Chapter 4: The Death Camps


In the town of Wlodawa no one knew what was happening out in the woods. But everyone knew what the next day would bring: more hard labor. Jews by the hundreds were being worked by Nazi overlords. It seemed like every task involved digging; hours, days, and weeks of digging; digging until the shovel felt like it was attached to your hand. Winter cold had made the muscles ache with each thrust of the blade into the hard clay. Guards yelled. There wasn’t nearly enough food. The Germans wanted dikes built along the river; they ordered the dismantling of the defensive earthworks left by the Russians, who had retreated in defeat in the previous summer. The tasks seemed endless.

One night in early spring two men who had been working deep in the woods snuck into town, making their way to Wlodawa’s rabbi. What they told him was difficult to grasp: the Nazis had an isolated work crew constructing a special camp. It resembled a prisoner-of-war camp, but near its center was a complex of small buildings with strange features—brick chimneys, sealed chambers, pipes and fittings. There was talk. The camp was for killing! The rabbi was aghast. He believed the men, who had risked their lives to bring him the news. The Jews of Wlodawa must be awakened! He resolved to issue a call to three days’ fasting and prayer, as an appeal to God and a means of collective resistance. But before the rabbi could act, a Jewish policeman caught wind of the plan. He went to the Nazis and told them about the escapees and the rabbi’s intentions. They arrested the rabbi, tracked down the informants, and shot them all.

By the time that the Sobibor camp south of Wlodawa started up in May 1942, Globocnik and his gassing crews had all three extermination factories humming. Human beings had applied industrial-strength planning and technology in order to exterminate…human beings. In Treblinka, the largest of the three camps, gas chambers and processing facilities could handle five thousand victims a day. Belzec, the first of the camps to begin operations, was second in size. Sobibor, the smallest of the three, would eliminate only 350,000 people by the time it was closed in autumn 1943. Together the camps eradicated 1.7 million people, the overwhelming majority of which were Jews, most from Poland, though Jews from western Europe and Gypsies from Hungary and Romania also perished in large numbers.

Why didn’t Jews fight back? Why did most go like sheep to the slaughter? The death factories were skillfully designed for deception. Jews leaving the ghetto were told that they were being relocated to labor camps—an entirely believable tale, since between 1939 and 1942 labor camps and work details had abounded. Upon arrival, most victims were debilitated and in shock from the harrowing ordeal of riding for many hours in packed boxcars. They scrambled into the sunlight disoriented, hungry, sweating, and parched with thirst. Assembled before the camp director, their welcome was reassuring. A German official calmed them with kind words, sometimes with soft music playing in the background. Belzec actually had a small orchestra perform on its railroad docks. The victims were told that they would be fed, clothed, and treated well, but that first they must be deloused in showers. Delousing was a common and widely understood process; lice and bedbugs infested the hair and clothing of the deportees. Perhaps surprisingly, not only did almost all arriving contingents not resist, but they frequently greeted the reassurances of the camp directors with shouts of ‘thank you Herr Commandant’, and even applause. Those who raised voices in dissent were routinely hushed by the crowd. As one of the few survivors of the death camps bitterly explained, the greatest enemy of the Jews was hope.

Most who arrived at the camps were dead within two hours. Men and women were separated for ‘delousing’, and instructed to remove their clothing in wooden barracks. But they were told to ‘remember where your clothes are’ and assemble them in neat piles. Women had their heads shaved—a more ominous but not necessarily alarming development. Men, perceived to be potentially more rebellious, were marched to the showers first through a narrow corridor. The Germans cynically called this fenced path the ‘Highway to Heaven’. It ran towards the center of each camp, which was in-turn ringed by more barbed wire fencing. At this point guards, mostly Ukrainian rather than German, yelled and drove the victims ahead with trudgeons and whips. The hysteria of the moment ensured that the vulnerable and exhausted mass crush themselves into the gas chambers.

Inside, pressed together in standing positions, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters hugged one another. Typically for a moment doubts appeared to linger. Outside the executioners powered up engines, releasing thick carbon monoxide into the chamber. Shrieks of horror erupted as those within realized their fate. Gagging on fumes, people panicked, fingernails clawed, bodies lunged for exits that did not exist. Outside the roar of the engines competed with the sound of the screams. In about ten minutes the chamber fell silent. Opening heavy steel doors, Jewish workers extracted the dead. They usually remained upright, but the bodies were now blue, soaked with fluids, feces and urine. Workers pried open mouths with crowbars and ripped out gold fillings. They ripped open holes in search of diamonds and gold. Some facilities had autopsy tables where the stomach and buttocks could be sliced open—countless Jews having swallowed jewels and gold pieces for safe keeping. Surviving the gas chamber was beyond improbable. In the one known case of a still-breathing sixteen-year-old girl, the Nazi supervisor was so shaken by the apparent miracle that he ordered her execution but quickly removed himself from the scene.

The stench of the death camps was beyond description. The putrid odor of death hung heavy in the air. The Belzec camp, built first, was positioned close to a town and sat along the railroad’s mainline. Passing trains were swamped with the ghastly smell, as passengers whispered rumors about the chimneys and billowing smoke nearby. Farmers and townsfolk lived with the incessant odor…and they knew. The secret of the camps was out but most Jewish victims, trapped as they were by this time in ghettoes, were not privy to the information. Some camps provided arriving western European Jews with paper, allowing them time to scratch notes to loved ones back home, assuring them of their safety. This shrewd tactic added to the deception and helped convince later victims-in-transit that all was fine. Still, the wretched smell upon arrival was an unavoidable clue that something was amiss. But for anyone who suspected the worst, there was a singular lack of options. A few boxcars were unloaded at a time, well-armed guards watched for anyone who seemed oriented to the situation, and dogs and fencing kept everyone channeled towards the death chambers.

Better odds for escape rested in transit from the ghetto to the camp, yet few people gambled with their lives, and even fewer won. Boxcar trains were loaded with the same aggressiveness as the gas chambers—whip-wielding guards thrashing and driving the crowd aboard with supervisors and others watching for anyone moving against the flow. Normally a Ukrainian guard armed with a rifle sat atop at least every other boxcar, with orders to shoot anyone who worked their way onto the roof or even leaned out from the train. For those inside, the harrowing journey itself was a powerful distraction. Packed boxcars in the sweltering heat of summer or cold dark of winter became deathtraps in themselves, with elderly and young perishing amidst the crowd. Nor could anyone be certain of the train’s destination—even if they’d heard death camp rumors—or know that they faced certain death. Still, especially in mid-1943, mass attempts at escape from the trains were not uncommon. In a single boxcar rolling towards Treblinka young people pried away boards and several jumped, most to their deaths, killed either by the severity of the fall or gunshots from the guard atop. Within the car, despair prompted many to take their own lives. A doctor administered poison to himself and his son; a man sliced open his wrists with a razorblade; another hung himself with his belt from a metal hook in the ceiling. We know of this particular example because the train passed by Treblinka and delivered its human cargo to a labor camp instead. But accounts of death camp-bound trains are largely non-existent, since so very few people survived to tell about it.

One of the great ironies about the death camps is that Jews staffed them. Globocnik never had enough S.S. men for his operations; so he relied heavily on non-Germans, especially anti-boshevik Ukrainians, to guard the camps. But day-to-day operations were carried out by Jewish prisoners. Treblinka was typical: it featured a German supervisory staff of dozens, Ukrainian guards by the score, and nearly one thousand prisoners as the workhorses who made the whole operation function. Jews shaved the victims’ heads, sorted their clothes, collected their valuables, disentangled their bodies, and buried the corpses. Of course the prisoners were coerced by threats of death to do so, but their role as a labor force was nevertheless a critical asset to the understaffed Nazis. Many Jews helped kill the Jews.

No prisoner revolt materialized solely in the context of this repulsive activity, despite the fact that prisoners outnumbered guards and Germans in the death camps by a ratio of about eight to one. It was only when prisoners could see that they themselves were unquestionably going to die that subversion in the camps began. In mid-1943 the writing was on the wall: the transports arrived only sporadically, work details slowed, and the prisoners’ main task became digging up remains for cremation atop giant biers made from crisscrossing ties of railroad track. Coupled with the known fact that Germany was losing the war (information garnered from victims and even off-hand comments by guards), they could easily surmise their fate: the camps were about to be erased from history, and they would be the last ones escorted into the gas chambers.

Yet even under these circumstances the death camp prisoners still waivered. Great care had to be taken by conspirators to hide their schemes from the majority of the inmates. Betraying one’s brother to the executioners was common fare, and countless preliminary attempts to resist were derailed by informants. At last, when the revolt at Sobibor finally broke out, one frustrated prisoner turned to an insurgent and expressed nothing but disgust. ‘Don’t you realize’, he protested, ‘that if you weren’t doing this I could live for another couple of weeks?’

At both Sobibor and Treblinka—Belzec having already closed—the only prisoners in a position to make a revolt happen were those working closely with the Germans. Because of the unreliability of the mass of inmates, for months the planning committee at Treblinka consisted of merely ten well-placed, highly-educated workers. Scavenging money from among the dead, they aspired to bribe one of the Ukrainian guards in an attempt to secure weapons. One day the leader of the group, a doctor named Julian Chorazycki, was caught with an incriminating amount of cash. Realizing that he had no options, he dived through a window, which bought him enough time to swallow poison. Germans pumped his stomach to no avail. After desecrating his body, they rounded up prisoners and beat them for information.

Despite this setback, the collective secrecy held, and the plotting continued. Unable to bribe any guards or establish reliable outside contacts, the conspirators sought another source of weapons. A locksmith was able to copy a key to one of the camp’s storage rooms. On an appointed day, prisoners succeeded in diverting guards and accessed the room, stealing a box of hand grenades. To their dismay, the grenade detonators were nowhere to be found—stored elsewhere—and they had to return the box in similar operation before its disappearance was discovered.

For several months in early 1943 the Treblinka conspirators found little hope to carry them forward. Much of the camp seemed reluctant to revolt. When some of last victims from the Warsaw ghetto arrived, they shared news that ‘freedom’ was an illusion—that those who escaped were routinely betrayed by Poles back into the hands of the Germans. What could be accomplished even if, somehow, the prisoners managed to break out of the camp? But by mid-summer it was all too obvious that time was nearly up, that Treblinka would be closed within a few weeks. Expanding the circle of conspirators, on August 2nd the prisoners again accessed the weapons room, this time acquiring a few rifles and handguns, and positioned themselves for a 4:30 p.m. uprising. When one of their number was nabbed thirty minutes early, they felt compelled to shoot his captor, effectively triggering the revolt. With enough firepower to keep a couple sets of Ukrainian tower guards at bay, nearly four hundred inmates at Treblinka made their escape, while a slightly larger number perished inside the camp. Of those who ran, only about a fourth survived, evading recapture.

At Sobibor, conspirators were able to more favorably execute an uprising along the lines of what those at Treblinka had hoped for. With cautious planning by a cadre of ex-Russian Jewish soldiers, in October 1943 they first lured a couple dozen individual guards to their deaths—ambushing them inside shops and barracks with hand-made weapons, axes, and other work tools. A similar rush through cut barbed wire and over a minefield took a couple hundred inmate-workers to freedom.

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Among the escapees at Sobibor was a 15-year old Jewish boy named Toivi Blatt. Toivi had come to the camp in spring 1943 with his parents and younger brother. As his mother was pulled away from his family and taken to the gas chamber, Toivi made an awkward joke about his mom always worrying—a mindless comment in a numbing moment that would haunt him into old age. His dad and little brother failed to be selected for the work detail, and he was alone. But Toivi survived. For nearly six months he endured harrowing tasks in the death camp, but was fortunate enough to eventually be assigned to an area that processed the possessions of the dead, with bags and clothes that invariably hid stashes of food. He ate well enough, though always still hungry, and kept his strength.

As the wild events of the fateful October day unfolded, Toivi followed the lead of the Russians and participated in the escape near the front gate. At a critical moment, a wood-framed and barbed wire fence fell upon him, pinning him to the ground. He struggled to free himself to no avail. But just as death seemed certain, he realized that the barbed wire was embedded in his thick leather jacket (a jacket he had astutely savaged for the event from a doomed prisoner). He worked his arms out of its sleeves, crawled forward, and emerged from under the fence. The timing was fortuitous. Scores who had gone before him were the first to reach a minefield that surrounded the camp. They detonated mines and fell by the dozen. Toivi weaved his way through the mangled corpses and raced to the sound of machine gun fire from the towers, reaching nearby woods safely.

Freedom! It was hard for Toivi to fathom it. Sobibor was nothing less than a hell-on-earth, and the cool night air and chirping birds in the morning brought him moments of ecstasy. The escapees needed to split up and disperse in different directions. The Russian soldiers who had led the revolt recognized that those with less physical strength would delay and handicap the strong. They broke off from the main group, taking nearly all available weapons with them. The few aged and physically impaired who had managed to leave the camp were left on their own. Young Toivi, vulnerable but in reasonably good shape, joined two boys older than himself. For many days they walked and walked. Their great need, besides putting distance between themselves and the camp, was of course food. It was perilous to approach a cottage, but eventually they concluded that they had no choice. They had ample jewels and cash, secretly salvaged from the luggage of victims in the camp, but could they trust the person who opened the cottage door?

On their first gamble, a young woman greeted them. She lived alone. They asked to buy food. She gave them bread readily, refusing payment. She served them milk, and bottled more for them to carry away—giving more than she kept for herself, but still declined to accept anything in return. She quoted Jesus: ‘give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty’. When the boys asked where they were, however, the relief spawned by her generosity turned to horror. The cottage was just a couple of miles from the death camp! On a clear day the woman could see its tallest guard tower; sometimes the wind carried a wretched smell her way. Toivi and his compatriots had walked for days through woods, yet had gone in circles.

Realizing that they had to beeline away from Sobibor, the boys decided to trek along roads, even though encountering vehicles or passers-by made this strategy dangerous. In a week-long journey marked by several unsettling moments, they worked their way towards Toivi’s hometown. Here, they assumed, he could find them succor from myriad friends; his father had been a well-liked merchant in the area. Instead the refugees found mostly hostility and fear. The little town had been ravaged during the summer, with nearly every Jewish home pillaged by Poles. When Toivi approached one farmer who had known his dad, he received a single serving of food but no shelter. An even closer family friend hastily sent him away, consumed with dread of Nazi patrols and neighbor-informants. A former school teacher shunned him.

Increasingly desperate, the three boys stayed in the woods but eventually approached a farmer’s house. Winter was nearing, and they had no choice but to take greater risks. The farmer, as it turned out, had worked on occasion for Toivi’s dad. His name was Bojarski, and Toivi had known his daughter in school. After several meetings, Bojarski reluctantly agreed to hide the boys. In exchange, they gave him pieces of gold and jewelry obtained in the death camp. The hiding place was wretched: a small straw-filled cavity, mostly underground, near the corner of the barn. To Toivi and his friends it seemed like living in a tomb. Never able to risk being outside in sunlight, the boys endured days and weeks of prison-like boredom. For whatever reasons, Bojarski fed them far less than anticipated, and rarely let them out even past nightfall. This miserable isolation brought ill-health in the wintertime. The boys lost weight; their muscles wilted. Their legs atrophied and they could barely walk. They stank. To the farmer they must’ve begun to look less than human. He demanded and received more gold, but still fed them less and less. He even took their shoes and most of their clothes, leaving the trio lying together, buried in straw, in their underwear.

One night Bojarski ordered the boys to move into a new hideout. He dropped their skeleton-like bodies one-by-one through a narrow hole, into an earthen bunker only three feet deep and four feet wide. Soon the boys heard him rolling his wheelbarrow, and suddenly a powerful thud sealed the hole above. Where was the vent? Toivi began to gasp for air. Panicking, the boys jostled for position. Fredek, the strongest of the three, pushed up with all his remaining might. The grey mass of a millstone moved slightly, a board popped, and fresh air poured into the chamber. Clawing through dirt, one of the boys slithered out and made some noise. A surprised Bojarski emerged from his farmhouse, then returned the trio to their original hiding place. What had happened? Had he tried to kill them?

Toivi and his friends were perplexed, until an April 1944 night when their questions were answered. Instead of bringing food to their hovel, the farmer shoved a shotgun into the hole and fired. Fredek writhed in agony for a minute or two, then died. Instead of crawling into the hole, Bojarski and his accomplices began to dismantle the hiding place from within the barn, pulling up dirt and bags of concrete. It was dark, lanterns showing little, and in the confusion the two surviving boys worked their way into nearby piles of straw. A Pole caught Toivi, pinned him with a rusted gun, and blew a hole through his jaw. They fired multiplied shots into the hay where his remaining friend, named Szmul, lay motionless. But the farmer’s old weapon discharged poorly. The boys played dead. Briefly surveying their idle bodies in the shadows, Bojarski and his friends rummaged for jewelry. They found some watches and gold, and contentedly returned to the house, muttering to one another that they’d bury the dead boys in daylight.

Toivi and Szmul fled. Instead of running into nearby woods they headed closer to the town. For weeks they hid, nearly starving, in ruined buildings. Toivi repeatedly risked his life by knocking on the doors of family friends in search of food. Some Poles helped, most did not. Some were too frightened to feed Jews; others were hostile. In one dangerous encounter Toivi and Szmul were separated. Attempts to find each other failed, and Toivi was again alone. Despairing, he hung on until the coming of spring, in 1944, when the rapid approach of the Soviet Red Army diminished zealous Jew-hunting and made it easier for him to survive. A Pole even employed him on a farm once the weather turned, and after the battlefront passed through town he was able to work and eat in a local bakery. But on the streets, Bojarski and his friends were looking for him. One night they demanded entry into the store, forcing him to hide in the antic. The war had ended but, like so many Jewish refugees, Toivi Blatt still faced death. With no options, and no means of transportation, he flagged down a Soviet army convoy passing through town. Darting into the middle of the road in front of an approaching truck, he cheated death one last time—the driver slamming on the brakes and bringing the vehicle to a sudden stop just a foot or two from him. An enraged Soviet officer accosted him. Refusing to move, while pleading, Toivi convinced the Russian to let him ride on the back of the truck, his would-be Polish assassins visibly disappointed as he did so.

Making it to the regional city of Lublin, Blatt found succor from a Jewish refugee committee which established a survivors’ aid center in the Old Town. Amazingly, only hundreds of Jews regrouped here, in a city which had been a thriving center of Jewish culture just six years earlier. By any strategic evaluation, the Nazi-sanctioned eradication of Polish Jews was a staggering demographic success. Of nearly three million, only tens of thousands survived, the vast majority of these by fleeing into the distant stretches of the vast Soviet Union and staying ahead of the Nazi war machine. As the war ended, only thousands remained in Poland. A massacre of forty-two Jews by a mob of axe-wielding Poles in the city of Kielce, two months after the war had ended, signaled to all that they were still not welcomed. For his part, Toivi Blatt fled to the United States. Others made their way to Palestine, where Jews sought to re-establish an ancient homeland. Some Jewish zionist groups supported immigration restrictions in the United States and Britain, so as to force survivors to head to Palestine.