For the people living in Treblinka, their one-year anniversary brought little joy, for reasons obvious and less-known. In case you aren’t familiar with it, Treblinka was one of six extermination camps created by the Third Reich to rid Germany territories and, ultimately, the world, of the Jewish people as well as numerous other people-groups considered “subhuman”.
In the year since it had been brought online, hundreds of thousands of Jews had entered the premises…none had left. Accurate counts of those destroyed in Treblinka’s gas chambers and crematoriums are impossible to attain. Official numbers are placed around 800,000. But survivors say the actual number was seven figures in size.
But while the Jewish workers experienced the horror of the slaughter first-hand, the eve of the one-year anniversary brought news more ominous. In the late spring, Heinrich Himmler had visited the camp and ordered the bodies of the dead, to this point buried in graves, dug up and burned.
For the prisoners, this action had a single meaning: Treblinka was destined for dismantling. The prisoner leadership (the “Committee”) had begun planning a revolt and, at one point, had commandeered several boxes of hand grenades and set a date…only to discover the grenades contained no fuses. But they managed to get a copy of the armory’s key made, which they kept, waiting for the next opportunity.
And it had arrived in form of news from Camp Two on July 20, 1943. The final gravesite was being exhumed and the camp was just two weeks from liquidation. The rebellion and mass escape was on…and tentatively scheduled for August 2, 1943 with a cry of “Revolution in Berlin!”. The day came and the tension among the prisoners was so powerful that everyone was certain the plans would be discovered. They were not.
Like all good plans in combat, they were the first casualty of the revolt, but the determination, desperation, and sacrifice of the prisoners carried the day. Of the 1,500 prisoners, more than 600 made their escapes. Of those, 40 to 60 eluded capture and execution to survive to the War’s end. None of the Committee that planned the uprising escaped.
By the end of 1943, Treblinka was gone. Jean-Francois Steiner writes, “Some time after the revolt the camp at Treblinka was razed and the land plowed. All the documents were destroyed.”
The buildings and crematorium were replaced with a farm. But the grounds gave up their secrets in the form of bones, skulls, and fragments of clothing. These discoveries, combined with the powerful witnesses that survived, ensure that Treblinka’s memory is never lost.
Recommended Reading: Treblinka – A must-read, though it’s very sobering.