Treblinka: The Uprising the World Forgot
In some ways, we’re more aware of the Holocaust than ever before. Memorials to it stand in cities around the world. Oskar Schindler and Anne Frank are familiar names to school children across the United States. There’s a cottage industry of novels, TV shows, and movies set in Auschwitz.
Why then does the anniversary of the Treblinka uprising, one of the war’s most extraordinary events, go virtually unnoticed almost every year?
Treblinka was a Nazi death camp in eastern Poland that operated for 13 months between July 1942 and August 1943, with one purpose: to murder Jews.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that 925,000 people died there. The Nazis who ran it kept a small slave labor force of about 1,000 prisoners. A resistance movement was eventually formed among these prisoners. The odds were against them from the start. No slave laborer survived for long, and they had to deal with constant losses of members and leaders. Most of them were civilians who’d never used a weapon. And even if they took control of the camp, what next? They were deep in the Polish countryside, far from shelter or anyone who’d help them.
But they persevered regardless.
Around midday on August 2, 1943, in sweltering heat, they started quiet raids on the camp’s storerooms, arming themselves with axes, grenades, guns, and wire-cutters. They sprayed wooden buildings — already parched by the sun — with gasoline.
The uprising started late in the afternoon, with the haphazard firing of guns and detonation of grenades. Fire spread through the camp. A black cloud, visible for miles, belched above it. The resistance quickly ran out of ammunition, but not before they’d cut through the perimeter fences. With shocked guards shooting at them from elevated positions in watchtowers, they fled. The historian Yitzhak Arad estimated that about 400 prisoners got out, with about 100 surviving the Nazis’ search operation in the days after.
It’s important that we don’t turn the Treblinka uprising into something it wasn’t. There were no fatalities among the camp’s German staff, and it made no difference to the extermination of Poland’s Jews. By the summer of 1943, most of the 3.3 million who’d been in the country in 1939 were already dead.
It didn’t change the Nazis’ plans to kill Jews elsewhere either. If anything, they saw the uprising as proof that Jews posed a mortal threat to the “Aryan race.” When the Nazis dismantled Treblinka in the fall, it was only to move their murderous program west, away from the advancing Soviets. The genocide continued at Auschwitz long into 1944.
If the rebels had so little chance of escape or success, then we might wonder why they rebelled at all.
One motivation was to save pride. According to survivor Shmuel Rajzman, at the resistance’s final, late-night meeting, an elderly, white-haired man led them in an oath to fight to the “last drop of blood for the honor of the Jewish people.” Another motivation was to save the memory of Treblinka itself. In this sense, at least, the uprising achieved a great deal.
Rajzman testified at the Nuremberg Trials after the war, and at the trials of Treblinka guards in the 1960s. Other survivors went on to share their knowledge of the camp, too. Jankiel Wiernik, a master carpenter, built a model of it for Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961. It’s now on permanent display in the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Israel. Samuel Willenburg wrote a memoir and led annual educational trips around Poland. The list goes on.
Perhaps the uprising has slipped from memory because it grates against the Holocaust narratives that dominate 21st-century pop culture.
Jews are portrayed as having gone to their deaths like “lambs to the slaughter,” as Heather Morris wrote in her novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The Nazis are portrayed as ruthlessly organized machines, obsessed with “discipline” and “efficiency,” as in John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
Two-dimensional portraits like these turn the Holocaust into entertainment, and flatten it out into something that’s easily understood. They also distance us from the most challenging questions it poses about human nature: what makes people capable of barbarity, and do we all have that capability? In times of terror and persecution, what does it take to be a resister, an ally, an upstander?
Luke Berryman is the Founder of The Ninth Candle, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end antisemitism by sharing knowledge.