During World War Two the Nazis committed one of the largest acts of mass murder ever seen in history. They tried to keep this secret from the world, intending for no one inside the death camps to survive. But some did. This year sees the 60th anniversary of the revolts and uprisings that gave these few their freedom.
The Holocaust was one of the darkest patches in Jewish history, indeed, in history itself, lest we forget those millions of non-Jews who were also murdered in the death camps. Many people went to their deaths not knowing or refusing to believe what was happening but what of those who were not deceived into death? There were many revolts and uprisings in the ghettos and concentration camps and as this year sees the 60th anniversary of some of these uprisings perhaps now is the time to remind ourselves of how these people managed to escape the jaws of death. What follows is not a ‘top ten’ or ‘best of’ feature but a collection of examples of the courage and spirit shown in the most inhumane conditions, of how a few people tried to keep a hand in their own destiny, to prove that though the body may be broken the spirit was still alive.
Sobibor Concentration Camp
The revolt at Sobibor happened on October 14th 1943. It resulted in the escape of three hundred prisoners and the decision by the Germans to disband the camp. At around 3.30 that afternoon Josef Wolf, one of the Germans, walked into the storeroom and was met by two Russian Jews with axes. He fell without a sound and the revolt had begun. As surprise was the main weapon on the Jews side, they had planned, under the leadership of one of the Russian Jews, a soldier named Alexander Pechersky, to take out as many guards as possible before making a run for it towards the woods. They also decided that to keep the guards from getting wise to their plan, as few people as possible should know until the last minute. Between 3.30 and 5.10, the Jews managed to kill approximately eight guards without being detected. During this time other preparations were also taking place. Stanislaw Szmajzner had been assigned a special task. It was he who walked into the Ukrainian barracks and took five rifles and ammunition, hid them in a blanket and stovepipe and then walked back to the kitchen to distribute them to the Russian POW’s. At 5.05 the bugle sounded for roll call and the prisoners began to line up in the yard. There was an ominous buzz to the atmosphere, as if the inmates knew something was planned. At 5.10 the whistle sounded that usually indicated to the inmates that it was time to formally line up and keep quiet. As it was five minutes too early, one of the nearby guards began to complain. He was quickly silenced with a knife to the stomach and as his body began to slump to the ground Alexander jumped onto a table and shouted at the prisoners: ‘Our day has come. Most of the Germans are dead. Let’s die with honour. Remember, if anyone survives, he must tell the world what has happened here.’ (Rashke R., Escape from Sobibor)
As he finished saying this, someone cried out ‘Hurrah, hurrah!’ and the inmates bolted in all directions. The guards, both German and Ukrainian, had no idea what was happening and struggled initially to control the crowd. Many Jews did not know what to do and so they stayed behind, either too frightened or too weak to move. In all, 159 people stayed behind and were consequently murdered by the Nazis. Of those who did run for their lives, they had to get past the enemy with guns, then over the barbed wire fence and across a mine field before getting to the relative safety of the woods. Here though they would have to keep moving as the Nazis would send out search parties for them. Alexander, after his short speech, led his men towards the armoury but had to withdraw when a German officer, Sergeant Karl Frenzel, opened fire on them with a machine gun. They ran for the fences, Alexander shouting all the time to those frozen with fear to move, to get to freedom. Stanislaw had decided to put his rifle to good use and opened fire on one of the guard towers. After firing four rounds he raced after Alexander towards the fences, then the woods, then freedom. When silence fell on the camp once more, 159 people were still inside the camp, approximately 120 lay dead or dying in the yard, on the fences and in the fields surrounding the camp but three hundred people had escaped to the woods alive. After the escape the Nazis killed everyone left inside the camp, destroyed the buildings, tore down the gas chambers and planted saplings where the barracks had stood. They tried to erase the evidence of the murder of around 250,000 men, women and children but they could not erase the testament of those who had escaped.
Treblinka Concentration Camp
On August 2nd 1943 the prisoners decided to break free of the camp, which was due to be liquidated. This camp was split into two distinct areas, that which contained the gas chambers and burial pits and that which contained all the clothing, jewellery, money etc which had been taken off the trainloads of people brought in almost daily since late May 1942. Camp Number One dealt with the latter and Camp Number Two the former. In the weeks leading up to the revolt those in Camp Number Two were able to get word to those in the other camp that the Germans were excavating all the trenches and pits in order to burn the bodies. The Jews quickly realised this meant that the camp was going to be liquidated. They estimated how long it would take to excavate all the bodies and so calculated how long they had to formulate a plan. The first plan hit a major hitch before the Germans were aware a plot was brewing. The inmates were able to steal between 30 and 40 grenades from the ammunition store recently built in the camp. When a member of the group, a man named Alfred Galewski, examined the grenades he sensed something was wrong and sent for someone with better weapons training than him. When the person arrived he confirmed what Galewski had sensed, the grenades were useless. They had no fuses. Rather than be defeated by this setback the Jews went back to the drawing board to discuss and devise new plans. When the opportunity came on August 2nd, the inmates had managed to gain access once again to the armoury but this time with live rounds and grenades that worked. Both Camp Number One and Camp Number Two were ready for the signal to start the revolt. Half an hour before the signal was to sound two Jews were caught by one of the guards with gold in their pockets. Realising that they both might talk if tortured, Galewski gave the order for the guard to be shot. As the guard hit the ground dying Galewski threw his grenade, the signal for the prisoners to revolt. The explosion was heard all over the camp followed by the rallying cry of ‘Revolution in Berlin’. Upon hearing this all armed inmates opened fire on the guards closest to them and laid down covering fire to let those unarmed to make a break for the barbed wire fencing. Those who had organised the revolt had planned for several things to happen at the time of the first explosion. Those who had enticed the Ukrainian guards out of the watchtowers killed them immediately while those who were on disinfectant duty were to start the fire that would all but consume Treblinka. Disinfecting the camp was a daily occurrence but this time rather than spraying the wooden buildings with cleaning products; the Jews had swapped this for petrol. The resulting fire enabled the Jews to get an upper hand through surprise. Other members of the revolt committee had rounded up inmates and tried to get them to leave but many were afraid and had already resigned themselves to death at the hands of their German captors. Of the thousand or so inmates who were in the camp at the time of the revolt, around six hundred escaped into the surrounding woods. This number had been approximately reduced to just forty when the Soviet forces arrived a year later. Although the revolt succeeded in allowing some inmates to escape to tell the world what was happening at Treblinka, the gas chambers were not damaged sufficiently. These continued to operate until August 19th 1943 when the camp was finally disbanded, torn down and the land worked over to try to erase any evidence of over 840,000 murdered men, women and children.
April 19th 1943. 2.00am. A shudder of apprehension and fear runs through the ghetto. The Jews have just learned that the Germans are planning to liquidate the ghetto that day and 15 minutes later the resistance groups are in position, ready with their comparatively meagre collection of arms. At 7.00am the Germans began to enter the ghetto, around 2,000 soldiers including SS troops against half that many Jewish fighters (there were tens of thousands more Jews in hiding in the ghetto). To give a comparison between the two sides, the Germans had approximately 1,350 rifles to the Jews 17 rifles. Although out-gunned and out-manned the Jews had many hand grenades and homemade incendiary bombs. As the Germans passed through key points in the ghetto the Jews threw their explosives, catching the Germans off-guard. Even when the Germans called in tanks to fire upon the buildings and bunkers the Jews did not back down. Many Germans were killed on that first day of fighting to the point that officers hastily called a withdrawal of troops. By 2.00pm all German troops had left the ghetto. In just twelve hours the resistance fighters had turned back their oppressors and scored a minor victory for the Jews. The following day the Germans exacted a terrible revenge. They entered the hospital on Gesia Street and shot all the patients as they lay in their beds and set fire to the building. Those who had escaped to the cellars died in the flames. The fierce fighting continued for days with both sides suffering casualties. One name that is worthy of mention, although there were many like him, is Abrasha Blum. He was one of the leaders of the resistance who kept the spirit of the Jews alive. It was he who helped organise some of the momentous moves during the revolt. Although he was not a physically strong person, his conviction and determination kept him going, refusing to escape from the ghetto. He held his position and was there when the order came on May 3rd for ‘All to the attack’. He was betrayed and captured by the Germans, placed in prison where he was beaten and tortured and was finally shot on either the 10th or 11th of May 1943. His inspiration, even when in hiding, gave the fighters hope and encouragement until the Germans at around 8.15pm finally took the ghetto on May 16th 1943. According to German calculations, during the period of uprising from April19th to May 16th 7,000 Jews had been killed in the fighting, 30,000 had been transported to Treblinka and a further 5-600 had perished in the flames or demolition of the buildings inside the ghetto.