‘An Epic Tale’ of Frightening Suffering, Told By One Who Escaped
In 1944, the Forverts, the Yiddish forebear of this newspaper, published Yankel Wiernik’s early and unparalleled account of the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Nazi death camp called Treblinka.
The newspaper described Wiernik’s story, “A Year in Treblinka,” as the first eyewitness account of the gas chambers. In great detail, he described the brutality of the Nazis in what was later realized to be the murders of more than one in four Jews living in Poland at the time. Historians estimate that between 700,000 and 870,000 Jews were put to death at Treblinka between June 1942 and the fall of 1943. There were fewer than 100 known survivors.
One of those was Wiernik, a carpenter by trade, who was 52 years old in April 1942 and residing in the Warsaw Ghetto when he was caught in a roundup, and, like hundreds of his neighbors, deported by rail to Treblinka. He survived by his wits, and because the Nazis needed his master carpentry skills to build more gas chambers, a laundry, a laboratory and watchtowers. Wiernik escaped in an inmates’ revolt in August 1943 that brought down the camp.
The inmates had plotted for months to escape the cruelty all around them. Finally, they made their break, tricking the Ukrainian guards with gold, grabbing guns and shooting all who stood in their way. In breathless detail, Wiernik recounts how he and others ran for miles to the safety of the woods “with bullets coming after us fast and furious.”
He made his way back to Warsaw and knocked on the door of Stefan Krzywoszewski, a Polish newspaper editor, according to a 1979 account edited by Alexander Donat. Wiernik was put in touch with leaders of the Bund and the Jewish underground movement, who encouraged him to write what he had witnessed. His story was set in type in a clandestine Warsaw print shop, and 2,000 copies of the booklet were published in Polish in May 1944.
A photostat of the pamphlet was sent to London, and from there to America, where the Jewish Labor Bund gave it to the Forverts, which published it in six installments. It also was published as a pamphlet in Yiddish and in English by the American Representation of the Bund.
“It is an epic tale of mankind that Yankel Wiernik witnessed,” the Forverts wrote when introducing the story to readers on November 19, 1944. “Great truths of humankind are recounted simply here. Without embellishment, all is revealed. Frightening suffering and all manner of gruesome deaths by hundreds of thousands of Jews.”
Wiernik survived the war and settled in Israel, where he died in 1972.
In honor of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins at sundown April 20, here is a condensed and excerpted version of his gripping tale. While it contains very disturbing images of suffering and death, the Forward — like its forebear — believes it is a tale that still must be told.
Dear Reader —
For your sake alone I continue to hang on to my miserable life, though it has lost all attraction for me. How can I breathe freely and enjoy all that which nature has created?
Time and again I wake up in the middle of the night moaning pitifully. Ghastly nightmares break up the sleep I so badly need. I see thousands of skeletons extending their bony arms towards me, as if begging for mercy and life, but I, drenched with sweat, feel incapable of giving any help. And then I jump up, rub my eyes and actually rejoice over it all being but a dream. My life is embittered. Phantoms of death haunt me, spectres of children, little children, nothing but children.
I sacrificed all those nearest and dearest to me. I myself took them to the place of execution. I built their death-chambers for them.
I, who saw the doom of three generations, must keep on living for the sake of the future. The world must be told of the infamy of those barbarians, so that centuries and generations to come can execrate them…. No imagination, no matter how daring, could possibly conceive of anything like that which I have seen and lived through. Nor could any pen, no matter how facile, describe it properly.
In peace and solitude, I am constructing my story and am presenting it with faithful accuracy…. Perhaps I shall some day know how to laugh again.
It happened in Warsaw on August 23, 1942, at the time of the blockade. I had been visiting my neighbors and never returned to my own home again. We heard the noise of rifle fire from every direction, but had no inkling of the bitter reality. Our terror was intensified by the entry of German “squad leaders” (Schaarfuehrer) and of Ukrainian “militiamen” (Wachmaenner) who yelled loudly and threateningly: “All outside.”
In the street a “squad leader” arranged the people in ranks, without any distinction as to age or sex, performing his task with glee, a satisfied smile on his face. Agile and quick of movement, he was here, there and everywhere. He looked us over appraisingly, his eyes glancing up and down the ranks. With a sadistic smile he contemplated the great accomplishment of his mighty country which, at one stroke, could chop off the head of the loathsome hydra.
He was the vilest of them all. Human life meant nothing to him, and to inflict death and untold torture was a supreme delight. Because of his “heroic deeds,” he subsequently became “deputy squad commander” (Unterschaarfuehrer). His name was Franz.
I was standing on line directly opposite my house on Wolynska Street. From there we were taken to Zamenhof Street. The Ukrainians divided our possessions among themselves under our very eyes. They quarreled, opened up all bundles and assorted their contents.
Despite the large number of people, a deep quiet hung like a pall over the crowd, which was seized with mute despair. Or, was it resignation? And still we were ignorant of the truth. They photographed us as if we were animals. Part of the crowd seemed pleased and I myself hoped to be able to return home, thinking that we were being put through some identification procedure. At a word of command we got under way. And then, to our dismay, we came face to face with stark reality. There were railroad cars, empty railroad cars, waiting to receive us.
It was a typical bright and hot summer day…. What wrongs had ourwives, children and mothers committed? Why all this? The beautiful, bright and radiant sun disappeared behind clouds as if loath to look down upon our suffering and humiliation.
Next came the command to entrain. As many as 80 persons were crowded into each car with no way of escape.
The air in the cars was becoming stiflingly hot and oppressive, and stark and hopeless despair descended on us like a pall. I saw all of my companions in misery, but my mind was still unable to grasp the immensity of our misfortune. I knew suffering, brutal treatment and hunger, but I still did not realize that the hangman’s merciless arm was threatening all of us, our children, our very existence.
At 4 P.M. the train got under way again and, within a few minutes, we came into the Treblinka Camp. Only on arriving there did the horrible truth dawn on us. The camp yard was littered with corpses, some still in their clothes and some naked, their faces distorted with fright and awe, black and swollen, the eyes wide open, with protruding tongues, skulls crushed, bodies mangled. And, blood everywhere, the blood of our children, of our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers.
Helpless, we felt intuitively that we would not escape our destiny and would also fall victims to our executioners. But what could be done about it?… We were ordered to detrain and leave whatever packages we had in the cars.
Before evening, another train arrived from Miedzyrzec, but 80 percent of the human cargo was corpses. We had to carry them out of the train, under the whip lashes of the guards. At last we completed our gruesome chore. I asked one of my fellow workers what it all meant. He answered by saying that it was not healthy to talk.
We waited in fear and tension. After a while we were ordered to form a semi-circle. The “squad leader” Franz walked up to us, accompanied by his dog and a Ukrainian guard armed with a machine gun. We numbered about 500 persons. About 100 men were picked from our group, lined up five abreast, marched away some distance and ordered to kneel down. All of a sudden there was a roar of machine guns and the air was rent with moans and yells of the victims. I never saw them again. Under a rain of blows with whips and rifle butts, the rest of us were driven into the barracks, which were dark and had no flooring. I sat down on the sandy ground and caught some sleep.
I belonged to a group that was assigned to handle the corpses. The work was hard, because we had to drag a corpse, in teams of two, for a distance of approximately a quarter of a mile. At times we tied ropes around the dead bodies to pull them to their graves.
The Treblinka camp was divided into two sections. In Camp No. 1, there was a railroad siding and a platform for unloading human freight, and also a large open space, where the baggage of the new arrivals was piled up.
Camp No. 2 was quite different. It contained a barracks for the workers, a laundry, a small laboratory, quarters for seventeen women, a guardhouse and a well. In addition, there were chambers for asphyxiating victims with gas.
When I arrived at the camp, three gas chambers had already been in operation, and 10 more were added during my stay.
I almost went insane on the day when I first saw men, women and children being led into the house of death. I pulled my hair and shed bitter tears of despair. I suffered most when I looked at the children, accompanied by their mothers or walking alone, entirely ignorant of the fact that within a few minutes their lives would be snuffed out under horrible tortures. Their eyes glowed with fear and still more, perhaps, with amazement. It seemed as if the questions: What is this! What for and why? were frozen on their lips. But, seeing the stony expressions on the faces of their elders, they matched their behavior to the occasion. They either stood motionless or pressed tightly against each other or against their parents, tensely awaiting their gruesome end.
Suddenly, the entrance door would fly open, and out would come Ivan, holding a heavy gas pipe, and Nicholas, brandishing a saber. At a signal, they would begin admitting the victims, simultaneously beating them mercilessly. The yells of the women, the weeping of the children, cries of despair and misery, begging for mercy, for God’s vengeance ring in my ears to this day, making it impossible for me to forget the misery which I witnessed.
As soon as the gassing was over, Ivan and Nicholas investigated the results, passed over to the other side, opened the door leading to the platform, and proceeded to heave out the gassed victims. It was our lot to carry the corpses to the graves. We were dead tired from working all day on the construction job, but there was no one to appeal to and we had to obey. We could have refused, but that would have meant a whipping or death in the same manner, so we obeyed without grumbling.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 people were gassed daily. We built a narrow gauge track and drove the corpses, on the rolling platform, to the graves.
In Camp No. 2, I saw a number of people I had known in Warsaw, but they had changed so much that it was difficult to recognize them. They had been beaten, starved and mistreated. I did not see them very long, for new faces and new friends came. It was a continuous coming and going, and death without end. I learned to look at every live person as a prospective corpse in the nearest future. I appraised him with my eyes and thought of his weight; who was going to carry him to his grave; how severe a beating would he get while doing it. It was terrible, but true nonetheless. Would you believe that a human being, living under such conditions, could, at times, smile and jest? One can get used to anything
One of the most efficient systems in the world is the German system. There are authorities upon authorities, departments and sub-departments. And, what is most important, there is always the right man in the right place…. Men can always be found who are ready to destroy and kill their fellow men. I never saw them show any compassion or regret. They never evinced any pity over the fate of innocent victims. They were automatons who perform their tasks as soon as some higher-up presses a button.
Another amazing characteristic of the Germans is their ability to discover, among other peoples, hundreds of depraved types like themselves, and to use them for their own ends. In camps for Jews, there is a need for Jewish executioners, spies, stool pigeons. The Germans managed to find them.
The new construction job between Camp No. 1 and Camp No. 2, on which I worked, was accomplished in a very short time. It turned out that we were building 10 additional gas chambers, more spacious than the old ones…
The number of transports grew daily, and there were periods when as many as 20,000 people were gassed in one day. All we heard was shouting, weeping and moaning. Those who were left alive to do the work around the camps could neither eat nor keep from weeping on days when the transports arrived. The less resistant among us, especially members of the white-collar class, developed nervous breakdowns and committed suicide by hanging when they returned to the barracks at night after having handled the corpses all day…. Such suicides occurred at the rate of 15 to 20 a day.
Once, one girl fell out of line, jumped, nude as she was, over a barbed wire fence and started escaping in our direction. The Ukrainians noticed this and started pursuing her. One of them almost reached her but, as he was too close to her for a shot, she wrenched the rifle from him. It wasn’t easy to trade shots since there were guards all around and there was the danger of wounding innocent bystanders. The Ukrainians saw red. A shot from the rifle she held wounded one of them. In her fury, the girl struggled with his comrades. She managed to fire another shot, which hit another Ukrainian, whose arm had to be amputated as a result of the shot. At last they seized her. Poor girl! She paid dearly for her courage. She was mercilessly beaten, spat upon, kicked and, finally, killed. She was our nameless heroine.
The entire yard was littered with a variety of articles, for all those people left millions of items of wearing apparel behind them. Since they all assumed that they were being deported to an unknown destination and not being sent to their death, they took their best and most essential possessions with them. The camp yard in Treblinka was filled with all one’s heart might desire…. In passing, I saw a profusion of fountain pens, real tea and coffee and the ground was literally strewn with candy.
Jews were put to work at sorting the plunder, arranging things systematically as every item had to serve a definite purpose. Everything the Jews left behind had its value and its place, but the Jews themselves had none.
Once a transport of seventy Gypsies from near Warsaw was brought in. These men, women and children were destitute. All they had was some soiled underwear and ragged clothes. When they came into the yard, they were glad. They thought they had entered an enchanted place. No less glad were the hangmen for they wiped them out just as they did the Jews. Within a few hours all was quiet and nothing was left but their corpses.
We were fed badly, transports ceased to arrive, hence there were no hapless purveyors of food and old supplies were only grudgingly issued. All we had to eat was mildewed bread which we washed down with water. Malnutrition caused an epidemic of typhoid.
At that time [the Soviet massacre of Poles at] Katyn was being much talked about by the Germans, who used the topic for propaganda purposes.
Accidentally, we got hold of a newspaper from which we learned about those atrocities. According to rumors, Himmler himself had come to Treblinka because of those incidents and ordered that all the corpses of the murdered victims be burned.… They were loath to leave any tell-tale traces behind them, so it became necessary to find some way to remove all the evidence.
At last an “Oberschaarfuehrer” with an “SS” badge pinned to his tunic came to the camp and what he introduced was a veritable hell.
This is the way he got the hell started. He put a machine for exhuming the corpses into operation, which could, in one motion dig up many, many dead bodies. A fire grate made of railway ties was laid out on cement foundations, and workmen had to pile the corpses on the grating and set them on fire.
I am not a young man and I have seen a lot in my lifetime, but Lucifer himself could not possibly have devised a worse hell. Can you imagine 3,000 corpses, recently alive, burning all at once on such an immense pyre?
The cremation of the corpses proved a complete success. The Germans built additional fire grates and augmented the crews serving them, so that from 10,000 to 12,000 corpses were cremated at one time. The result was one huge inferno, which from the distance looked like a volcano breaking through the earth’s crust to belch forth fire and lava. The pyres siz-zled and crackled. Smoke and heat made it impossible to remain close by.
April 1943 came around, and transports began to come in from Warsaw. These people were treated with exceptional brutality, due to the armed struggle, which raged in the Warsaw Ghetto at that time….
A number of men from Camp No. 1 were sent into our camp as workers…. [They told us] that mutiny was planned in Camp No. 1 and that a revolt would take place…. We decided that by spring we would either try for freedom or perish….
The workers from Camp No. 1 were continually threatened with whippings and by comparison with them we enjoyed real freedom. We took advantage of our relative freedom for our own purposes. Some of us drew our guard into conversation to divert his attention, while others used the opportunity to contact inmates of Camp No. 1.
In due time, we became members of the secret organization’s committee, a fact that gave some prospects of deliverance or of heroic death. All this involved considerable risk because of the watchfulness of the guards and strong fortifications of the camp. However, “freedom or death” was our motto.
The definite, irrevocable date for the outbreak of the revolt was set…. August 2, 1943, was a scorchingly hot day. The sun shone brightly and its rays penetrated the small, grated windows of our barracks. We had practically no sleep during the night and dawn found us awake and tense. Each of us realized the importance of the moment and thought only of gaining freedom. We were disgusted with our miserable existence and all that mattered was to avenge ourselves on our tormentors and to escape. As for myself, I craved but one thing: to crawl into some quiet patch of woodland and to sleep quietly and restfully.
At the same time, we were fully aware of the difficulties we would have to overcome. Observation towers, manned by armed guards, stood all around the camp, and the camp itself swarmed with Germans and Ukrainians armed with rifles, machine guns and revolvers. The camp itself was surrounded by several lines of fences and ditches.
However, we decided to risk it, come what may. I, for one, resolved to give the world a description of the inferno and a sketch of the layout of that accursed hell hole. That resolution had given me strength to struggle against the fiends and the endurance to bear the tortures. Somehow I felt that I would survive our break for freedom.
A presage of [the] storm was in the air and our nerves were at high tension. The Germans and the Ukrainians noticed nothing unusual. Having wiped out millions of people, they had acquired enough experience to know they need not fear a paltry handful of men such as we. They barked orders which were obeyed as usual.
Suddenly, I heard someone whispering in my ear: “Today, at 5:30 P.M.” I turned around casually and saw the Jewish watchman of the storage shed before me. He repeated the above words once more and added: “There will be a signal.”
Time thus went by until noon, at which hour all hands returned from work. Again our committee met furtively and the word was passed around. I asked everyone to keep cool and remember their individual assignments.
Volunteers for the afternoon work shift were then selected. We assigned the weaker and less valuable men to the first shift because it had no tasks to perform. The first afternoon shift returned from work at 3 P.M. Our picked men then went to work, thirty in number. They were the bravest, the pluckiest and the strongest of the lot. Their task was to open the way for the escape for the others. A crew was also picked for the water fetching chore as there was a great need for large quantities of water around 5 P.M. The gate leading to the well was opened wide and the number of water carriers was considerably augmented.
All those assigned to work with the corpses wore only overalls which were marked. A penalty of 25 strokes with the whip was meted out for wearing any other clothing while doing this particular job. On that day, the men wore their clothes under the overalls. Before escaping, they would have to get rid of the overalls, as the latter would give them away.
We remained in our barracks, sitting together in a group , looking at each other, and every few minutes someone would remark that the time was drawing near. Our feelings defied description. We silently bade farewell to the spot where the ashes of our brethren were buried. Sorrow and suffering had held us fast, but we who were still alive wanted to escape from the place where so many innocent victims had perished. The long processions, those ghastly caravans of death, stood before our eyes, and called for vengeance. We knew what this earth hid beneath its surface. We were the only witnesses of it. In silence, we took leave of the ashes of our fellow Jews and vowed that, out of their blood, an avenger would arise.
Suddenly we heard the signal, a shot fired into the air.
We jumped up. Everyone fell to his particular task as prearranged and performed it with meticulous care. Among the most difficult tasks was the luring away of the Ukrainians from the observation towers. Once they began shooting at us from above, we could not possibly escape alive. Gold, however, held an immense attraction for them, and they continually trafficked with the Jews. When the shot rang out, one of the Jewish traders sneaked up to the tower and showed the Ukrainian guard a gold coin. The Ukrainian, totally oblivious to the fact that he was on a post, dropped his machine gun and hastily clambered down to coax the coin out of the Jew. Two other Jews were lying in wait for him, a little to the side. They grabbed him suddenly and finished him off, taking his revolver. The guards on the other towers were also taken care of quickly.
Every German and Ukrainian we happened to run into on our way out was killed. The attack was so sudden that before the Germans were able to collect their wits, the road to freedom stood open for us. Weapons were snatched from the guardhouse and each one of us grabbed all he could. As soon as the signal shot rang out, the guard at the well had been killed and his weapons taken from him. We all ran out of our barracks and took the posts that had been assigned to us. Within a few minutes, fires raged all around. We had done our duty well.
I grabbed some guns and let fly right and left but when I saw that the road to escape stood open, I picked up an axe and a saw and ran. At first we were masters of the situation, but within a short time pursuit got under way from every direction….
Our objective was to reach the woods, but the nearest patch was five miles away. We ran across swamps, meadows and ditches, with bullets coming after us fast and furious. Every second counted. All that mattered was to reach the woods, because once there, the Germans would be loath to go in after us.
Running straight ahead as fast as I could, I suddenly heard the command “Halt!” right behind me, just as I thought I was safe. By then I was terribly tired but, nevertheless, I increased my speed. The woods were just ahead of me, just a few jumps away. I strained all my will-power to keep going. The pursuer was gaining and I heard his running feet close behind me.
Then I heard a shot and in the same instant felt a severe pain in my left shoulder blade. I turned around andsaw a guard from the Treblinka Penal Camp. He again aimed his pistol at me. I knew about firearms and I noticed that the weapon had jammed. I took advantage of this and intentionally slowed down pulling the axe out of my belt. The guard, a Ukrainian, ran up to me yelling, in the Ukrainian language: “Halt or I’ll shoot!” I came up close to him and hit him savagely with my axe across the left side of his chest. He collapsed at my feet with a vile oath.
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 did not wound me. It went through all of my clothing and stopped at my shoulder, leaving a mark. I was alone, resting.
For a complete English text of “A Year in Treblinka,” click here.
Special assistance from Chana Pollack, Forverts archivist.