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"Warsaw's Jews are being murdered in Treblinki"

Warsaws Jews are Being Murdered in Treblinki, newspaper article 1942
Oyf der vakh, Warsaw ghetto, September 20, 1942

Newspapers such as the Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt or the Gazeta żydowska (the equivalent of the Nachrichtenblatt in Kraków, the "capital" of the Generalgouvernement) reflected the reality of Nazi-dominated and increasingly precarious Jewish life in the zone of German occupation. Orders, regulations, restrictions and daily humiliations emanated from their pages as part of the general Nazi policy to control (and, eventually, extinguish) Jewish life in the realm under its control. But visible as they were, these newspapers were far outnumbered by "illegal" publications distributed in and outside the ghettos in German-occupied Europe.

The "underground press" was almost never as grand as the general rubric implies. Rather than consisting of regular newspaper sheets, the many publications that fell into this category were in fact typewritten or mimeographed, printed on bulk paper, and passed by hand to trusted contacts. It was difficult to find printing paper in wartime, especially for Jews intent on producing illegal publications, and distribution was a problem, because print is bulky and difficult to move around unnoticed. Even so, the publications produced under these difficult circumstances numbered in the dozens, and reached more than a few Jews in Europe, directly or indirectly. Even though the print run of all these newspapers was limited, because of the primitive nature of production, they were passed on by hand to other trusted readers; it is estimated that each copy thus reached dozens of voracious readers. Deciding whom to offer the news bulletin to next was tricky: it had to be a trusted person, for distributing illegal press—especially outlawed Jewish press—was an offense punished severely, often by death. But despite this, underground publications were distributed widely, and most people were aware of their existence.

The Warsaw ghetto alone boasted some fifty underground press titles.1 These newspapers differed in their outlooks, physical and literary qualities, and readership: the prewar political lines in the sand were rarely crossed in the press, and each newspaper voiced the worldview of its political constituency. The newspapers espoused ideological positions ranging from the various brands of mainstream and revisionist Zionism to the extreme left-wing, including communism, and were published in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew.

Despite the political differences, however, and largely owing to the severe constraints of ghettoization, most of the publications in the Warsaw ghetto—and the Jewish press at large—stuck to a more or less uniform organization of content. They opened with a political statement, depending on the paper's ideological persuasion, pertinent to the current political and Jewish situation, followed by the news from the front (usually obtained by listening to BBC or other allied broadcasts on secret radios that had not been turned over to the Germans), the news from the ghetto, and the general situation in which the Jews were living.

Between late July and late September 1942, the Germans deported some quarter million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to their deaths at Treblinka, a killing center some 50 miles northeast from the city. This genocidal development was part of Operation Reinhard, the plan to murder all Jews in the Generalgouvernement. To add insult to injury, the "great action," as the Germans euphemistically called the operation to decimate the Warsaw ghetto, in effect lasted from Tisha b'Av (July 23) to Yom Kippur (September 21) of that year, two Jewish holidays, the latter arguably the most important date in the Hebrew calendar.

Before these deportations, Warsaw Jews had been painfully familiar with the history of occupation, ghettoization, radical antisemitism, daily humiliation, occasional murder—impressions and experiences reinforced by testimonies of refugees from other parts of Poland who somehow made it to the Warsaw ghetto, and rumors and news about systematic murder of Jews in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, this first wave of mass murder that Warsaw Jews encountered was shocking and barely believable; many were ready to accept the story that large numbers of Warsaw Jews were being "resettled" to work somewhere in the "east."

On one of the last days of the great deportation, on September 20, 1942, the socialist Bund underground ghetto newspaper, Oyf der vakh (On guard) published a detailed account of "Treblinki," the place where Warsaw Jews were being taken, and unmasked the murder that was taking place there. The anonymous author of the text mistakenly called Treblinka "Treblinki," most likely because they had never heard of the place before. Today, most people know it because of the infamous killing center, but in the summer of 1942, few people, even in Warsaw, had a reason to ever have heard of it. This article was one of the first descriptions of the process of mass murder in Treblinka; later that year, in November, as documented in Jewish Responses to Persecution vol. 3, the first eyewitness accounts of Treblinka were collected in the ghetto by the activists of Oyneg Shabes, Emanuel Ringelblum's secret archival society.

For more details about the underground press in the Warsaw ghetto, which also describes this phenomenon in general, see Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); and Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

The term used here is the euphemistic German "Aussiedlung," or "resettlement." From here on, this is translated as "deportation." Deportations from the Warsaw ghetto began in July 1942 and continued until September, when this article was written. Deportations resumed in January 1943.

Brześć, today Brest in Belarus.

As in the two other Operation Reinhard extermination camps (Bełżec and Sobibor), Treblinka had an auxiliary guard unit composed of former Soviet prisoners of war of various nationalities as well as so-called ethnic Germans trained near Trawniki in the Lublin district. These Trawniki men supplemented a small German camp staff that numbered only up to 35 SS men and police. See Peter Black, "Foot Soldiers of the Final Solution: The Trawniki Training Camp and Operation Reinhard," Holocaust and Genocide Studies 25/1 (2011), 1-99.

In 1942, the particular Nazi method of mass killing in Treblinka was neither widely known nor entirely confirmed. In fact, the Treblinka gas chambers relied on the use of carbon monoxide. For the history of the killing centers of Operation Reinhard, see Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

The Umschlagplatz, the collection and deportation point in Warsaw.

In addition to Treblinka and Bełżec, the third camp of Operation Reinhard was Sobibór near the Generalgouvernement's border to Reichskommissariat Ukraine.

As in the case in the speech mentioned in the previous paragraph, about the Jews being taken for work in Smolensk or Kyiv, this was clearly a lie as well. In 1940, the Nazis briefly considered Madagascar as a place to which they would be able to deport European Jews, but this "plan" went nowhere. It is possible that the SS officer was recirculating old news, as the "Madagascar plan" was something at least some of the Jews would have heard of before, and so this lie would provide a false sense of hope.

Already during the deportations from Warsaw ghetto, as well as during similar developments elsewhere, many Jews perceived the Jewish ghetto police as traitors, since they were rounding up the Jews in the ghetto and helping deliver the "quotas" of Jews to the Germans. This perception continued after the war, among Holocaust survivors. For a contemporary account written by anonymous members of the Kovno ghetto police, see Samuel Schalkowsky, trans., The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014). For a broader topic of Jewish collaboration, see Laura Jokusch and Gabriel Finder, eds., Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015).

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Warsaw's Jews are Being Murdered in Treblinki 

In the first weeks of the "deportation action,"1 Warsaw was full of greeting [cards] from those Warsaw Jews who had been sent away. The greetings came from Bialystok, Brisk,2 Kosov [Kosów Lacki], Malkin [Malkinia], Pinsk, Smolensk.

This was all a lie! All trains with Warsaw Jews went to Treblinki, where the Jews were killed in a terrible fashion.

The letters and greetings came from people who were able to escape from the train cars or from the camp itself. It is also possible that a few Warsaw Jews from the first transports at the beginning of the action were intentionally sent to Brisk or Pinsk, so that their greetings would deceive, mislead, and give rise to false illusions among the Jewish populace in Warsaw.

What was the actual fate of the Jews who were deported?

This we find out from what Poles tell us and from the stories of Jews who succeeded in escaping from the train cars or from the camp in Treblinki.

Treblinki is the first train station on the Malkin-Siedlets [Siedlce] train line. The camp in Treblinki occupies around a half of a square kilometer. The camp is encircled with three rows of barbed wire fence. The innermost and outermost fences have a height of one and one half meters, while the middle fence has a height of three meters. It is very heavily wired and interwoven with bushes. A branch of the train line has been brought beyond the first, outermost fence. A modern, asphalt train ramp has been built there, as well as large warehouses, a few hundred meters in length. After the living and dead have been quickly unloaded from the train cars, the Jews are led into the inside of the camp. They must leave all of their baggage lying near the train cars.

Inside, in the camp, two long barracks have been built, about thirty meters in length. The barrack for the men is located on the right, the barrack for women on the left. In addition to Ukrainians or Latvians from the convoy,3 a group of about 60 Jews assists with unloading the train. These are not deportees, they are young people from Stotshek near Vengrov [Stoczek near Węgrów], who were taken as helpers for the camp staff. They are armed with sticks. They chase, push, and hit. Where the S.S. men give one blow, they [the Jews] always give several. They look well, they are well nourished. Aside from that they gorge themselves on the food that is taken from the deportees.

Even as early as the deportees step off the train, shots fall on those who lag behind, or shots are simply fired for no reason at all. The dead bodies that are unloaded from the train cars, and those who have just fallen, are buried on the spot, between the first and second fences. In groups of two, Jews from earlier transports take the bodies by the hands and legs and throw them into a grave that was prepared earlier. Yet the Jewish gravediggers, who voluntarily reported for such work, never return to the camp. After finishing their work they are shot on the spot.

One of the gravediggers escaped in the following fashion: in the middle of work, instead of going up the ramp for additional dead bodies, he crawled through the wires of the fence and hid in the neighboring bushes. He happened upon a peasant who, for the price of a pair of boots, showed him the road into the village. A second gravedigger hid next to the ramp, amongst the baggage that the deportees had to leave. At night, he succeeded in hiding under the train car and in this way he made his way out of the camp to freedom.

The baggage of the deportees is laid out near the ramp. It occupies an area of several hundred meters in length and up to one and one half meters in height. The width of this area continues to grow. The camp staff has not yet had time to sort the things. Workers are taken from the camp to lay the things out. After finishing the work they return back to the camp. Many of them try to escape. They hide amongst the things, and after the transport arrives, they try to crawl through the first barbed-wire fence—which is not too difficult.

What takes place in the camp itself?

The new arrivals always meet people from earlier transports, who are sitting on the ground or in the barracks. Terrible cries are heard, screams, cries for help. People are constantly being shot. Ukrainians with machine guns sit on the roofs of both barracks, and they constantly fire shots in order to instill fear in the few Jews who draw close to the barbed wire. Constant noise is heard from a powerful machine that digs up earth. This digging machine is located in the left, backmost corner of the camp, near the barrack that is called the "showers." There are not many Ukrainians in the camp. The entire camp staff together with the S.S. men consists of 100 persons. From each group that arrives, volunteers are immediately chosen who must go for water. Yet none of these ever returns to the camp. After their departure a heavy round of fire from machine guns is heard. Then a second party goes to bury the dead.

The newly arrived women and children are arranged in groups of 200 persons to go into the "showers." They are undressed until completely naked, their things remain, and they themselves are led into the small barrack that is called the "showers" and is located near the digging machine. No one returns from the showers, and new parties go in constantly. This "bathhouse" is actually a murder house. The floor in the barrack caves in together with the people, who fall into a machine. According to certain persons who have escaped, the people in the barrack are gassed; according to others they are killed by electric current.4 The digging machine digs all the while. Shots are heard endlessly from the little tower that is located over the "showers." They say that in this fashion, those in the barrack who are still on their feet after the gassing are shot. The "shower" takes in 200 people every 15 minutes. It is therefore capable of killing up to 20,000 people over the course of twenty-four hours. Herein lies the explanation for the constant arrival of people in the camp from whence there is no return—except for a few hundred who were able to escape over the course of this whole time.

For a certain period of time, up to two trains daily arrived from Warsaw, with 12,000 people in each. When only one train came from Warsaw, a second train used to come from other cities.

On August 20th (approximately), 4 trains arrived in the camp: from Warsaw, Kelts [Kielce], Skarzhisk [Skarżysko-Kamienna],and one from Polesye [Polesie]. On certain days, trains also arrived from Germany and from Czechoslovakia.

During the day, the women and children are liquidated in the camp, during the night—the men.

Among those who escaped were people who were in the camp for 7 days. They would always join the newly arrived transports. One woman who wore pants hid for 9 days in the men's group. Escaping from the camp itself is difficult and risky, but there are people who attempt to do this, in spite of the fact that the camp territory is brightly lit at night. The smallest movement provokes a series of machine-gun shots. One of those who escaped was about to go into the "showers," he was naked, so he smeared himself with mud and, as a result, succeeded in crawling through the barbed wire, unnoticed by the guard. One of those who escaped tells of a Jew who suddenly attacked a Ukrainian and snatched his gun away from him. He gave the Ukrainian the gun back for the price of enabling him to escape. The Ukrainian hid him in a train car and brought him out of the camp in this fashion.

The Jews from Stotshek, members of the camp auxiliary, go around amongst the Jews in the camp demanding that money and valuables be surrendered. The Ukrainians have pockets full of gold, diamonds, watches. Many people do not want to surrender their property to the murderers, and they tear up the money, bury the valuables. There is heavy trade in the camp in a drink that is manufactured from human urine and sweetened with saccharine (1 small packet of saccharine costs 100 złoty).

Why doesn't a mass escape ever take place?

Rumors circulate in the camp that the camp is encircled with a very heavy guard, that the wires are highly electrified. The people are broken down from their terrible experiences on the Umschlag,5 during the trip, and in the camp. The general depression affects even more active personalities. A certain butcher had his knife with him, and he wanted to do "something," but the surrounding Jews restrained him.

The younger, stronger, and more active men are immediately taken upon arrival because they are mostly those who report voluntarily for bringing water or burying the dead. None of them returns to the camp. They are all shot.

When the wind blows in the direction of Malkin, the distinct smell of the dead that comes from Treblinki can be felt at the Malkin train station. The Jewish population in the small surrounding villages knows quite well the fate of the Jews in Treblinki. For this reason, they [the surrounding Jews] have not allowed themselves to be loaded into the train cars. Many of them have been shot on the spot. Those who could went into hiding, escaped. This is what happened in Vengrov and in other villages.

3 such camps [as Treblinka] exist: one near Pinsk for the eastern provinces, one in the Lublin region, in Belzets [Bełżec], and the third, the largest, in Treblinki near Malkin.6

For every arriving transport, an S.S. man gives a speech in which he assures that all will travel out to work in Smolensk, or Kiev.

On the night of the 19th to 20th of August, during the bombardment of Warsaw, the Treblinki camp was blacked out for the first time. An S.S. man gave a speech to the Jews and said that an agreement had been reached between the German government and Roosevelt about sending the European Jews to Madagascar.7 The first transport leaves from Treblinki as early as tomorrow. This announcement brought forth great joy among the Jews. The death machines began their "normal" work once again as soon as the alarm was called off.

The Hitlerites strive to deceive the Jews up until the very last moment even on the grounds of the camp itself. Not only through speeches, but even the signs and the "way of life" there create the impression that Treblinki is a step to something else, to a further trip or to labor—in any case, to further life. The S.S. fears an attempt at resistance or rebellion—and this is why the deception of Jews plays such a large role in their [deportation] actions.

There were voices in Jewish society who warned the populace in the first days of the [deportation] action what the action meant.

Every Jew today must know the fate of those who have been deported.

The small cluster that remains in Warsaw awaits the same fate.

The conclusion therefore is: do not allow yourself to be fooled! Go into hiding! Do not allow yourself to be deceived by any registrations, selections, numbers, and inspections!

Jews, help one other, take care of the children! Help the "underground"! The shameful traitors and accomplices—the Jewish police—must be boycotted!8 Do not believe them. Beware of them. Resist them!

We are all soldiers on a terrible front!

We must endure so we can demand that our tortured brothers and sisters, children and elderly are accounted for—those who were killed by the hands of murderers on the battlefield of freedom and humanity!

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Oyf der vakh, Warsaw ghetto, September 20, 1942
Date Created
September 20, 1942
Page(s) 1
Publisher
Oyf der vakh
Language(s)
Yiddish
Location
Warsaw, Poland
Reference Location
Treblinka, Poland
Kosów Lacki, Poland
Brest, Belarus
Brześć, Poland (historical)
Pinsk, Belarus
Pińsk, Poland (historical)
Małkinia Górna, Poland
Smolensk, Soviet Union (historical)
Smolensk, Russia
Siedlce, Poland
Stoczek, Poland
Kielce, Poland
Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland
Lublin, Poland
Bełżec, Poland
Kiev, Soviet Union (historical)
Kyiv, Ukraine
Document Type Newspaper Article
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