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German death camp Treblinka revolt 79 years on

Seventy-nine years ago, over 800 prisoners of the German death camp Treblinka rose up against their persecutors with the sole goal to break free and “destroy the factory of death”.

On August 2, 1943, an armed revolt broke out in the German death camp of Treblinka. Over 800 prisoners took part, but only 200 managed to escape, out of whom only 100 survived World War II.

“The memorable day of August 2, 1943, came. Sweltering heat… The stench of burned and decomposing bodies permeated the entire camp – bodies of those who had already been gassed to death. The day was special to us,” wrote Samuel Willenberg, camp prisoner, a participant in the revolt and author of the “Treblinka Revolt” memoir.

“We hoped that what we dreamt of for so long would be fulfilled on that very day. We could care less about staying alive because the sole thought we were preoccupied with was to destroy the factory of death,” he wrote.

The unequal fight broke out around 4 pm. The prisoners set fire to some of the camp buildings but failed to destroy the gas chambers. Only a small number of rebels were in possession of firearms and ammunition, which they obtained from the German SS paramilitary formation’s gun room. Other prisoners had only hand-held weapons such as axes, knives, iron bars and sledgehammers to face off the well-equipped Nazi camp guards.

“The commotion grew wild. Behind us, prisoners rushed to the camp gate. Sounds of explosions reached our ears from the side of the garage. Through the wall of trees, we saw an ever-taller pillar of fire crawling up to the top of petrol cisterns smack-banged between a train platform and a German barrack. Caught as if in an infernal dance, the German camps burned. Desiccated pine branches interwoven with the fence blazed like a serpent trailing behind itself a flaming tail. The whole of Treblinka stood in flames,” Willenberg’s memoir reads.

Prisoners trying to climb over the fence were shot at from the watchtowers. Most of them were shot dead. Around 200 prisoners made it out of the camp alive but only as many as 100 survived WWII. Some of the prisoners who remained in the camp after the revolt was pacified were immediately killed by their German persecutors. The remnants were harnessed to disassemble the camp and efface evidence of the crimes perpetrated therein.

Two more batches of Jews from the Białystok ghetto were transported to the Treblinka camp in August 1943, before the structure was demolished. They were exterminated in the still functional gas chambers. In November of the same year, the last prisoners were shot to death. The camp was levelled, the ground ploughed up and greenery sowed over it so as to hide any trace. A house was built on the site and a Ukrainian family was settled there.

Made for Poles to work till death

The 17-hectare Treblinka I Concentration Camp was designed by Germans at the decree of Warsaw District Governor Ludwig Fischer issued on November 15, 1941, and remained in operation until July 23, 1944. Surrounded by an over two-metre high barbed wire obstacle, the camp was reserved for Poles who were sent there from all over German-occupied territory of Poland to work for the occupier until they died.

The Polish prisoners were put in wooden barracks and slept on rough wooden planks. The camp’s staff consisted of several dozen Schutzstaffel (SS) officers and around 100 Ukrainian guardsmen trained at the SS Trawniki training centre.

As many as 20,000 people were imprisoned at the Treblinka I camp and around half of them were murdered or died of exhaustion. Poles who were arrested for hiding Jews from Germans constituted a large number of prisoners. Polish citizens were sent to work in gravel pits, for the construction of embankments and drainage channels, digging and logging.

Two kilometres away from Treblinka I, the German occupiers of Poland built the Treblinka II extermination camp for Jews. Around 800,000 people died there.

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