window in sacks to prisoners waiting outside. The weapons were then taken in garbage carts and construction pails for distribution around the camp.
The distribution of arms was going to plan until a Nazi guard arbitrarily stopped a Jewish prisoner and found contraband money on him. Worried that the man would be tortured and give up the plot, organizers decided to launch the revolt ahead of schedule, and the deployment of weapons throughout the camp was never completed. The explosion of the first grenade – the agreed-upon signal for the beginning of the fighting – was heard throughout both camps.
A fuel tank was set on fire, barracks and warehouses were set ablaze, military vehicles disabled and grenades were thrown at the SS headquarters. Several Nazi and Ukrainian soldiers were killed with explosives and gunfire, but machine-gun fire rained down on the prisoners. Due to the improvised early start of the fighting, the supply of guns, ammunition and grenades quickly waned and the chaos of fighting turned into panic.
Prisoners began flooding to the camp’s gates, throwing fabrics and clothing on the barbed wire in order to climb out of the Nazi extermination camp. Of the 850 Jewish prisoners at the camp that day, roughly 100 made managed to escape. Over half were killed by Nazi machine-gun fire, or were promptly captured and shot.
Fewer than 70 of those who escaped that day from the Nazi camp in eastern Occupied Poland survived to see the end of the war.
Speaking at the trial of Adolph Eichmann two decades later in Jerusalem, Kalman Teigman described his escape. “I simply climbed over the fence. There had already been people who had escaped that way, and on the fence there were already blankets and boards, and we climbed over on these.”
“The Germans chased us on horses and also in cars. Some of those who escaped had arms. I also ran with a group that possessed a rifle and revolvers. These people returned the Germans’ fire and the Germans withdrew. In this way we managed to reach the forest, which was near this camp.”
Every one of the revolt’s organizers, who were the last to attempt escape, were killed. Although far more people were killed in the escape than the few who managed to reach the forest and evade capture, the revolt and its deadly results were justified by many prisoners, knowing that they would have been killed anyway had they not done anything.