This Day in Jewish History

1943: Treblinka Inmates Rise Up Against Nazi Captors

Preferring to die fighting than by gas, 800 inmates armed with 20 rifles and not much else rebelled. They weren't victorious, but the concentration camp was damaged badly enough to be shut down two months later.

Edward Kopówka, Rytel-Andrianik, Paweł, Wikimedia Commons

On August 2, 1943, the Jewish inmates of the Treblinka death camp rose up en masse against their persecutors. Although only 100 inmates ultimately survived the attempted escape, the revolt caused considerable damage to the camp, which the Germans shut down two months later.

Treblinka, situated some 80 kilometers northeast of Warsaw, was established as a forced-labor camp in occupied Poland in December 1941. A half year later, a second, secret facility, Treblinka II, was opened for the sole purpose of killing.

Over the next two years, between 870,000 and 950,000 people died there, most of them through gassing, making Treblinka second only to Auschwitz in the number of people murdered there.

Burning the evidence

By the spring of 1943, Germany’s defeat had begun to seem more likely, though it would take another two years for the Third Reich to collapse. Fewer deportees were being sent to Treblinka, where the major occupation now seemed to be burning the evidence of the hundreds of thousands of bodies that had previously been buried in mass graves.

The people sent to Treblinka II were nearly all sent to their deaths almost immediately upon arrival at the camp. About a thousand Jewish inmates were kept alive to carry out the day-to-day maintenance of the assembly line of murder. These Jewish "workers" now feared that before withdrawing from Poland, the Germans would kill them too and destroy all traces of the camp.

Figuring that it was preferable to die fighting than in a gas chamber, and inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, a number of prisoners began plotting a revolt, with the goal of allowing as many as possible to escape the camp into the surrounding forests.

It is estimated that about 800 prisoners participated in the August 2 revolt. Their leaders included the Polish-Jewish physicians Julian Chorazycki and Berek Lacher, Czech-Jewish army officer Zelomir Bloch, camp "elder" Marceli Galewski, Jankiel Wiernik, a carpenter, and Rudolph Masaryk, a presumed relation to the late Czech president Tomas Masaryk.

Masaryk was a non-Jew who had insisted on accompanying his Jewish wife to Treblinka, where she was murdered upon arrival.

Blowing up the camp

The key to carrying out a rebellion was just that – obtaining a key to the storeroom where weapons and ammunition were kept. A shrewd subterfuge allowed a Jewish locksmith to make a wax impression of it, from which he cut a key.

When the assault got under way, the rebels were in possession of some 20 rifles, several handguns and about 40 grenades.

August 2, 1943, was a Monday, typically a quiet day at Treblinka, because on Sundays no deportee trains departed from Warsaw. Accounts of the day emphasize that the level of anticipation was extremely high among prisoners, whose leaders stressed the need for them to carry out their regular tasks as normal, and to do nothing to tip off their captors.

The action kicked off a half-hour before it was scheduled to, after an especially brutal German guard caught two Jewish prisoners who were both carrying cash, in anticipation of their escape. When he began to beat and interrogate them, another plotter who witnessed his attack shot the German. There was then no alternative but to proceed with the uprising.

One of the main objectives was to destroy physical structures. One rebel set off a large explosion, which took with it an SS barracks, the bakery, and the camp garage and fuel pump. Additionally, the main entrance to the camp was attacked, though it was only partially destroyed, so that the hundreds who tried to make their exit still had to contend with several layers of fences and barbed wire.

In the end, about 200 made it into the forest, and of those, about 100 survived the manhunt that was sparked by the revolt.

Two months later, the Germans closed the facilities at Treblinka II, which the remaining Jewish inmates were ordered to dismantle in full, before they themselves were shot. Treblinka I, the labor camp, was closed down in July 1944.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen