Attempts at Resistance in the Camps
The response of the Jews to Nazi persecution in the concentration and extermination camps has remained largely an unexplored area marked by rhetorical exaggeration, confusion, and misunderstanding. Considering the vast literature that exists on the Holocaust, it is astonishing how little we actually know about Jewish resistance or the lack of it, about whether the Jews rebelled against their oppressors or, as has been alleged, walked like sheep to slaughter. To be sure, the memoirs of survivors have furnished some valuable data, but a truly comprehensive study of the Jews' reaction to the Holocaust remains to be done. To fully understand how the Jews responded, one needs to examine the conditions under which they lived, the manner in which they were deported, the dilemmas they faced, and Nazi efforts made to thwart resistance.
In eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent in western Europe, the Jews already had endured years of physical and mental abuse prior to deportation to the camps. They had suffered from hunger, disease, and exposure to the elements in eastern European ghettos, and throughout all of Europe, from anxiety, fear, and grief for lost family and friends. The roundups and process of deportation by the Nazis, calculated to break down whatever will the Jews had to resist, thus culminated in further demoralization.
For example, in 1942 Jews living in ghettos within a 120-mile radius of the Belzec extermination camp were rounded up by armed SS units, supported by Polish and Ukrainian auxiliaries, who, after breaking into Jewish homes, burned them, killed large numbers of Jews, and herded the remainder onto trains headed for the Belzec gas chambers.1 In Rowne, Volhynia, the SS used hand grenades to blast open the doors of the Jews' homes.2 In Sluck, Belorussia, and elsewhere, these scenes were repeated. According to the territorial commissioner Karol, "The appearance of the town was shattering. The German police . . . drove the Jews out of their homes with a cruelty and brutality that are indescribable. Echoes of shooting came from all parts of the city, and heaps of Jewish corpses lay about everywhere."3
After the roundups in eastern Europe, and prior to deportation, Jews often had to remain at collecting points, where they were locked up in synagogues, schools, and churches or left without shelter for the entire period, exposed to all kinds of inclement weather. Under these circumstances, many Jews died even before deportation to the camps.4
Elsewhere, Nazi measures differed. In Greater Germany (Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Morovia), for example, deportations were carefully organized so that they would arouse no hostility from the local population. As a result, there were few brutalities. Nonetheless, the possibility of finding refuge or taking flight was limited, and only about 5,000 Jews (out of 250,000) survived in hiding in Germany and Austria.
Whether they were brutally or more humanely treated before being forced on the trains, the Jews often found the trip itself traumatic. One survivor from eastern Europe described the trip in this way:
The temperature started to rise, as the freight car was enclosed and body heat had no outlet The only place to urinate was through a slot in the skylight, though whoever tried this usually missed, spilling urine on the floor.... When dawn finally rose ... we were all quite III and shattered, crushed not only by the weight of fatigue but by the stifling, moist atmosphere and the foul odor of excrement.... There was no latrine, no provision.... On top of everything else, a lot of people had vomited on the floor. We were to live for days on end breathing these foul smells, and soon we lived in the foulness itself.5
To prevent escape from the trains, guards were stationed on the top of the box cars or in other areas where they could shoot anyone attempting to escape. On some trains, the guards continually fired shots past the windows to discourage escape. The Germans were especially concerned about eastern European Jews, who might have heard rumors about the true nature of the transports and the camps. Jews from central and western Europe were of less concern, since they were far enough away from the camps and were thus possibly more persuaded by propaganda. Also, Jews from these regions arrived in passenger cars with some of their personal belongings, which induced them to believe they were being resettled in the "East."
In some transports Jews found escape opportunities, prying window frames loose with brute force or with tools they had brought on board. The decision to escape was in itself difficult. Aside from the risk of injury or gunshot wounds, reluctance to leave family members behind and the absence of proper identity papers and prepared places of refuge created severe hindrances. The local population was either hostile or afraid of getting involved. The penalty in eastern Europe, for aiding or harboring them was death; in western Europe, a fine, arrest, or confinement in a concentration camp. Moreover, rewards were offered to those who informed on Jews. In addition, since Jewish homes had been plundered and expropriated by non-Jews, the latter were not eager to have the Jews return. Still, in some cases Jews did receive help and asylum.
The decision to escape was frequently made in haste and confusion. For example; panic ensued when Jews in transit from Opoczno, Poland, realized they were not traveling westward on their way to Palestine as the Nazis had promised. "It was as though there had been an explosion and a collapse in the carriage," observed one survivor ....I looked at members of my own family and it seemed as though they had all grown old within a single moment."6
Throughout the box car "there were images of dread and horror. Some people tore out their hair, others flung themselves about in despair, and still others cursed with all their might.'' One man tried to commit suicide. A woman pressed her baby to her breast with tremendous force. While the child struggled, she whispered to him and pressed him to her with even greater force. When her fellow passengers saw what she was doing they cried out for her to stop. "It's my child, mine," she shouted back, "and I want him to die a holy death. Let him die a holy death." By the time the people succeeded in freeing the baby, he was already dead.7
Amid this scene, one family considered an appropriate response. The father urged his children to escape at once while there was still a chance. The mother, however, counseled that they stay together. "No, no, no, there's no escape," she warned. "There's nowhere to run to, and withalternative to whom will we leave Rochele [twelve years old] and Malkale [nine years old] ... We must stay together, to the last breath."8 This was a routine dilemma for many Jews, and often either alternative to split up the family or stay together-ended in death for all.
There is no way of establishing precise figures for those who escaped the transports and survived for a while or until the end of the war. We do know that the Nazis went to great lengths to deceive the Jews about the destination of the deportations. They were assured that work would be waiting for them. Physicians would tend the sick, tailors make dresses, and shoemakers make shoes. This was especially reassuring to the Jews, since they had learned from their experiences in the ghettos that only the "useful" had a chance to survive.9
From items found in their clothing and shoes -toothbrushes, toothpaste, candles, toys, knives, forks, spoons, sweaters and stockings-it is clear that whether the Jews came from the ghetto of Sosnovits, a short distance from Auschwitz, or from Hungary, most Jews did not expect to be killed at the end of their journey. The Jews from Hungary even brought winter coats and expensive furs with them, anticipating the cold winter ahead.10
The deception was so successful that some people voluntarily joined the transports to be with their families.11 In 1943, a number of unmarried Jews from Greece even contracted fictitious marriages to be eligible to join a transport. The Germans offered to exchange drachmas for zlotys in the form of special receipts which could then be used to buy land near Cracow. The Greek Jews saw the offer as a unique opportunity and innocently took advantage of it.12
"We were helpless," remarked one survivor. "Our morale was completely broken. They had prepared us for months on end, so that on hearing their very voices we began shaking and trembling. It was a veritable collective psychosis which one could not overcome."13
Arrival at the Camps
When they reached the camps, some Jews were already dead; the rest disoriented, exhausted, and dehydrated from voyages without anything to drink. Deceptions designed to allay their fears occurred as often as brute force; both hindered organized resistance, despite the numerical superiority of inmates over guards.
At Treblinka, deception began as the train arrived at the sham railway station. The Nazis erected this fake depot, complete with a large clock, baggage-check windows, waiting rooms, and posted train schedules. They created the illusion that this was a transit camp, a place en route to a final destination.
But deception to prevent resistance was used only when transports of unsuspecting Jews from the West arrived at the camps. The transports from the East, carrying Jews who suspected their fate, were met by brute force, designed to induce shock and thus make revolt impossible. When those transports arrived, SS and Ukrainian police lashed out at the Jews with whips to hasten their departure from the trains. Those who fell behind were immediately shot. As they passed the large number of piles of clothing scattered everywhere, they became suspicious. They were never given time to think, discuss, or plan a response. Within hours of their arrival, the selection for extermination, the separation of men from women, the stripping of clothes and valuables, and the marching or running to their deaths was completed.
At Treblinka, invalids, and others unable to move quickly, were not killed in the gas chambers, since this would have slowed down an otherwise efficient operation. Instead, they were taken to the so-called Lazaret or infirmary. This, too, was camouflage. The Lazaret was surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence, with brushwood hiding it from view. There was a hut with a Red Cross symbol and the sign LAZARET. Inside was a "waiting room" with upholstered couches. Outside was a large pit, which became a mass grave. Most of the time a flame burned in the ditch. Those who entered the Lazaret were shot in the neck by the SS and thrown into the ditch. The bodies of both those who had died on the trains and those killed on arrival were also thrown there.
An additional attempt to confuse the Jews was a large Star of David on the gable of the front wall of the building that housed the gas chamber. A heavy curtain screening the entrance had the familiar Hebrew inscription: THIS IS THE GATE THROUGH WHICH THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL ENTER14
Another ploy creating disorientation was the Treblinka orchestra, which played its "concert in the square" every day. "The music had a devastating effect on the Jewish workers and on the people who were being driven to their deaths," observed one survivor. "It shattered what was left of their emotional stamina. But for the Germans, it was a 'boost,' a tonic for tired nerves."15
In other extermination camps, the Jews were also subjected to similar forms of deception. At Auschwitz, Filip Muller a survivor, reported that:
. . . those who arrived at night looked into the glare of thousands of lamps spreading over the lifeless landscape, a pale and ghostly light, the somber effect enhanced by the SS guards on their watchtowers with their machine guns at the ready. So bleak was the sight which met new arrivals day or night that somehow it plunged them into a state of apathy. In addition, they were invariably plagued by raging thirst, particularly during the summer heat, and the thought of water so preoccupied them that they seemed no longer able to think of anything else, or of paying more than the most cursory attention to the usual surroundings in which they found themselves.16
For some of the new arrivals, another factor that contributed to this state of mind was the manner in which they were greeted at the Auschwitz station. As one survivor noted:
The carriage doors were flung open and a small detachment of prisoners stormed inside. They wore striped uniforms, their heads were shaved, but they looked well fed. They spoke in every possible European tongue, and all with a certain amount of humor, which sounded grotesque under the circumstances. Like a drowning man clutching a straw, my inborn optimism ... clung to this thought: These prisoners look quite well, they seem to be in good spirits and even laugh. Who knows? I might manage to share their favorable position.
In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as "delusion of reprieve." The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last moment. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.... Nearly everyone in our transport lived under the illusion that they would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well.17
The deception continued until the gas pellets were released. In the so- called changing rooms at Auschwitz there were signs in several languages reading TO THE BATHS and DISINFECTING ROOMS. In addition, there were slogans on the wall, such as ONE LOUSE CAN KILL You, or CLEANLINESS BRINGS FREEDOM. Moreover, numbered clothes hooks and wooden benches, as well as notices urging people to hang up their clothes and shoes and to remember their numbers for after their showers, created an aura of normality.18 At Chelmno, the signs read TO THE PHYSICIAN and TO THE WASHROOM; at Belsec, the entrance to the gas chambers had signs reading WASHING and INHALATION EQUIPMENT. At some camps people were given soap and a towel as they entered the gas chamber; at Maidanek, children were given candy. 19
If the SS guards sensed that the deceptions were not working, they responded with brute force. They beat the Jews and yelled at them to undress. At Auschwitz, a group from the Sosnovits ghetto who had undoubtedly heard rumors about the camp was handled this way. This "brutal action ... completely unnerved [them]. They were confused, frightened, unable to communicate with each other and incapable of anything." As the SS continued their abusive behavior, the group quickly undressed. They were then chased into the crematorium. Once inside, the same procedure was repeated with another group until about 600 people were crammed into the gas chamber.20
With another group at Auschwitz, the Nazis chose a different tactic. Instead of beating and shouting, the guards were friendly and acted like traffic police. The Jews were uneasy, however, after they were taken to a yard that was locked behind them. The Nazis sensed their uneasiness and several senior SS men addressed this group of inmates. They assured the inmates that they were there to work and that those who were willing to do so would be all right.
The inmates were then told to undress for a shower, because their health was of primary concern. Afterward, the SS men added, they would find a bowl of soup waiting. Some of the inmates were asked about their trades, and the SS seemed pleased that they had skills which could be utilized in the camp.
During this discussion, the prisoners' "fears and anxieties vanished-as if by magic. Quiet as lambs, they undressed, without having to be shouted at or beaten." They tried to undress as quickly as possible so they could be the first in the shower. Thus "cozened and deceived," hundreds of men, women, and children then "walked innocently, and without a struggle, into the large windowless chamber of the crematorium."21
On another occasion, the SS dispensed with the deception when they realized that the Jews knew they were about to be murdered. As the SS surrounded the yard of the crematorium, the Jews understood there was no escape. Resigned to their fate, they began undressing, trying not to cry in order to avoid upsetting their children. After undressing, someone in the crowd led them in the Viddui (death bed confession). A Jew who witnessed this scene recalls that as they finished this prayer almost everyone wept. "Their tears were not tears of despair.... They put themselves in God's hands. Strangely.... the SS ... did not intervene, but let the people be."22
There were Jews who were so shattered and traumatized by their experiences that they welcomed death as a relief from torture. Many people, having lost their families, saw no purpose in enduring pain, suffering, and torture any longer. At the Janowska concentration camp, for example, a number of women did not wait to be shot. They threw their children into the large pit and jumped in after them. After one woman spit in the face of a guard, he took her child by the legs, knocked its head against a tree and threw the child into the fire. The woman was then held upside down over the fire.23
Little, perhaps nothing, could be done by those who were taken to the gas chambers or killed immediately upon arrival. Members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria, learned from experience that it was pointless to inform unsuspecting people about their impending doom, unless they could provide them with possible ways of escape. Warnings caused fear and panic without saving a single life.
In the summer of 1943, a member of the Sonderkormmando at Auschwitz recognized the wife of one of his friends in a transport that had just arrived from Bialystok, Poland. In the changing room, he informed her that the entire group would be gassed. She believed him, and as the impact of his words began to register, she started tearing her hair, beating her breast, and scratching her face with her fingernails. After a few minutes, she ran to the women around her and told them what she had learned. When they refused to listen, she ran to the men and repeated her story.
At first, all the people-men and women alike-were reluctant to acknowledge this information from a half-crazed woman. Then the group of about 1,000 began dressing and tried to leave the building. Although unsure of where to go, they at least tried to get out. But there was no way to escape; the building was completely surrounded by the SS. Anyone who tried to leave would have been shot.
During the first few minutes, the SS was unsure how to respond; then one of the officers blew his whistle several times. The noise frightened the crowd. Temporarily it also diverted the prisoners from moving towards the exits. After the SS had assured them that nothing was going to happen to them, the door was opened. SS guards, pistols in hand, stood ready to fire. They were flanked by barking dogs who bared their teeth and strained at their leashes only yards away from the crowd. The show of force succeeded. As long as the Jews were promised that no harm would come to them, they were willing to go to the showers. Perhaps even at this point there were some who still hoped that a miracle might occur.
The woman who had warned the group was not sent to the gas chamber, but taken out and shot. Her friend in the Sonderkommando was pushed into an oven and burned alive.24
In spite of the multiplicity of obstacles, there were occasional, spontaneous acts of resistance. At Auschwitz, a beautiful young dancer attracted the attention of two SS men as she undressed. As they came closer to ogle her, she struck one of them in the forehead with her high- heeled shoes and grabbed his gun. She aimed at him, missed, but then shot and killed his colleague. The SS guards responded by firing machine guns at all the people who remained inside the changing room. A small number who managed to survive the attack were taken outside and shot. Those who had entered the gas chamber and been shielded from the massacre were then gassed.25
At Treblinka, a transport of Jews from Grodno, Poland, refused to enter the gas chambers; one threw a hand grenade at the Ukrainian guards. The latter then opened fire on the group and chased them, while they were still fully clothed, into the gas chambers.26
Those not selected to be killed immediately upon arrival were subjected to all forms of degradation and humiliation. Random beatings, medical experiments, starvation, inadequate sanitation, and extremely harsh working conditions in all types of weather became part of everyday life in the camps. Under these circumstances, it was extremely difficult to organize any opposition. Moreover, there were the problems of building trust, communicating with people of different nationalities and languages; securing weapons; developing contacts within the camp and with the outside world; and establishing an organization for planning and implementing the rebellion. All this with the SS scrutinizing the inmates' every move. In addition, no matter how well-organized an operation might be, there was always the danger of betrayal, of key members becoming ill, transferred to other camps, murdered by guards, or sent to the gas chambers. Despite these seemingly overwhelming obstacles, resistance often culminated in major rebellions.
Individual and Group Responses
Lesser acts of resistance also occurred. Their existence and nature probably will never be fully known, but it is clear that gestures of resistance just short of open revolt took place everywhere. Escape was one such form of resistance. One Jew who escaped had worked at Kulm with a group that was in charge of burying the dead. After coming upon the bodies of his wife and children, he asked an SS guard to shoot him. The guard refused. That evening he tried to commit suicide, but his friends stopped him. Finally, three days later, he escaped from a work detail. Very few individual escapes from the camps, however, were successful.27
Individual attacks on guards constituted another form of resistance. At Treblinka, Meir Berliner was despondent after his wife and daughter were murdered in the gas chambers. On September 10, 1942, he stabbed and killed the SS officer Max Vielas to avenge the death of his family. In retaliation, the SS killed Berliner and ten other Jews and deprived the other inmates of dinner that evening. 28
This was the first instance of open resistance at Treblinka, but it was not the last in which collective punishment was used to inhibit further occurrences. In another instance, mother and son from Kielce were separated shortly after arrival. When the son tried to say goodbye to his mother, he was stopped by a Ukrainian guard. The son then stabbed the guard with his pocket-knife. Before the day ended, all the Jews from Kielce had been shot in reprisal.29
Collective punishment probably inhibited individual attempts at escape or resistance. Moshe Belsky, reports that 2,000 people were incarcerated in his labor camp. At first, those assigned to outside work were heavily guarded. When the threat of escape decreased, the number of guards was reduced. Beisky noted that the reason for the changed attitude was simple: "If anybody escaped, his whole group, or most of it, was shot." Each group contained seventy to ninety people and no one wanted to be responsible for their deaths.30
At the Janowska concentration camp, preparations had been made for a revolt, but the inmates failed to carry it out because they feared reprisals would be made against members of their families. Only when it became clear that the Germans would kill all the Jews was the idea of rebellion entertained.31
The absence of secure hiding places also inhibited large numbers of escapes. Some Jews did find a refuge among Gentiles, but many were beaten and robbed or betrayed to the SS by the local inhabitants. Clearly, there was no place of hiding adequate for millions of Jews. Even in Denmark, the Danish Resistance insisted on smuggling Jews out of the country to Sweden rather than risk hiding them in Denmark under the German occupation.
The need to bear witness was a powerful force among the Jews, prompting many of them to escape, despite the obstacles. In early 1942, one Jew escaped from Chelmno to the Warsaw ghetto. He met with members of the underground and told them how the Jews had been murdered in Chelmno. He made his report shortly after the underground received information from another source that tens of thousands of Jews from Vilna were being deported and killed. As a result, the underground stopped its cultural activities and devoted its energies to armed defense.32
Information about Treblinka was reported to the Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto by Abraham Krzepicki and David Nowodworski. On August 25, 1942, Krzepicki was deported to Treblinka from Warsaw; eighteen days later he escaped and returned to the ghetto. His report on Treblinka was the first eyewitness account the Jews in the ghetto had received. During the April 1943 revolt, his report was buried in milk cans in the ghetto-cans that were part of Emmanuel Ringelblum's archives. Krzepickl joined the Jewish Fighting Organization and was killed in the 1943 uprising.33 Nowodworski also escaped from Treblinka and in April 1943 led a squad of the Jewish Fighting Organization.
Seventy-six Jews escaped from Auschwitz; all but a dozen were caught and returned to the camp.34 Almost all were hanged or shot, their corpses displayed publicly as a warning to others. One young Belgian Jewess who tried to escape and failed was Mala Zimetbaum. Together with a Polish inmate, she fled to Slovakia in order to alert the world to the murder of Hungarian Jewry. To document her charges, she brought papers from the camp. But at the Slovakian border, she and the Polish inmate were arrested after the guards discovered the Auschwitz tatoo on Mala's arm. Both prisoners were returned to the camp and killed.35
Other escape attempts from Auschwitz were successful. Three photographs of the crematoria complex, including one of a pit with burning bodies, were taken by a member of the Auschwitz underground and smuggled to London. On April 5, 1944, Siegfried Vitezslav Lederer, a Czech Jew, escaped and reached Bohemia. He informed the Berlin Rabbi Leo Baeck, a member of the Theresienstadt Judenrat, about Auschwitz. Although Baeck believed Lederer, he decided not to share this information with the ghetto inhabitants. As he later explained:
I finally decided that no one should know it. If the Council of Elders were informed, the whole camp would know within a few hours. Knowledge of death by gassing would only be harder, and death was not certain at all. There was also selection for slave labor and perhaps not all transports went to Auschwitz. So I decided not to tell anyone.36
On April 7, 1944, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, two Slovakian Jews who worked in the administration at Auschwitz, escaped. They fled to Slovakia and tried to warn the leaders of Slovakian Jews about the imminent danger to the Jews of Hungary. Meetings were held with the Slovakian Jewish leaders, who asked them to prepare a report on Auschwitz with the Orthodox Slovakian leader, Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel.
These reports, along with accounts from Arnost Rosin and Czeszek Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz on May 27, 1944, and information from a Polish officer, who also escaped at that time, were sent to the Swiss authorities, and the Vatican in June 1944. Hungarian Jewish leaders received copies in April and May; the American and British governments received abridged reports during the third week in June.
In a letter of May 18, 1944, Rabbi Weissmandel demanded that the Allies bomb the murder installations at Auschwitz as well as the railroad lines leading to the camp. Nothing was done, although in the late spring of 1944 the Allies flew over Auschwitz several times and photographed the camp.37
In summary, it is clear that when the Jews entered the camps, their options for resistance were few. For those who were taken to the gas chambers immediately, nothing but a dignified death was possible. They were trapped and, if deceptions failed, the SS used force. Those Jews who were spared during the initial selections faced almost insurmountable obstacles. Yet despite these, some Jews managed to escape, inform the world, and even start revolts.
Significantly, when Russian and Polish prisoners of war were about to be murdered, they reacted much like the Jews. On several occasions, Filip Mailer, a member of the Sonderkommando, talked with the former in the dressing room at Auschwitz:
Many of them had been newly arrested and the majority were strong, well-nourished men in their prime. Not a few had bruises, an indication that they had been beaten or tortured. When asked to undress, they realized at once what fate awaited them. [Helplessness] and fear, but also defiance, could be read in their eyes when, from the execution room, they heard the muffled sounds of shots and the dull thud of falling bodies. But at the last moment, even hardened old soldiers and partisans began to tremble. Many shook hands or embraced, others crossed themselves and prayed, although they had not believed in God for a long time. Now, forsaken, and with nothing left to cling to, they turned to God and prayed to him.38
For the most part, these were trained soldiers, yet they went to their deaths like millions of Jewish civilians. Moreover, they often did not have to worry about the survival of their families if they disobeyed.39
1. Leon Poliakov, Harvest of Hate: The Nazi Program for the Destruction of the Jews of Europe, translated from the French (New York: Holocaust Library, 1979), p. 150.
2. Isaiah Trunk, Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution (New York: Stein and Day, 1979), p. 53.
3. Trunk, Jewish Responses, p. 53.
4. Trunk, Jewish Responses, p. 53.
5. Cited in Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 53.
6. Cited in Azriel Eisenberg, Witness to the Holocaust (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1981), p. 210.
7. Eisenberg, Witness, p. 210.
8. Eisenberg, Witness, p. 211.
9. Filip Mailer, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (New York: Stein and Day, 1979), pp. 26-27, 36.
10. Mailer, Eyewitness, pp. 32-34, 143.
11. Olga Lengyel, Five Chimneys: The Story of Auschwitz (New York: Ziff-Davis Publishing, 1947), pp. 4-5.
12. Poliakov, Harvest of Hate, pp. 158-59.
13. Proceedings of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann (English Version), 2 May 1961, Session 24 Rrl IEM.
14. Alexander Donat, ed., The Death Camp Treblinka (New York: Holocaust Library, 1979), p. 229; Attorney General's Opening Address, chapter IX, in Proceedings of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann, n.d., pp. ix 2-3.
15. Donat, Death Camp Treblinka, p. 45.
16. Mailer, Eyewitness, p. 134.
17. Viktor E. Frankel, Man's Search for Meaning (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), pp. 14-16.
18. Mailer, Eyewitness, p. 61.
19. Attorney General's Opening Address, Chapter IX p. 2.
20. Muller Eyewitness, pp. 32-33.
21. Muller Eyewitness, pp. 36-38.
22. Muller Eyewitness, pp. 69-71.
23. Proceedings of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann, 2 May 1961, Session 23 N I BG.
24. Muller Eyewitness, pp. 75-80.
25. Muller Eyewitness, pp. 87-89. See also Wieslaw Kielar, A nus Mundi: 1500 Days in A uschwitz-Birkenau, translated from the Polish (New York: Times Books, 1980), pp. 177-78.
26. Attorney General's Opening Address, Chapter IX, p. 3.
27. Gideon Hausner, justice in Jerusalem (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 169.
28. Donat, Death Camp Treblinka, pp. 127-32.
29. Donat, Death Camp Treblinka, p. 84.
30. Hausner, justice, pp. 162-63.
31. Leon W. Wells, The Death Brigade (New York: Holocaust Library, 1978), pp. 83-85. Reprint of The Janowska Road (1963).
32. Proceedings of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann, 3 May 1961, Session 25 JL IEM.
33. Donat, Death Camp Treblinka, p. 77.
34. Reuben Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi' Occupied Eastern Europe (London: Paul Elek, 1974), p. 685.
35. Hausner, justice, p. 191; Yuri Suhl ed., They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), pp. 182-88.
36. Cited in Eric H. Boehm, We Survived (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), p. 293. See also Albert H. Friedlander, Leo Baeck: Teacher of Theresienstadt (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), pp. 46-48; and Randolph L. Braham, "What Did They Know and When?" in The Holocaust as Historical Experience, eds. Yehuda Bauer and Nathan Rotenstreich (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981), pp. 109-31.
37. Rudolf Vrba, I Cannot Forgive (New York: Grove Press, 1964), pp. 248-61; David Wyman, "Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed," Commentary 65 (1978): 37-46.
38. Muller Eyewitness, p. 74.
39. Hausner, justice, p. 183.
For Further Reading
Hausner, Gideon. justice in Jerusalem. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
Hoess, Rudolf. Commandant of Auschwitz: the Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess. New York: The World Publishing Co., 1959.
Kielar, Wieslaw. Anus Mundi: 1500 Days in Auschwitz Birkenau. New York: Times Books, 1972.
Kogon, Eugen. The Theory and Practice of Hell. New York: Berkley Windhover Books, 1975.
Muller Filip. Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.
Trunk, Isaiah. Jewish Responses to Nazi' Persecution. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.
Rebellions in the Camps: Three Revolts in the Face of Death
The rebellions in the extermination camps were not initiated by the thousands of Jews who arrived at the camps each day. Stunned from their long and crowded train trip, the passengers were greeted by the guards with a hail of shouts and blows. There was no time to think, to become oriented, or to plan ahead. In an atmosphere of terror and shock, no organized or planned resistance could take place.
The Jews involved in the uprisings were those who had worked in the camps for long periods and knew what awaited them. Only they had the time to plan and implement rebellions.
The Treblinka Rebellion
In the spring of 1943, transports to Treblinka were few in number. Inmates came to the conclusion that the Nazis were no longer in need of many workers at the site and that, consequently, their own end was near. This general sense of impending doom gave added impetus to the planning of an organized revolt and escape. An attempt was made to purchase weapons from the Ukrainian guards whose own attitudes were changing after the Soviet victories on the Eastern front. The Ukrainians readily took the money, but they did not supply the promised weapons. In several cases, these contacts even led to the execution of members of the camp underground. The secret committee in charge of preparing the rebellion managed to obtain a key to the German arsenal, which would supply the weapons for a revolt. The underground committee also contacted the Jewish inmates working near the gas chambers.
In July, 1943, when the planning of the Treblinka uprising reached the stage of implementation, roughly 850 Jews were in the camp, about one- third in the area of the gas chambers/crematoria. The inmates intended to begin the revolt on a day when the SS guards were relatively few in number, and towards evening, when pursuit would be more difficult. They had to acquire the weapons, attack selected targets, including the camp headquarters, and kill the Germans as they arrived to relieve the earlier shift. Telephone and electrical lines had to be cut, observation towers attacked, the Ukrainians disarmed, and the camp set afire and destroyed before a mass escape to nearby forests could be staged. Treblinka was located about 37 miles east of Warsaw, and most of the inmates intended to reach the city or other urban centers in the heart of Poland.
August 2 was to be the day of the uprising. From noon onwards the plans were set in motion. The removal and transfer of arms from the arsenal began as planned. Even though only the resisters were apprised of the planned revolt, the news quickly spread throughout the general inmate population. Many armed themselves with makeshift weapons and prepared to break out. The leaders of the underground, Galewski (a kapo), Zev Kurland, and others gathered in the camp area, thus ensuring their control. The plan proceeded smoothly until three o'clock, when one of the SS men unexpectedly appeared in the camp area, stopped an inmate, and found money on him that he had prepared for his escape. Despite the fact that some of the weapons had not yet been distributed, that various preparatory stages were not yet completed, and that it was still too early in the day, the resisters decided to kill the SS officer and begin the uprising immediately.
The shooting marked the start of the uprising. From that point on, the revolt proceeded spontaneously. The prisoners set fire to the fuel tank, and all the adjacent camp structures began to burn. Shots were fired and grenades were thrown from all parts of the camp. The Ukrainian guards in the observation towers opened fire, which the rebels returned in a disorderly fashion. The inmates stormed the fences, struggled to break through the obstacles that surrounded the camp, and began their escapes.
Most of the rebels, including the leaders of the uprising, were killed in the fighting inside the camp while breaking through the fences and the obstacle-strewn area. About half managed to flee noman's land, the outer perimeter of the camp. They had to cross approximately 9 to 5 mile, to reach the woods after the commandant Franz Mangi, alerted the SS and the police stations in the vicinity, ambushes were set up and an extensive pursuit was initiated. Most of the Poles who encountered the escapees robbed them of their money and turned them over to the Germans. In some cases, however, the escapees were aided by Poles, despite the great danger inherent in this deed. It is estimated that sixty to seventy escapees were still alive at liberation; twenty to forty more hid in the cities or forests but perished before the end of the war. One of the escapees who reached Warsaw, "Yankel" Wiernik,l was the contact man between the resistance in Treblinka No. I (the regular camp) and Treblinka No. 2 (the extermination section). His testimony served as the basis of the publication on Treblinka issued by the Polish underground, which eventually reached other countries in the middle of the war. The Treblinka uprising resulted in the closing of this camp.
The Sobibor Revolt
Sobibor was smaller and more tightly run than Treblinka. Consequently, escape was more difficult Nevertheless, several individual and group escape attempts were made, and there were even attempts to rebel when transports arrived. With the change in the course of the war in the middle of 1943, there were cases of organized flight by armed Ukrainian guards, who crossed over to the Soviets. In response, the Germans mined all approaches to the camp.
Since escape attempts, successfully or otherwise, resulted in collective punishment, individual prisoners and groups began to consider the possibility of organizing a mass escape. Escape plans included digging a tunnel at night leading to the other side of the fence. These plans were contingent upon Ukranian cooperation. Since the camp was located on the eastern part of the General government, the inmates assumed they would be able to join partisans after escaping.
A number of attempts failed and many lives were lost. In October 1943, the camp underground was reorganized after the arrival of the Soviet- Jewish POW, Lieutenant Alexander (Sasha) Perchersky from the Minsk ghetto. This shipment included a unit of about 100 POWs. Contracts between this group and the veteran Polish and Dutch underground members in the camp, renewed the impetus to organize an uprising. Pechersky became the leader and Leon Feldhendler, a Polish Jew who had long sought to devise a comprehensive plan for escape, became his deputy. Feldhendler served both as an instructor and as a contract man in the camp.
Two plans were formulated. The first was a variation of previously unsuccessful attempts to dig a tunnel under the fences and mined areas. The second plan entailed killing SS officers, gaining control of the weapons, and organized flight in an area apparently free of land mines.
The tunnel was begun, but it collapsed in a sudden rain storm. With time running out, the conspirators decided to initiate the revolt immediately. They planned to kill the SS men and take their weapons after luring them into the workshop where various jobs ordered by the SS were being carried out. Detailed plans were drawn for raiding arsenals, cutting telephone and electrical cables, sabotaging vehicles, and so on. The inmates intended to carry out these actions secretly, with only active underground members involved. They planned to order, at gunpoint, the officer who usually convened the inmates to lead the group to the camp gates. There they would inform everyone of the escape and direct them to the path free of land mines.
The uprising was set for October 4, 1943. The first stage took place as planned. All but one of the nearly twelve SS who were successfully lured to the workshops were killed.The SS arrived at the parade ground, noted that one of their comrades was murdered, and opened fire. A Ukrainian guard who turned up at the parade ground was killed in full view of the inmates by the underground. Panic ensued, with everyone running for the fences and the gates. Despite fire from the guards on the ground and on the observation towers, about 300 inmates succeeded in escaping. Many were killed or wounded by mines or by German and Ukrainian bullets. Almost all of the SS guards and a group of Ukrainian guards were wiped out. Knowledge of the uprising and the escape made a strong impression on the Germans, especially since the camp was relatively close to partisan bases. Hundreds of soldiers and police pursued the escapees. Even airplanes were used in the hunt. During the next few days, approximately 100 inmates were caught. The others escaped the camp area, with many joining partisan units. Pechersky survived and, in a pamphlet he later published, described the organization of the uprising and the story of the escape.2 Most of those who successfully fled the camp fell or were killed later in the war. Only a small number lived to see liberation.
As with Treblinka, following the uprising and the escape, Sobibor ceased to function as an extermination camp.
The Revolt in Auschwitz-Birkenau
In 1943, the International Auschwitz Resistance Organization was established at the camp. Included in this group were Jewish and non- Jewish inmates from Poland, Russia, Austria, Germany, France, Yugoslavia, and Belgium. Together, they sought ways to revolt against the Nazis with the help of the Polish resistance fighters outside the camp. As part of these preparations, explosives were smuggled out of the Welchsel-Union-Metallwerke ammunitions factory located within the confines of Auschwitz, where both male and female inmates were employed. Some explosives were smuggled into Auschwitz by Jewish members of the camp underground. Others were secretly transferred to Birkenau by young Jewish girls and entrusted to the mostly Jewish Sonderkommando workers.
After the transport of Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz ceased in the summer of 1944, the Germans began to reduce the size of the Sonderkommando. It had reached a peak of almost 1,000 men during the gassing of Hungarian Jews. The Sonderkornmando members realized that their utility had ceased and with it their chances of survival. They urged the international underground to begin the uprising. The underground, however, adhering to its own schedule and calculations, did not consider the time ripe for a general rebellion. It is possible that the underground was not really interested in an insurrection, in view of the rapid advance of the Red Army towards the area in which Auschwitz was located.
Since the Sonderkommando's demand was repeatedly rejected, it decided to proceed on its own. Over a period of time, the Jews of the Sonderkommando -including Hungarian, Polish, and Greek Jews, in addition to a few Russian POWs-planned for the uprising. Improvised weapons were prepared, explosives were planted under the crematoria, and grenades were constructed.
Details of this preparation are unknown, because the participants did not survive. Notes buried at Birkenau by Zalman Lewental, a member of the underground, reveal that among the activists there were two Polish Jews, Ya'akov Handelsman and Yosef Warszawski. A Russian named Timofei Borodin was engaged in constructing the bombs.
When the Sonderkommando heard of a planned selection of 300 of their number in October, 1944, they decided upon immediate insurrection. The revolt broke out on October 7. One unit of the Sonderkommando killed a kapo and the SS in their vicinity, destroyed crematorium No. 2, broke through the camp fence, and fled. Large German mechanized units immediately set out in pursuit of the escapees. No participants of this revolt are known to have survived.
The Germans opened an investigation to discover the source of the explosives and uncovered the Union factory. Four Jewish girls headed by Rose Robota, the organizer of the Birkenau cell, were executed, having never revealed the names of additional conspirators or activists.
Rose Robota smuggled a letter out of the "Bunker," the camp prison, to her friends in the Jewish underground. She wrote that it was difficult to take leave of life, but that she would not turn traitor. She left behind those whom she hoped would be fortunate enough to eventually live in freedom and to avenge her. Her note ended with the words: "Hazak V'Amatz"-"Be Strong and Brave."
1. Jankiel Wiernik, "One Year in Treblinka," in The Death Camp Treblinka, ed. Alexander Donat (New York: Holocaust Library, 1979), pp. 147-188.
2. Alexander Pechersky, The Sobibor Revolt (Moscow: Emes, 1946).
For Further Reading
Ainsztein, Reuben. Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe. London: Paul Elek, 1974.
Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York: Holocaust Library, 1979.
Muller Filip. Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. New York: Stein and Day, 1979.
Novitch, Miriam. Sobibor: Martyrdom and Revolt. New York: Holocaust Library, 1980.
Rashke, Richard. Escape from Sobibor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982.