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The Treblinka Uprising

Jewish resistance is rarely at the forefront of Holocaust stories. The Holocaust is relayed as something Jews suffered through and it’s often non-Jews, whether Oskar Schindler, memorialized in Schindler’s List, or Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family and is the subject of the recent TV miniseries A Small Light, or other righteous individuals who aided us, who are typically portrayed as the main heroes of this tragic episode in history. 

The French Resistance, too, has been the subject of dozens of movies, television shows, and books. The focus on these individuals and movements implies that owing to the hopelessness of our circumstances, we couldn’t save ourselves. I imagine most students would have a difficult time naming a single Jewish hero of the Holocaust. And it’s true that many abided by the Nazis’ rules in order to try and survive because breaking the rules meant a near-certain violent and possibly torturous death. As noted by the Anti-Defamation League, the Nazis “encouraged that sense of hope in order to keep the Jews obedient and orderly,” telling them that their displacement was temporary, deceiving them up until the moment of their murder. It would have likely been inconceivable for individual Jews to understand the scope and scale of the Nazis’ eventual extermination effort.

But is the portrayal of “passive” Jews entirely accurate? In many ways, no. There were many acts of rebellion, including the most well-known instance inside the Warsaw Ghetto, but also at the extermination camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. As explored by a 2020 exhibition, now online, at London’s Weiner Holocaust Library, Jews also joined armed resistance groups and rescue missions; they smuggled information and sabotaged machinery. They also ran from the camps, attacked and killed guards, and jumped from transport trains. Others imbued their final moments with dignity, reciting the Shema, an “affirmation of Judaism” that asserts “the Lord is One” on their way to the gas chambers. They were not without hope. They were not defeated. “In these incredibly extreme circumstances, there are just so many examples of resistance, even in the most desperate situations. So the idea there wasn’t resistance is false,” Barbara Warnock, the exhibition’s senior curator, told the Guardian when the exhibition first opened.

One of these large-scale acts of resistance occurred 80 years ago today. On August 2, 1943, hundreds of prisoners fought back at Treblinka death camp, the second deadliest camp in Nazi-occupied Europe. Scholars argue that their actions, which resulted in destroyed camp structures and the depletion of a labor force, led to the camp’s closing. Treblinka was technically two separate camps: Treblinka I was a forced labor camp and consisted of Jewish and non-Jewish Polish prisoners. Treblinka II opened in a nearby remote area in July 1942 after the Nazis instituted Operation Reinhard — an official plan to murder nearly two million Jews in the region of German-occupied Poland referred to as the “General Government.” 

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The camp’s sole purpose was extermination and it was one of three sites chosen, along with Sobibor and Belzec. Prisoners who arrived at Treblinka II were almost immediately executed, with about 1,000 kept alive during peak operation in order to maintain the camp. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, arrivals were told they were disembarking at a transit camp and were made to hand over valuables before being forced to run naked along a path to gas chambers labeled as “showers.” Their bodies were first buried in mass graves, then exhumed by Jewish forced laborers and burned in mass open-air “ovens” in an effort by the Nazis to hide their atrocities. In all, about 870,000 people were murdered there in about a year, though some estimates put the number as high as 925,000, with the majority — more than 700,000 — killed by the end of 1942, in just five months. Most of the Jews killed were from Poland, but they were also from Slovakia, Greece, Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia, and other camps. Between two and three thousand Romani people were also among those killed at Treblinka.

By the summer of 1943, most of the Jews in the region had been murdered and their bodies exhumed and burned. The forced-labor prisoners, having formed organized resistance groups months prior, set in motion their final plan for a revolt. Teen Vogue spoke to Chad S.A. Gibbs, PhD, assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston and director of the Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Studies, who has been studying the uprising for 10 years, utilizing “books by survivors, recorded oral history testimonies, written statements in archives, trial transcripts, and investigation statements,” and is writing a book on the subject.

A few months earlier, in Poland’s capital, in an event that would become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, “for almost 30 days, a starving, ill-equipped, almost completely untrained group of Jews” fought off thousands of German forces, wrote Dr. Gibbs, for Charleston’s Post and Courier. “It is likely that news about Treblinka [that was] returning to the ghetto with each escapee [from the camp] may have had an influence on those involved in resistance and on the mood of residents in general,” Dr. Gibbs tells Teen Vogue. Dr. Gibbs also mentions that some trains carrying Warsaw residents, who had experienced or participated in the ghetto uprising and were subsequently shipped to Treblinka, revolted and that there were individual instances of resistance, both physical and more personal, on the ramps, the trains, at the point of departure, and at the actual gas chambers throughout the camp’s operational history.

Previous large-scale uprising attempts at Treblinka II had failed — there had been at least four different plans, each with its own leaders — and the planners knew this might be their last chance. According to the Treblinka Museum, “the plan of the uprising was to steal weapons and ammunition from the guardhouse, set fire to all camp structures” as well as “kill as many guards as possible.” They wanted to free all inmates and join up with the partisan fighters in the nearby forests of Białystok. Dr. Gibbs says that some form of revolt was being planned as soon as three months into the camp’s operations. The final plan began to come together in May of 1943.

Coordination inside Treblinka II took place between what Dr. Gibbs calls the “living” section or Camp 1, where people sorted clothes and valuables, ran the infirmary, the kitchen, and other camp operations, and the “death” section or Camp 2, where prisoners mainly buried and later burned bodies. This coordination was aided by the fact that Germans sent some of the leaders to the death section, including Zelo Bloch, one of the main planners. Other leaders included Alfred Galewski, who was the camp’s Jewish “elder.” Bloch and likely Galewski had military training and expertise, as did core resistance members who were “put in specific, important positions for fighting,” including Samuel Willenberg, Eugen Turowski, Wolf Schneiderman, and Oskar Strawczyński, according to Dr. Gibbs’s research. “It was a militarized plan,” says Dr. Gibbs. (Willenberg, Turowski, Schneiderman, and Strawczyński are known to have survived both the uprising and the war.)

One of the keys to the operation was “the ability to put trusted people where they were needed for them to be there for the moment of revolt,” according to Dr. Gibbs. Much of this was possible because of the guards’ naivete, with them agreeing to seemingly benign Jewish prisoner requests. The revolters were able to make a copy of the key to the camp’s armory, which they used on the day of the revolt to smuggle out the weapons. Owing to the Nazis' racist notions about Jews and dirtiness, they were able to douse camp structures with kerosene that day as well.

“They had suggested to the Germans because of their constant belief in Jews as carriers of lice that the camp should be fumigated and sprayed for vermin on a daily basis, so they had a prisoner walking around with a pump spray or backpack, spraying the buildings. And on the day of the revolt, they simply changed out the soap and water solution with kerosene,” says Dr. Gibbs.

Jewish prisoners also suggested to the guards that they allow them to beautify the camp by putting flowerpots in front of the guard barracks and armory, which allowed them easier access. On the day of the uprising, they also stored weapons in the kitchen, a location mostly staffed by women and unlikely to arouse suspicion.

Since most of the resources were located in Camp 1, on the day of the revolt, Camp 2 coordinators were waiting for a signal to execute their own plan. “A signal could be a shot or an explosion [from Camp 1]. And at that point they will basically throw themselves upon the guards,” says Dr. Gibbs.

That afternoon, however, things didn't go as they planned. Some of the participants in the Camp 1 uprising were caught with cash (Jews were forbidden to have any valuables on their person), which they planned to use as leverage once they were in the Polish countryside. “[The guard who caught them] is in the process of marching them over to a place of execution. And somebody makes the very emotional decision — and this is recalled in several different memoirs — we weren't gonna allow any more people to be murdered that day. So [the prisoners] took a shot at [the guard],” says Dr. Gibbs.

The shot was understood by Camp 2 prisoners as the signal to start their revolt, which occurred about an hour before the official plan was supposed to be set in motion. According to several sources, Dr. Gibbs says, Bloch happens to get into a conversation with a guard who is standing next to a well. “When the signal is heard, [Bloch] tosses the man down the well and takes his rifle in the process.” In the ensuing chaos, with camp structures engulfed in flames, about 300 prisoners escaped into the countryside, though most were hunted down soon after and killed. According to Dr. Gibbs, about 70 of the escapees survived the war.

According to Dr. Gibbs’s research, two more transports arrived at Treblinka in late August, but the wood camp buildings were so damaged — even while the brick gas chamber was still intact — and the prisoner workforce so depleted that the camp soon ceased operations.

“All the way up to the point where Treblinka closes, it has murdered more people than Auschwitz. Auschwitz does not outstrip [Treblinka's] total of people murdered until the last six months of its operation when Hungary's Jews are sent to Auschwitz. Just as easily, you could consider the idea that [those prisoners] might have been sent to a still-open Treblinka,” says Dr. Gibbs, where they would almost certainly have been executed on arrival. Auschwitz, while also an efficient death machine, didn’t function the exact same way as Treblinka, and prisoners there at least had a greater—albeit still small—chance of survival. “[The revolt] probably does save many lives because it diverts those trains to Auschwitz, where there's another path.”

There was also a spiritually uplifting element, which may have saved lives or at least inspired hope. “You do not get all the way to…helping steal a key to the armory without friends supporting you mentally, physically, and spiritually in the camp and making you think life is worth it in this hellish place. That there is a point and purpose to enduring this a day longer,” Dr. Gibbs says. He adds that survivors testified that once they had a good plan to revolt, suicides at the camp stopped. Up until then, an average of two people a night were dying by suicide, according to one source, he says.

Gibbs's research has also focused on the role of women in the uprising, since a lot of male survivor eyewitness testimony doesn’t speak to their presence or the importance of their work, which included distracting guards so others could steal their weapons, helping to stash those weapons, using their roles and access to work out the best timing for the revolt, and acting as messengers.

“[Some of the male survivors] erase women from the camps, so that they don't have to talk about sexual or sexualized violence,” says Dr. Gibbs. “The record of crimes includes this being a place of an incredible amount of sexual violence of just about every stripe that you can think of. From what some historians have called sex for barter or instrumental sex, kind of the “choiceless choices” that women would be making to stay alive, to the worst rapes you can imagine.”

According to Dr. Gibbs, the women survivors of Treblinka never really spoke about what actually occurred, in part because they were scared of judgment from their fellow Jews for what they were forced to submit to. Based on how their actions were framed by male survivors and some others, their fears were not unwarranted, Dr. Gibbs says.

The untold stories of these women survivors are some of the many narratives about Holocaust victims that have been forgotten, oversimplified, or ignored. Dr. Gibbs notes that while the Treblinka uprising was a harrowing testament to armed revolt, we should focus on more personal acts of resistance, too.

“We can't just say that going to the gas chamber in this, that, or the other way is always a defeat. Or has no resistance involved in it whatsoever… You have options still, and taking the option that preserves your ability to live your last moments in the way that you see fit is still resistance,” Dr. Gibbs says, relaying how Jews recited various Jewish prayers, including the aforementioned Shema in those situations. “I’ve written about this and it's something I really like to get out there: If Nazi Germany is murdering you for being Jewish and you decide that your last act will be deeply Jewish, then you are resisting. You are maintaining what it is to be yourself and you're kind of even putting a thumb in their eye at the same time. You're invoking your Jewishness and living out your last moments in your own way.”

Yulia Khabinsky