Little Grey Rabbit's Historical Skepticism Blog

The Treblinka Revolt: a fictional duplication of the Sobibor break-out

Posted in Aktion Reinhar(d)(t), Correction Corner by littlegreyrabbit on February 18, 2011

[Draft – This will be a work in progress as more materials come to hand]

Treblinka and Sobibor had very different public profiles during and in the years after World War II.  Most press reports and propaganda during the war and through the Nuremberg trials period focused on Treblinka, less prominent but still visible was Belzec and finally barely mentioned at all was Durchgangslager [Transit Camp] Sobibor.  It is my contention that the Treblinka Revolt never occured and the early descriptions were simply the events at Sobibor transfered for propaganda purposes to the more well known Treblinka.  To my knowledge the Treblinka revolt first appeared in the wartime account A Year in Treblinka by Yankel Wiernik, which devoted the last chapter to it – it also appeared in Vasily Grossman’s journalism and in his report The Hell of Treblinka.  I am not aware of the Sobibor escape in literature until They Fought Back appeared in 1967, a brief mention can be found in The Black Book of 1946.

I. German Documentation

There is quite a depth of German documentation for the Sobibor breakout, as you would expect for an event that mobilised a thorough police security response, this documentation extends right up to the Governor Hans Frank.  I have yet to come across a single document that refers to a revolt around Treblinka or in that area or indicates any up-surge in anti-partisan operations during this period, even in document collections and files that you would expect to detail such events.

To look at a selection of German documentation for the Sobibor break-out, on October 15, 1943, the Lublin Security Police sent the following report to Berlin [EFS page 1]:

On October 14, 1943, at about 5:00 P.M., a revolt of Jews in the SS camp Sobibor, twenty-five miles north of Chelm.  They overpowered the guards, seized the armory, and, after an exchange of shots with the camp garrison, fled in unknown directions.   Nine SS men murdered, one SS man missing, two foreign guards shot to death.

Aprroximately 300 Jews escaped.  The remainder were shot to death or are now in camp.  Military police and armed forces were notified immediately and took over security of the camp at about 1.00 A.M.  The area south and southwest of Sobibor is now being searched by police and armed forces.

There then exists a follow-up report:

Report of 1 November 1943

This report says in the 3 weeks after the escape 48 Jews from the Sobibor break-out were executed and possibly 21 Jews were taken into custody –  a very small quantity of arms were also found.  There also exists in National Archives in London a British wartime intercept decode that probably represents the first communication on the outbreak [ZIP/GPD 1956 CC-HH 15.10.1943]

Sobibor breakout radio decode

There are doubtless plenty more but the final example I have personally have found is from the Diensttagebuch [Diary] of Hans Frank of 19 October

Im September habe die Zahl der Rauberüberfälle im Tagesdurchschnitt für das ganze Generalgouvernment 223 betragen, im ersten Drittel des Monats Oktober bereits 250. Ihre Zahl habe noch im Januar vorigen Jahres bei täglichen Überfällen gelegen. Seit Erlass der VO vom 10. Oktober lasse sich ein leichter Rückgang feststellen. Eine grosse Gefahr stellten auch die Judenlager im Generalgouvernement dar, was ein Ausbruch der Juden aus einem solchen Lager vor kurzem gezeigt habe.

Die Besprechung wendet sich dieser Frage zu und der Herr Generalgouverneur erteilt dem Chef der Rüstungsinspektion, General Schindler, SS-Öberführer Bierkamp und Generalmajor Grünwald den Auftrag, die Listen der jüdischen Lager im General gouvernement genau daraufhin durchzusehen, wie viele der Insassen als Arbeitskräfte eingesetzt seien. Die übrigen sollte man aus dem Generalgouvernement abschieben

In brief, this sets out the increasing rate of robberies in the General Gouvernement as reported and a link is claimed with the existence of Jewish [work] camps and in particular the recent outbreak from Sobibor.  The Governor orders a thorough examination of the workforce and those who are not properly employed should be “abschieben”, ejected from the General Gouvernement.  “Abschieben” in this context is generally claimed to be a euphenism for killed.  Shortly after this in early-mid November, a number of Jewish work camps in the vicinity of Lublin were indeed closed down, in a process which is today known as Operation Harvest Festival where it is universally claimed all inhabitants were shot by the SS.  The fact that it appears there might be a direct causal link between this event and the escape from Sobibor has never been mentioned.  According to Globonick’s final report to Heinrich Himmler of 4 November 1943:  “As of 19.10.1943 I completed Aktion Reinhard, which I conducted in the General Government, and dissolved all camps.”, also suggests that the Sobibor breakout was the trigger for the dissolution.

As can be seen, the escape from Sobibor and the death of 9-10 SS men caused major ructions in the German occupation bureaucracy that were immediately picked up as far as way as London, its influence can be seen in the service diary of the Governor itself and even in correspondence with Himmler.  The Treblinka revolt, on the other hand, seems to have generated not a single contemporary document anywhere.

II. Similarities in narrative suggest duplication

There are a number of similarities in the two narratives.  The number of escapees from Sobibor was estimated on the 16th of October to be 300, the number of escapees from Treblinka is commonly said to be 300.

The armoury capturing the armoury played a pivotal role in both escapes.  Stanislaw Kon, alleged Treblinka escapee:

Efforts began to obtain weapons from two sources; from outside, and from within the camp by stealing guns from German or Ukrainian SS men. We became interested in the camp’s armoury, which was situated between other of the camp’s buildings. Only Germans were allowed there and it was not possible to gain access. We tried to use different ways. We planned to dig a tunnel, but this was not possible because it could have been discovered by Hitler’s bandits, who guarded us very thoroughly. We decided to make extra keys for the armoury. This was also not possible for so long as we did not have access to the doors of the armoury. For this reason we had to wait for a suitable opportunity and then act very quickly. The lock was broken in the door to armoury and the Germans had to order the Jewish locksmith to repair it. They were so careful that they took the complete doors to the workshop. The locksmith diverted the guard’s attention for a moment and made a wax copy of key. Several days later the Committee received the key, which to us was like the most holy thing.

In Sobibor that armoury was also a target:

The Jews attacked any guard in sight while showers of bullets rained down from the machineguns mounted in the watch towers, decimating the attackers. The Jews in the armory collected whatever weapons were available and rushed to the battle, firing on guards in the watchtowers. Corpses piled up as the relentless machine gun fire carried on. After tearing through the barbed wire, many Jews rushed into the mine field. Blatt recalls, “We preferred sudden death to a moment more in that hell” (Blatt 153). [There is some confusion here as according to Richard Rashke the armoury was attacked but in the end unsuccessfuly, page 230]

An axe used for the initial assault.  Again Stanislaw Kon writing in 1945 supposedly on Treblinka:

Punctually at 4 p.m. all groups are informed that they have to go to the garage for weapons, which are distributed by Rudek. A person arriving gives the password “Death”; the countersign is “Life”. The passwords are given feverishly. At the same time the main murderers are attacked, the phone line is cut and the watchtowers set ablaze. Cpt. Zielo attacks two SS men with an axe, and is taking command.

Captain Zielo, according to Kon a Jewish officer in the Czechoslovakian army playing a leadership role in the revolt,  sounds suspiciously similar to Alexander Pechersky, Jewish Red Army officer in Sobibor.  Here is the description of the initial killing of  acting Commandant Johann Niemann, in Escape from Sobibor [page 220]:  “While Mundek was fitting Niemann, asking him to hold perfectly still for a moment, Lerner tiptoed out of the back room, where the tailors slept, and split Niemann’s head with one slice of the ax.”  Then immediately after, just like in Kon’s account of Treblinka, a second SS man is killed with an axe: “Boris was working at a shoe bench; Grisha was standing near the door.  As Fallaster grunted and tugged at his new boots, Boris hit him with the flat side of his ax.  The Nazi wasn’t dead and tried to scream.  But only a long moan came from his throat.”  The exact parallels to Kon’s 1945 account (in full here, implausibly Kon claims 200 killed Ukrainians and Germans) suggest duplication – a duplication that slowly began to fade as the fictional Treblinka story began to spontaneously evolve away from it’s Sobibor original.

There also seems to be a Kapo or foreman called Monek or Moniek that played a leadership role in both revolts (and also appears in Rudolf Reder’s testimony on Belzec as supervisor of the gassing apparatus).  The Treblinka version, first from the Eichmann Trial:

Kalman Teigman

Q. Was there a young man named Moniek?

A. Yes, there was a young man there by the name of Moniek.

Q. What was his job?

A. He was the Kapo of the Hofjuden.  But while it is usually thought that a Kapo was always an evil person, caused trouble, and beat up people, Moniek was not like that.

Q. Was he one of the organizers of the revolt?

A. Yes, later on he was one of the organizers of the revolt.  There were a few others, there was also an engineer there by the name of Galewski, he was the camp elder.  There was also a young man named Rudek. I don’t know his surname, but I know that he came from Plock, and he told me then that he had a mother in Palestine.

Again on Treblinka, Yitzhak Arad has this to say in 1984:

At this time the “camp elder” Galewski joined the underground leadership, and with him came Monik, an energetic Warsaw youth who was Capo of the skilled workers, and others as well.  The “organizing committee” was reactivated.  It was headed by Galewski and had about ten members, most of whom had been members of the previous “committee.” The activity was conducted in the greatest possible secrecy, and the camp authorities did not learn of it despite the informers they had among the prisoners.  The fact that the committee was headed by the “camp elder” and that its members included most of the Capos and heads of work groups (Kurland, Monik, Sadowicz and others) made its activity somewhat easier.  The meetings generally took place in the tailors’ workshop.

The same Moniek as either Kapo or foreman turns up at Sobibor.  In the testimony of Alexander Pechersky:

Shlomo and I ordered a meeting for 9.00 pm, at the carpenters’ workshop. Baurach (Feldhendler) Shlomo, Janek, the tailors Joseph and Jacob, Moniek and others were present. We posted a sentry at the entrance. Moniek went to fetch Brzecki and, when both returned, I asked Brzecki again if he had thought over the consequences of his decision; if the plan failed, he would be the first to die.

Since at least 3 tailors are mentioned here, meetings in the tailors workshops might have been quite probable.  Yitzhak Arad has no problems including this Moniek into his narrative on Sobibor either:

In the first days of October, Czepik, who was the capo in charge of the putzers, approached Moniek, the putzer foreman and a member of the Underground Committee.  Czepik told Moniek that he knew some clandestine activity was going on and that he would like to participate and help in the escape from the camp.  Moniek denied any knowledge of such activity or preparations for an escape.  On October 7, Feldhendler told Perchersky and Leitman about Czepik’s request and Moniek’s opinion that it would be worthwhile to include the capos in the escape plot.

Even Barry, the testicle munching hound, managed to appear at both Sobibor and Treblinka.  Most commonly associated with Treblinka at least two witnesses at the 1961 Eichmann trial, Dov Freiberg and Moshe Bahir, remembered that flirtatous canine at Sobibor, Dov Freiberg:

A.  Right from the first day, people were killed, shot, set on by a dog called Beri.

Q.  Whose dog was it?

A.  At first, the dog belonged to an SS man of Camp 3 who was called “Beider” (bathhouse attendant), because he was in charge of the bathhouses, the gas chambers.  Afterwards, the dog was passed on to Unterscharführer Paul, one of the greatest sadists in the camp.  He used to call the dog and say: “Beri, my man, grab that dog — Beri, you are acting in my place.”  Generally speaking, very few of the people who were mauled by the dog remained alive, since the Germans could not stand injured persons, sick persons.  I was bitten twice by that dog — I still bear the marks on my body.  By chance — and everything was a matter of chance — I remained alive.  There was one other dog, but he was less powerful.  The dog “Beri” I am talking about was the size of a large calf, and if he got hold of a man, that man was helpless.  The dog would attack him, and he had to submit to it.  There were latrines there.  After work, people were afraid to sit there.  The dog was very well trained; if he came to any place, he would finish off anyone who was there.

Moshe Bahir:

A.  When we were running two hundred metres with the bundles, there was a pit, and when someone was injured or had his sexual organs bitten by the dog Beri, Unterscharführer Paul Grott would say to him: “What happened to you, my poor man?”

III. Lack of credibility in some Treblinka accounts

The subsequent accounts of the escapees from Sobibor all seem quite credible, if pardonably coloured a little by the process of narrativisation. After hiding in the forest, most seem to have used money to hide with peasants in farm barns, others may have joined partisan groups and one seems to have acquired aryan papers, still others were killed or captured by polish peasants, hostile partisans or brigands or killed by Germans [Escape from Sobibor].

With Treblinka escape accounts, the tales can be far more fantastic.

“We climbed the anti-tank barriers round the camp,” said Charles Unger in his statement for the trial, “and got to a pond.  We waded in and stayed there for hours with only our heads above water.  While we were standing in the water, we could hear the posses and the dogs, jeeps and cars….” [ITD page 245]

The soil around Treblinka is very sandy and well draining, I have not seen any ponds in the vicinity.  It would be far more difficult to escape or hide around Treblinka because the amount of forest remaining in that area is much less than further east around Sobibor – nor is sitting neck-deep in ponds a very good hiding place.  Richard Glazar and Charles Unger then spent the next 2 years working in Germany as Fremdarbeiter – which begs the question if they wanted to work for the Germans, why they bothered escaping in the first place.  Another Treblinka escapee, Joe Siedlecki, got a job in a Polish construction unit attached to the German army – not a transformation the Sobibor escapees dared attempt.  The ease with which many Treblinka escapees managed to slide into the various facets of the German labour machinery contrasts with the strategies adopted by the Sobibor escapees of concealment or joining partisan groups.

However the most famous lapse incredibility came in the trial of the man accused of being “Ivan the Terrible” John Demjanjuk is Israel.  Escapee Eliyahu Rosenberg identified John Demjanjuk as being Ivan the Terrible on the witness stand and was then left somewhat speechless when later the defence read out his 1945 statement in Yiddish given to the Jewish History Institute in Warsaw: “Afterwards we broke into Ivan’s room.  He was asleep at the time.  Gustaf hit him on the head with a spade, leaving him lying there for all eternity.”  As is well known, if there was an Ivan the Terrible, it turned out not to be John Demjanjuk, despite the numerous identifications of Mr Demjanjuk by those claiming to have escaped from Treblinka.   Much of the eyewitness testimony from Treblinka fails to impress, Mr Rosenberg again at the Jerusalem trial:

As we were filling up the pits with the corpses, I’m speaking about these vast pits. The pits somehow rose up and this – as we had covered it – the whole thing would suddenly rise up and it served as a kind of volcano from which a thick, viscous sort of material rose-colored and it was bubbling. It was a sort of vulcanized type of matter and the pit and the earth on top of the pit would rise up and then would suddenly drop, would subside. I don’t understand anything about the chemistry of this, but this is how it happened. And in these pits, to the extent that it had subsided, it had sunk, well we would top it up again. There was a man, one of the inmates – Moshe Lodger – he was carrying a bucket and he was pouring chlorine onto the pit. That’s all I know. And this is, as I say, what happened to the pit and the corpses in the pit.

This can only be a subjective judgement, but the quality of testimony from Sobibor survivors, ie escapees, seems much higher.

IV Sources

Into that Darkness by Gita Sereny [ITD]

Escape from Sobibor by Richard Raske [EFS]

A Year in Treblinka by Yan Wiernick [AYT]

The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People WJC [BB]

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