75 years ago today, prisoners rose up against their SS guards at the German Nazi death camp Treblinka

Reunion of Treblinka survivors. From left to right (standing): Rosenthal, Brothandel, Shimon Goldberg, Chaim Ciechanowski, Wolf Schneiderman; (sitting): Jacob Domb, Gustav Boraks, Oskar Strawczynski, Samuel Rajzman, Arie Kudlik, Goldberg, Lejzer Ciechanowski (as identified by Samuel Rajzman). Courtesy of the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team www.HolocaustResearchProject.org

Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the uprising at the Treblinka death camp when Jewish prisoners took up arms against their guards in a heroic act of defiance.

Launched on August 2, 1943, the revolt managed to free some 300 prisoners from Treblinka, a camp which had become a key cog in the wheel of the Final Solution and one that would eventually claim around a million lives.

The roots of the uprising lay in 1942 and 1943 as news began to filter through to the prisoners of German defeats in North Africa and the Soviet Union. Realising that the tide of war had now turned against the Nazis, prisoners became fearful that the Germans might try and hide their crimes by murdering all those in the camp and then razing it to the ground.

The camp had been set up in July 1942 for one reason – extermination. Up until its closure in October 1943, it is estimated that 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were murdered in its gas chambers. More Jews were killed here than in any other Nazi German extermination camp apart from Auschwitz.

Burning Treblinka II perimeter during the prisoner uprising, 2 August 1943. Barracks were set ablaze, including a tank of petrol which exploded setting fire to the surrounding structures. This clandestine photograph was taken by Franciszek Ząbecki who was a station master in the village of Treblinka. He was also a secret soldier in the underground Armia Krajowa, collecting classified data and reporting to the Polish resistance about the Holocaust transports being sent to the death camp.
(Franciszek Ząbecki/Public domain)

In early 1943 a group of prisoners set up an underground resistance organisation with the aim of seizing control of Treblinka, which lay 80 km northeast of Warsaw in Nazi German occupied Poland. Once the camp was in their hands the resistance would then free the prisoners in a massive escape that would shock Nazi commanders.

Despite setbacks, such as the death of the organisation’s leader, and the constant threat of discovery, come August 2 the preparations for revolt were in place.

In the afternoon prisoners, using a duplicate key, broke into the armoury, stealing about 25 rifles, along with hand grenades and pistols. Then at 4 o’clock the signal was given for a general uprising.

Hundreds of prisoners surged towards the fences and the main gate while others started to set fire to camp buildings. Despite the best attempts of the few armed insurgents, machine guns in the watchtowers mowed down scores of people, and also killed a number of the resistance leaders.

In about 30 minutes of violence and mayhem 300 prisoners managed to find their way through the barbwire to freedom.

Warsaw ghetto, Umschalgplatz, deportation to Treblinka death camp, 1942.
(Public domain)

“The Germans chased us on horses and also in cars,” said Kalman Teigman, one of the prisoners who managed to escape, while giving testimony at the Adolf Eichmann trial of 1961. “Some of those who escaped had arms. I also ran with a group that possessed a rifle and revolvers. These people returned the Germans’ fire and the Germans withdrew. In this way we managed to reach the forest which was near this camp.”

Camp commanders called in re-enforcements and soon the surrounding area was swamped with German troops on the hunt for escapees. Many of the ex-prisoners were quickly rounded up and executed, but others, some of them assisted by the Polish Home Army or locals, managed to go into hiding.

By the end of war about 70 of the 300 were left alive.

Deportation to Treblinka from ghetto in Siedlce, 1942.
(Public domain)

Treblinka continued to operate as a death camp until it was wound up in October 1943. The Nazis made strenuous efforts to leave no survivors to tell people what happened there, and no trace of their crimes at Treblinka, but those who escaped on August 2 75 years ago went on to provide testimony about the Holocaust and a heroic act of resistance.

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