Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Culture

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.

A portrait of Yankel Wiernik taken in 1948. Image by Ghetto Fighters' House

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 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 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.

To read Yankel Wiernik’s story, CLICK HERE:

This story first appeared in the English Forward in April, 2009.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning journalism this Passover. 

In this age of misinformation, our work is needed like never before. We report on the news that matters most to American Jews, driven by truth, not ideology.

At a time when newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall. That means for the first time in our 126-year history, Forward journalism is free to everyone, everywhere. With an ongoing war, rising antisemitism, and a flood of disinformation that may affect the upcoming election, we believe that free and open access to Jewish journalism is imperative.

Readers like you make it all possible. Right now, we’re in the middle of our Passover Pledge Drive and we need 500 people to step up and make a gift to sustain our trustworthy, independent journalism. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Our Goal: 500 gifts during our Passover Pledge Drive!

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.