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2017-08-04

Beyond words. The anniversary of prisoners’ revolt in the Treblinka II death camp

‘It is estimated that 900,000 people were killed in Treblinka. We have documented some 4,000 first names and surnames of victims. That's a tiny fraction. The rest of the victims are buried in the pits of oblivion’ – said professor Paweł Śpiewak, the director of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, organiser of the 74th anniversary commemoration of the prisoners' revolt at the Treblinka II death camp.

The event on the 2nd of August was attended by representatives of Polish authorities, diplomatic corps, scientific and cultural institutions, and rabbis. A letter from the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda, was read by Undersecretary of State in the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland, Minister Wojciech Kolarski, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo was represented by the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Jarosław Sellin. There were also the ambassador of Israel Anna Azari, the ambassador of France Pierre Lévy and representatives of the embassies of Germany and Belarus.

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photo by Joanna Król / POLIN   

In the hot air – like 74 years ago – dozens of people gathered at the monument commemorating the victims of death camp Treblinka II. For several years it has been a tradition that one of Treblinka's last surviving escapees, Samuel Willenberg, an inhabitant of Czestochowa, a surveyor, sculptor, participant in the September 1939 campaign, and a soldier in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, participated in the commemorations. So this year's ceremony was somewhat special. Samuel Willenberg died in Israel in spring last year. His absence was clearly felt: well-built , in a characteristic hat, for years was telling the Israeli and Polish youth about what he had experienced in Treblinka: cutting off the hair of women from transport, finding his sister's clothes in the camp sorting barrack, a mad girl running helplessly around the camp. ‘It takes a couple of minutes,’ he explained to the Jewess, whose hair had cut before her the entrance to the gas chamber. ‘God was not there in Treblinka’ – he repeated several times while interviewed by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in 2014.

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photo by Joanna Król / POLIN   

‘It is a doubtful honour to speak here on behalf of my husband’- said his wife Krystyna Willenberg, attending the ceremony. ‘Two years ago, my husband was speaking here in his loud voice. He is certainly happy that something he dreamed about is about to happen – the establishment of an education centre where historians will be telling what had happened here’ – she affirmed. Her words were supported by Minister Jaroslaw Sellin: ‘The Ministry signed a letter of intent on establishing a new cultural institution at the former death camp in Treblinka. We want to give this institution the status of a monument of the Holocaust.’ Minister Sellin also expressed the hope that the museum, in a new form, will enable the international cooperation with, among other organisations, the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel, which may help in an effort to recover the names of the victims.

Along the way, near the symbolic gate of the camp, attached to tree-trunks by the employees of Jewish Historical Institute, run a white wide ribbon with the first names and surnames of the Jews murdered in the camp. The installation is a symbolic attempt to personalize, to give identity to victims of mass murder committed in Treblinka. In the speeches and after, during the educational walks organized for the guests of the ceremony, there were recalled the names of the escapees from the camp: Jankiel Wiernik, Abram Jakub Krzepicki, Richard Glazar. Thanks to their testimonies we know what the camp looked like inside. Guests of the celebration could also visit the exhibition under the title ‘When I listen to stories from Treblinka, something begins to choke and stifle my heart’, presenting reports on Treblinka contained in the Oneg Shabbat archive. The surviving documents are still not enough to reconstruct the full list of victims. ‘It's hard to imagine what happened here. This is the narrative from the bottom of hell. It is far beyond words. I understand the words, I do not understand what happened here. I am powerless’ – in this way professor Śpiewak referred to the enormity of the crime perpetrated in Treblinka.

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photo by Joanna Król / POLIN   

In the spring of 1941 Treblinka's penal labour camp was established for the Polish population. A year later, in connection with the execution of the Reinhardt Action – that is, the plan of the total annihilation of the Jewish people – the Germans began the construction of the death camp Treblinka II. It functioned as an extermination camp for 13 months – from July 1942 to August 1943. At that time, in its gas chambers filled with diesel exhaust fumes, more than 700,000 Polish Jews were killed, including the children of the Orphanage with their carers Janusz Korczak and Stefania Wilczyńska and 200,000 Jews brought here, among other countries, from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia and Greece. About two thousand Roma and Sinti were also killed there. On August 2, 1943, a revolt broke out in Treblinka. Approximately 60 prisoners – armed with rods, hammers, few with firearms – attacked the guards and set fire to several buildings. Although the gas chambers could not be destroyed, the camp quickly ceased to function. The Germans were blurring the tracks – they dismantled the camp buildings, and the land was sown with lupines. In October 1943 there was not a trace of it.

Joanna Król

More about the anniversary and a complete photo report on the website of the Jewish Historical Institute.

We also invite you to familiarize yourself with the details of the ‘Book of Names’ project on the Treblinka Memory Foundation website.

On the website of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews you can also read fragments of Samuel Willenberg's account, which in 2014 was included in the Museum collection of spoken history.

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