Immediately after the German occupation of Poland in 1939, Alek went to Berlin and Warsaw on several occasions and thus had an opportunity to make a first-hand study of the Germans and Nazi Germany. He was impressed with the existing order and admired the calmness of the population. A few national socialistic regulations were extraordinary, as illustrated by the following examples:|
The trains in those days were overcrowded; even standing space was at a premium. One day after boarding the Berlin Express in Koenigsberg, Alek luckily found an empty compartment. The door was locked and he asked a girl conductor standing in the passageway to open it.
"Please read the notice on the door," she said politely with a smile.
He read a typed line: "Reserved for mother with two children." A few minutes later a station nurse appeared with a baby in her arms; another nurse brought a baby carriage, and the child's mother completed the procession, leading a small daughter by the hand. The little family was so interesting that Alek stood for seven hours by their compartment door, listening to them talk and looking on while the baby was fed and the little sister and mother ate two hearty meals.
When the train arrived in Berlin at the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof — a main railway station — two new nurses took charge of both children and the carriage and asked the mother to follow. Alek trailed along to see the end of the story. At the bottom of the stairway a taxicab was waiting for the family.
The mother was a plain German woman, but motherhood had placed her in a special privileged class. Nothing was too good for mothers and children in Nazi Germany. The war machines must have men and women.
Aleksander P. Gwiazdowski, I Survived Hitler's Hell, Meandor, Boston, 1954, pp. 51-53.
|July 15, 1999|
The first booklets about what happened in these camps were published as early as 1944. While in the Underground in Warsaw, Wiernik wrote his book A Year in Treblinka. In May 1944, Wiernik's manuscript was brought by a Polish Underground courier to England, and at the end of that year it was published in the United States and Palestine. This was the first comprehensive publication by an eyewitness. Since that time many books, articles, and diaries have been written and published by the survivors of these camps. They also appeared as the main witnesses at the Treblinka and Sobibor war-crimes trials. Their testimonies are a primary source for historical research, including the research for this book.
Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987, first reprinted in paperback in 1999, p. 364.
Our objective was to reach the woods, but the closest patch was five miles away. We ran across swamps, meadows and ditches, with bullets pursuing us fast and furious. Every second counted. All that mattered was to reach the woods because the Germans would not want to follow us there.|
Just as I thought I was safe, running straight ahead as fast as I could, I suddenly heard the command "Halt!" right behind me. By then I was exhausted but I ran faster just the same. The woods were just ahead of me, only a few leaps away. I strained all my will power to keep going. The pursuer was gaining and I could hear him running close behind me.
Then I heard a shot; in the same instant I felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder. I turned around and saw a guard from the Treblinka Penal Camp. He again aimed his pistol at me. I knew something about firearms and I noticed that the weapon had jammed. I took advantage of this and deliberately slowed down. I pulled the ax from my belt. My pursuer — a Ukrainian guard — ran up to me yelling in Ukrainian: "Stop or I'll shoot!" I came up close to him and struck him with my ax across the left side of his chest. Yelling: "Yob tvayu mat" [you motherfucker!] he collapsed at my feet.
I was free and ran into the woods. After penetrating a little deeper into the thicket, I sat down among the bushes. From the distance I heard a lot of shooting. Believe it or not, the bullet had not really hurt me. It had gone through all of my clothing and stopped at my shoulder, leaving only a scratch.
The pursuer fired from a distance of a few meters. It is an utter impossibility for a bullet to have penetrated all of Wiernik's clothing and yet to have been stopped by his shoulder leaving no more than a scratch.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 188. Material within square brackets was in the original.
We waited in fear and suspense. After a while we were ordered to form a semi-circle. The Scharführer Franz walked up to us, accompanied by his dog and a Ukrainian guard armed with a machine gun. We were about 500 persons. We stood in mute suspense. About 100 of us were picked from the group, lined up five abreast, marched away some distance and ordered to kneel. I was one of those picked out. All of a sudden there was a roar of machine guns and the air was rent with the moans and screams of the victims. I never saw any of these people again. Under a rain of blows from whips and rifle butts the rest of us were driven into the barracks, which were dark and had no floors. I sat down on the sandy ground and dropped off to sleep.|
Nothing in Wiernik's account is explained. Why were 100 picked out from 500 for execution? How did it come to pass that some of the 100 were spared? Why does Wiernik say that "I never saw any of these people again," when in fact there appear to have been several survivors ("the rest of us were driven into the barracks") that he did see again? If a large number of people are to be executed, then it is efficient to execute them at the edge of a pit; in case execution is not at the edge of a pit, then it is efficient to put any survivors to the task of disposing of the bodies — neither of which alternatives is indicated in Wiernik's account. It is my contention that a witness can lose credibility not only upon telling an obvious lie, but upon relating stories that don't make sense.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 152.
We had to carry or drag the corpses on the run, since the slightest infraction of the rules meant a severe beating. The corpses had been lying around for quite some time and decomposition had already set in, making the air foul with the stench of decay. Already worms were crawling all over the bodies.|
As these are bodies of people that have either died or been killed, but not yet buried, they couldn't have been dead for more than a few days.
It often happened that an arm or a leg fell off when we tied straps around them in order to drag the bodies away.
Arms and legs are too firmly attached to the body to fall off after a few days of decomposition.
Thus we worked from dawn to sunset, without food or water, on what some day would be our own graves. During the day it was very hot and we were tortured by thirst.
It is not plausible that any prisoners could have worked in extreme heat from dawn to sunset without food or water, nor comprehensible why the Nazis should have been so indifferent to preserving their work force as to expect them to do so.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 153.
When they had eaten and drunk their fill, the Ukrainians looked around for other amusements. They frequently selected the best-looking Jewish girls from the transports of nude women passing their quarters, dragged them into their barracks, raped them and then delivered them to the gas chambers.|
Allow soldiers to drink on duty, to absent themselves from their assigned tasks, and to rape — and the army is instantly transformed into an ungovernable mob. Allow some soldiers to lounge around their barracks eating, drinking, and raping, and all the other soldiers who are at work will become demoralized. All military leaders recognize this, and they would no more allow Ukrainian guards to act as an ungovernable mob in the midst of the disciplined SS than they would allow the SS itself to act as an ungovernable mob. When maintaining discipline, all must comply, else those who are given exemption will serve as a temptation and a distraction to those who aren't. Furthermore, the Nazis expressly prohibited sexaul relations between Christians and Jews, and so would not have tolerated such an open flouting of this prohibition. Nor, or course, would they have permitted any interference with the efficient accomplishment of the task at hand.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 165.
On one occasion a girl fell out of line. Nude as she was, she leaped over a barbed wire fence three meters high, and tried to escape in our direction.|
The women's world record for high jump is around 2.1 meters. The girl might try to climb a three-meter high barbed wire fence at one of the supporting poles, but nearby guards would have pulled her down, and I can see from a photograph of a barbed wire fence at Belsen (Life, 07May45, p. 33) that the barbs were close together so that each stepping of a bare foot onto barbed wire would have led to the girl's feet being punctured.
The Ukrainians noticed this and started to pursue her. One of them almost reached her but he was too close to her to shoot, and she wrenched the rifle from his hands.
A guard who intends to use his rifle will not run up so close to his target as to be unable to point the rifle. As a guard is likely to be bigger and stronger than a girl, and as he has hold of the stock of the rifle and the girl will be at the barrel end, it will be difficult for her to wrench the rifle out of his hands. Furthermore, if by some miracle she were to succeed, nothing prevents the guard for continuing to struggle for control of the rifle, which this guard apparently fails to do.
It wasn't easy [for the guards] to open fire since there were guards all around and there was the danger that one of the guards might be hit.
But as the original owner of the rifle is right there, he would be struggling with the girl for control of the weapon, and the other guards would assist him, thus quite overpowering her.
But as the girl held the gun, it went off and killed one of the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians were furious. In her fury, the girl struggled with his comrades.
Now this girl appears to be struggling with several Ukrainians at once, and they still haven't wrestled the rifle away from her, and still haven't managed to point it in an innocuous direction.
She managed to fire another shot, which hit another Ukrainian, whose arm subsequently had to be amputated. She was beaten, bruised, spat upon, kicked and finally killed. She was our nameless heroine.
That was one powerful girl, and a keystone-cops bunch of Ukrainian guards. One wonders that the Germans placed any reliance at all upon Ukrainians when they were so bumbling and flaccid.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, pp. 165-166.
On another occasion a transport arrived from Germany. The new arrivals were put through the usual routine. When the people were ordered to undress, one of the women stepped forward with her two children, both of them boys. She presented identity papers showing that she was of pure German stock and had boarded this train by mistake.|
This would have been a train reserved for rounded-up Jews, and so would not have been easy for the woman to have boarded by mistake.
All her documents were found to be in order and her two sons had not been circumcised. She was a good-looking woman, but there was terror in her eyes. She clung to her children and tried to soothe them, saying that their troubles would soon be cleared up and they would return home to their father. She petted and kissed them, but she was crying because she was haunted by a dreadful foreboding.
The Germans ordered her to step forward. Thinking that this meant freedom for herself and her children, she relaxed. But alas, it had been decided that she was to perish together with the Jews, because she had seen too much and would be liable to tell all about what she had seen, which was supposed to be shrouded in secrecy.
The Treblinka victims were supposedly misled as to their fate right up to the last minute, so that all this woman would have seen upon alighting from the train would have been the fake railway station. In any case, as she was German, why would she tell anyone if she had seen anything incriminating, and who could she have told? The German administration of the camp would most plausibly have viewed her as not having seen much of anything, and in any case — being German and having as her highest motive the protection of her family — ready to believe any story concerning what was going on that might be proposed to her, and therefore in no way a threat. In any case, the entire surrounding countryside was fully aware of what was happening at Treblinka, and escapes were frequent, and the escaping Jews would have had a strong motive to inform the world about Treblinka, so that in comparison the little this woman might have seen or guessed would not have posed a danger to Treblinka. Finally, however absolute the power of the camp authorities over their prisoners might have been, German civilians, particularly uninvolved women and children far from any battle zone, would still have enjoyed the protection of German law, and so would not have been liable to summary execution.
Whoever crossed the threshold of Treblinka was doomed to die.
But Polish workers came in and out of Treblinka daily.
Therefore this German woman, together with her children cried just as the Jewish children did, and their eyes mirrored the same despair, for in death there is no racial distinction; all are equal. Her husband probably will be killed at the front, and she was killed in the camp.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 166.
Whenever an airplane was sighted overhead, all work was stopped, the corpses were covered with foliage as camouflage against aerial observation.|
Once people on the ground can see an airplane, the people in the airplane can see them back, so that no time is available to hide anything. Within a minute, the airplane will be gone — and if flying low, then even sooner — so how much can be hidden within the early part of one minute? Considering that Wiernik reports piles of corpses numbering "10,000 to 12,000," (p. 171) he asks us to believe that anything this large could be covered with branches so as to produce an effective camouflage within a matter of seconds.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 170.
Seven men joined in a plot to dig a tunnel through which to escape.|
I have never seen any other reference to a tunnel. Treblinka is said to have been a death camp in which victims were killed upon arrival, so there would have been no time for prisoners to build a tunnel. Those who worked in the camp were not kept under maximum security, often leaving the camp, as for example to gather branches to weave into the barbed wire fence. The barbed wire around the camp was not electrified, and there were no mine fields, and escapes were frequent, so the very laborious process of digging a tunnel would not have been necessary. Above, we have seen the picture of a girl "leaping" over one of the barbed-wire fences.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 173.
Once the Germans threw some burning object into one of the opened graves just to see what would happen. Clouds of black smoke began to pour out at once and the fire thus started glimmered all day long.|
Bodies in a mass grave are not highly flammable. If methane was being generated within the grave, it would burn with a blue flame, and as the methane would be generated slowly, any methane that had accumulated would be consumed immediately, and so the flame would extinguish almost immediately. In any case, if bodies in a mass grave burn readily, why take them out to burn them?
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 181.
Some of the graves contained corpses which had been thrown into them directly after being gassed. The bodies had had no chance to cool off. They were so tightly packed that, when the graves were opened on a scorchingly hot day, steam belched forth from them as if from a boiler.|
Gassing would not raise the temperature of the bodies appreciably, and even if it did, the bodies would cool to the ambient temperature rapidly, and would not remain well above ambient temperature for a matter of days, let alone weeks or months. Steam would be readily visible on a cold day, but only with difficulty on the "scorchingly hot day" described by Wiernik. On a scorchingly hot day, the temperature even a few inches beneath ground level would be lower than the air temperature, and so objects more than a few inches below ground level would not steam when disintered.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, pp. 181-182.
We leaped to our feet. Everyone fell to his prearranged task and performed it with meticulous care. Among the most difficult tasks was to lure the Ukrainians from the watchtowers. Once they began shooting at us from above, we would have no chance of escaping alive. We knew that gold held an immense attraction for them, and they had been doing business with the Jews all the time. So, when the shot rang out, one of the Jews sneaked up to the tower and showed the Ukrainian guard a gold coin. The Ukrainian completely forgot that he was on guard duty. He dropped his machine gun and hastily clambored down to pry the piece of gold from the Jew. They grabbed him, finished him off and took his revolver. The guards in the other towers were also dispatched quickly.|
For the above plan to succeed, every Ukrainian guard would have to:
(1) be the only one manning his tower,
(2) forget that he was on duty and to leave his post,
(3) be deaf to the shooting that indicated a revolt was in progress,
(4) not question why the Jew under his tower was flashing a gold coin at him,
(5) be blind to the bunch of other Jews who were lurking below the tower waiting for him to come down,
(6) fail to observe that guards in nearby towers were being lured down and overpowered,
(7) be invisible to Germans (as he climbed down from his tower) who would order him back to his post.
Jankiel Wiernik, One year in Treblinka, pp. 147-188 in Alexander Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, Holocaust Library, New York, 1979, p. 187.