Friday 13 March 2015:
After a long and hard week, this is hardly the book I would recommend to anyone, for a little bit of relaxation. As a matter of fact, it was a good way to assure that I got nightmares all Friday night! Reading this book, first in the afternoon and then during commercial breaks, watching an episode of “silent witness” (where two little girls had been murdered, by their mothers’ psycho boyfriend), made for a very violent Friday evening! Maybe I should have stayed with my original choice of Göran Rosenberg’s memoirs. But his book is written in such a heavy language, that I just had to read a book where the language at least was not the problem. Even if the topic was the same. That of the Holocaust and what it did to the victims.
That said, this book has its own problems, where the editing has clearly gone amiss. Unless, Chil Rajchman’s notes really were as disorganised as the book is, which is printed from them? The book was never a ready manuscript, if I understood the Swedish translator Salomon Schulman right, but just notes in Yiddish, which he and others have had to translate. And perhaps other language translators have done a better job than Schulman? Like the English Edition? Maybe there, events are in order/ pages are not jumbled? Because in the Swedish edition on page 82, he talks about young women having to stand naked out in the snow for hours, for the amusement of the SS- and Ukrainian guards, them crying and begging to get to go in to the warm gas chambers. But page 83 suddenly talks of the heaps of ashes and the need for getting rid of them. I thought I was too tired or something, and had to go back, reading previous pages, to see if I had missed how ashes suddenly appeared in the camp. On page 88 and in another chapter entirely, he suddenly mentions the freezing young women again in a paragraph and then it starts telling how bodies were dug up to be burned, in order to get rid of evidence. Up till that part of the book, everything made sense language wise, but after that, things were often jumbled in the text and time, which means poor editing on the Swedish side, no doubt. Even if Rajchman did not present a ready manuscript, someone needed to have gone over the text, to make sure it made sense, before going to print. In my case, I sat and was so upset about this mess, that thousands being killed, became secondary, and that is not the point Rajchman wanted to make.
But if I overlook that point, I am glad that publishers decided to print his notes, since very few human beings survived Treblinka concentration camp. They were not meant to! If you think that Auschwitz was bad, you know nothing! Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor were built for one purpose only and that was to exterminate the Jewish people, while other camps often had a dual purpose of making the fittest work, as long as they stayed fit on a starvation diet, and the “useless” were sent to die. That makes famous Auschwitz less ghastly than places like Treblinka, because there was no chance of survival at all in Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor. The Germans built the extermination camps as far away from civilization as they could, so that there would be no opposition nor witnesses. And when they had served their purpose, they were destroyed and all evidence wiped away. Not like Dachau and Auschwitz, which were left for the world to see, because nothing could really be proved there, except forced labour. And labour camps existed all over, even in the US.
No when you read a book like Rajchman’s book, you really feel ill. It makes you nauseous as you see the pictures in front of you, because you do not need a whole lot of imagination to see the pictures he describes, in your mind. You see the hopelessness but also the true evil. The desperation of the people, when they realised that they had been tricked and that there was no way out, no way of escape. The scale of the camp, a small and highly effective camp, made it very simple for the Nazis, to get on with their “chores” and guard the place. It turned out that you did not need a whole lot of space at all to liquidate hundreds of thousands of people, if you were just quick about it.
What sort of people act the way these men did? Noone! I refuse to accept that these were normal people who went home and had dinner at the end of the day and wrote a loving letter to a wife or a sweetheart. What on earth can create so much hate? No, not even hate, because hate requires feelings. These men, had a screw loose. You definitely have a screw loose, when you take pleasure in treating your brothers and sisters as vermin. These were men and women who arrived dressed in nice clothes, talking, lovingly holding hands, praying to God, educated people, who had had a life like everybody else before the Germans arrived and still when they climbed off the train at Treblinka. And yet, what the Germans and Ukrainians saw, was not humans. Then you really should have been thrown out with Satan’s Angel’s after the big battle in heaven. These people lacked the light of Christ, that God planted in us as we were born, to be a guiding light in our lives, in order to find our way back to him, but also in order to know right from wrong. These people, had blown that light out, and to burn in hell for the rest of eternity, is not a good enough punishment for them. Because they chose to do what they did, unless they really were mentally insane, unless they were all born psychopaths. I doubt they can all claim that on the day of judgement.
I am not even going to go in on what punishment these men got from earthly courts, because they more or less got off scott free and while part of me want to weep at the injustice, part of me felt last night, as I was going to bed, that the Allies should just have gassed the entire German nation to death, for even having invented such a manner to kill humans and for letting the Nazis sit in power for 12 years. I am all amazed at the Poles actually have put up remembrance walls, stones and statues, at all the extermination camps in their country (where most of them were situated) and letting buildings become museums, instead of just letting everything disappear. From everything I have read, they treated the returning Jews, almost as bad as the Germans had and started regular pogroms in 1945, making sure that the Jews did not even consider trying to re-build their lives, in their old home-country. Their anti-Semitism is as strong today as it was in 1945 and before, people still accusing the Jews for kidnapping Christian children and drinking their blood at Easter. I mean, honestly, in today’s world with internet, instant communication and mobile phones. How can a person even think a thought like that? Straight jacket next!
In Nazi terms, Treblinka was a great success. Noone knew of its existance after the war, except the VERY few survivors, that only survived because they broke out of the camp, and of course the criminals themselves, who had worked there. In that respect, the Nazis did win, because revisionists and neo-Nazis claim that the Holocaust never happened and the Nazis did wipe away all the evidence of these extermination camps. Out of guilt? Well, who knows? If they had not known what they did was wrong, why hide it? They did not want any discoveries, like the one in Katyn, where bodies of Polish officers were found, after the Soviets thought they would never be discovered.
Because, what would people have said if they had found the mass graves full of 700,000-900,000 dead people? It is unfortunate that a precise figure has not been established, but how do you get a figure when the proof is just ashes, a couple of bones here and there, that the Jews left behind, when the guards looked away, and thousands of people having gone missing? Researchers have had to look at passenger lists heading forTreblinka, to find out how many died there. The fact is, that Treblinka comes in second after Auschwitz, of most Jews killed, so we should shudder at the name.Not strange that the author of the book wanted to leave Poland after the war. Like translator Schulman said, that big Jewish cemetery. Can’t have been pleasant in Uruguay though, since most Nazi criminals headed for South America, as well, after the war, to escape justice. Why would one have wanted to live with the perpetrators of these audacities? But perhaps getting away from a physical place of horror was the most important.
Chil Rajchman was 28 years old, that day in October 1942, when he arrived at Treblinka with his beautiful 19 year-old sister
Rivka. He said nothing of what they had been through up till that day, nor if they arrived from a ghetto, say Lublin’s, or if they came straight from the little shtetl, where they grew up, called Jedlanka or Jedlonke, as Schulman has translated it. What he did say was that the cattle car they travelled in, was full of people from the neighbour shtetl of Ostrow Lubelski, which one can find photos of on the internet. The town that is, which it has become today. All of them thinking that they were on their way to the Ukraine, he and his sister decided to eat frugally of their food to last them days, which was totally unnecessary, because 15 hours after they stepped on the train, they had travelled the 120 km to Treblinka and his sister had to die hungry. I don’t know why this upset me the most, but even a convict on death row, gets to eat a nice final meal. I guess it doesn’t matter whether you have a fully tummy or not, once your are dead, and I am sure it is not the first thing you think about, as your spirit leaves your body to be greeted by loved ones, long dead. But still, it really upset me, that she had to die cold, hungry, frightened and humiliated.
There are no photos of Rivka to be found on the internet, even though there are four photos of family members in the book. Those of his father, his mother, a married sister and a younger sister. His mother died long before the war, and the married sister died in the Lodz ghetto. One brother, had run off to the Soviet zone and actually survived the war, but he never found out what happened to the one little sister, a younger brother and his father. Rivka of course died in Treblinka, right after arrival, like all women did.
When they arrived in Treblinka, at the fake train station, they were herded out in to an open space where all valuables were taken from them. Two barracks were ahead of them, one for all food people had brought for the journey, and one for the women and children to undress in. To the left of everything,he could see barracks for sleeping, kitchen and work shops. The open space had all sorts of piles, where everything was being sorted. At the end of the two barracks in front, started an alley which he came to know was called “Schlauch”. By the time, the Jews had reached that far, they were all naked, men, children and women (one could wonder why the two latter groups were allowed to undress in a barrack, but then be forced to show themselves in front of the men naked anyway and die with them that way? What was the point? To keep them silent? Trying to trick them to the last?), all in one group, and the guards sticking bayonets in them or lashing them with whips. The road was full of sand, which soon was covered with blood and there was a special work unit, called the Schlauchkolonne, which had to spread out new sand for the next group not to panic. Like they did not understand by then that all hope was gone? And what was the point of fighting it when you had 144 Ukrainians and 100 SS-men with weapons in their hands, to prevent any escapes or opposition? Even if not all were in the same spot of the camp. This of course being a factory, a factory manufacturing dead bodies and everybody having their individual tasks to keep the machinery going.
When Rivka had undressed, she would have been chased out of the barracks to meet the rest of the people from her shtetl and others. Under whip lashes she was forced to run to the end of the alley where a white house suddenly appeared, with a blue star of David painted on it. (Seen behind the trees to the right). After walking up a couple of steps, she would have entered a corridor with flowers and towels hanging on the walls and there the real charade ended. Because as Rajchman later got to experience, she was forced in to a room, where a prisoner cut off her hair in five cuts and then she was pointed through a door in to the gas chamber with 400 other people. 45 minutes later, she was dead. Rajchman’s beautiful teenag sister, no longer beautiful since all the people in there, all emptied their bladders and bowels as they died. Because of the shoving and death anxiety, all the bodies went sweaty, became swollen and black, and when the doors opened, it looked like just one big mass of flesh. The prisoners in charge of the next task, had to try to break loose a couple of corpses, for all to fall out. How can one put humans through something like that? It is just not comprehensible!
Rajchman was one of 100 lucky young men, chosen to stay to the side. When all the rest were gone, the 100 got to clear the area of all the piles of belongings (marked 25 above) . Shoes went in one place, clothes in another, and so on. While he was sorting, an SS-man screamed for a hairdresser. He saw a friend from his shtetl stand in a group of four and ran over there and said that he was a hairdresser, which of course was the first time his life was spared by a lie. They were all given a pair of trousers and a coat, a pair of shoes and they sorted clothes till the next transport arrived, not knowing what was going on nor what would happen. All clothes had to be searched through for jewels and money, and they did find quite a lot. He tried to find out what sort of a place he had got to, what really was going on and he got the best and only advice one needed in Treblinka: “Don’t talk, don’t bend over, don’t stand up, because you will get lashed for everything. Make sure you protect your face because if you bleed in your face, you will be shot.” He got to pick up scissors for his next job, which he dreaded since he had lied about being a hairdresser.
Throughout the book, the 244 guards did not do anything but shoot people at will and use the whips, lashing people the entire time, over the head and wherever they could aim on the bodies. If they did not lash the running prisoners, they demanded they stand still or lay down to be lashed.
The following day, 700 people went to work with their different tasks. Rajchman continued sorting and suddenly stood with his sister’s skirt in his hands. He tore a piece from it and carried that piece in his pocket for his entire 10 month stay in the camp. After two hours of work, the first transport arrived and the ten hairdressers were called to the gas chambers. Each man took position by a trunk and the Ukrainians entered with their whips. Five quick cuts and you had to be done or you got lashed. The women come in crying one by one and sat down by a hairdresser on benches. The women asked him if it would be a painful death, if it would take long, if he could cut slower so a daughter would be able to die with her mother and so on, and he could do nothing to answer or help. While the people were being gassed, they hairdressers got a break but the guards forced them to sing. They worked for another hour and then thousands had been killed. In the evening Rajchman and his friends Leibl and Moshe cried because they had finally realized that they were in a factory which swallowed its victims, the day before 12,000, that day 15,000. The dead bodies being in another camp, nr. 2, where the prisoners were isolated and had no contact with the rest of the camp.
He and Leibl decide to steal money which they found hidden in clothes, so they could escape and pay for help, but it seemed like the guards must have felt that something was going on, because everyone had to strip down and be searched. Rajchman got rid of his coat and swallowed one paper note. The group the was moved on to camp nr. 2. No doubt a punishment! With wheelbarrows they had to wheel sand to the pits and dump it over bodies laying in the pits. Within 15 minutes, the guards had demanded that 20 of them must strip off their clothes, climb down in the pits and there they get shot. Rajchman got severely lashed for not running fast enough and running out of steam, but was not shot. Of the 30 that came with him in to camp nr. 2 that day, only 6 remained at 16:00. Then it was time for Rajchman to get a new work task: grab a wheelbarrow that looked like a step-ladder and it was time to run off to a large pile of… corpses, from the gas chambers. They had to work two and two, grabbing a hand each and trying to jerk a body out of the pile. After getting lashed and finally getting a corpse on to the ladder on wheels, they had to run in front of the dentists.
Rajchman made sure not to spare the reader details. Because when he arrived at one of the pits, the first time, the corpse’s head had got stuck between bars in the ladder and there was no way of treating the dead with any kind of respect, when you were lashed for being slow, when you were whipped for just being Jewish, and when he finally managed to get the head loose, he had to throw it down to prisoners standing in the pit, organizing the dead like sardines, to make room for as many as possible. And of course, them standing down there, was a great temptation for the guards, who more often than not, pulled the trigger on them. Not a good job to have, if you were trying to escape being killed.
One of the most cruel thing the Nazis did in this camp, as if the constant beatings and lashings were not cruel enough, was the fact that the people who had been spared in one transport, soon were killed off as new transports arrived and new people were selected for the few cruel jobs available. It was with calculation this system had been set in to practice, to prevent friendships to form, and to keep knowledge away from them all. People were too scared to talk, because it meant getting killed and the ones working with the gassed corpses, were locked in behind wire, so they would not spread what really happened to people after they ran up the “Schlauch”. Rajchman was eternally grateful that his mother had died 15 years earlier, so she did not have to die the way his sister had and all the others.
The different work groups were the one working in machinery, running the gas chamber motors, the dentists, removing all tooth gold, carpenters building barracks and sheds, schlauchworkers adding sand on the walkways to cover the blood, washing the gas-chambers and re-painting the walls, the rampworkers who threw out corpses from the chambers, kitchenworkers and then the ones chosen to carry corpses and working in the pits. Rajchman thought that it was around the 3rd November, that he managed to get in to the dentist group. Once again he lied about a skill he did not possess, the only way to survive in the concentration camps really, especially in an extermination camp.
The dentists worked in a wood building, by a table with bowls full of teeth. Gold and platinum needed to be removed from the extracted teeth, but also jewels hid in them. But I guess it was not just gold and platinum which was saved. They were 20 dentists and 5 worked with artificial white teeth, some experts on different metal teeth, sorting them according to white gold, red gold, platinum and regular metal. Depending on the arrivals, six or more dentists would go out with tongues to extract teeth from the bodies the corpse carriers wheeled by the building. It could become a lot. The bigger gas chamber building had ten smaller gas chambers in it and each one of those took 400 people. They gassed the people there for 45 minutes, as mentioned above, while for small transports, people were taken to a smaller gas chamber with three chambers taking 450-500 people in each. Death took 20 minutes there. Most shocking was of course when the command center in Lublin called and said there would not be another transport for a while. The guards, in their disappointment then, let people walk in and stand in the gas chambers and just suffocate to death, without the gas, which took 48 hours. Can one really claim those 144 Ukrainians and 100 Germans as being part of the human race?
When the corpses were run by the dentists, it made a difference where they had died. The ones from the big 10 chamber building, were all black and swollen and almost impossible to open mouths on. While the ones having died in the small building, looked like they had just fallen asleep. But it happened that the dentists missed a tooth and when that happened, whoever was near by, was lashed. Rajchman was lashed for someone having been sloppy, twice. The second time he was lashed 70 times and the wounds turned in to gangrene. Dr. Zimmerman, who was a real dentist and in charge of the 19 other dentists, saved his life, one Sunday, when they were not working, by surgically opening up the wounds and draining them.
During December new experiments took place, trying to getting rid of the corpses by burning them. It did not work in regular ovens so crematorias were installed, with a special motor and extra much petrol being used. It was necessary to get rid of the corpses quick, because the bodies of Katyn had just been discovered, (Polish officers killed by Soviet forces), and the Germans did not want anyone to make the same discovery in Treblinka. This German which they called “The Artist” arrived and overlooked the progress, making “improvements” the entire time, to make the whole killing and disposing of evidence, more efficient. He built little rails to the crematorias, because what is understood throughout the entire evidence given by Rajchman, is the terrible hurry, the Nazis were in. The killing had to be done in a hurry. Getting rid of as many as possible, in as short time as possible, and why? Because maybe deep down they knew that they eventually would be stopped? And of course getting rid of evidence was also very time-consuming. More diggers arrived, to dig up bodies.
When the pits looked clean, workers had to jump down and search for bones, in order to not leave any evidence at all for archeologists and such in the future. The ovens were moved closer and closer to the pits. At the same time as they were dealing with old corpses, they of course had to deal with new ones and in April 1943, the foreign loads of people started arriving. Rajchman who by then was used to seeing everything in a pretty mechanical way, had to mention the Bulgarian Jews arriving. He thought they were so beautiful, even in death, young and more beautiful than the Polish Jews, he had been used to seeing all his life. And the Nazis had really managed to fool the Bulgarians. They had been allowed to bring lots of food and even furniture, so they really thought they were being relocated to work in Russia. They had been allowed to travel in Pullman cars and not the regular cattle cars, used for Jews. Rajchman had even heard music from the cars. Which of course made it the more sad, since when they climbed off and had all their jewelry taken from them and thrown in one pile, they finally did realize that things were not as they had thought.
When all the bodies were dug up, the people carrying corpses had to report how many bodies they had carried to the ovens. The Germans really kept a close tab, so somewhere, the must have been careful records. They knew how many had been gassed and buried and how many must be dug up. But of course those records have not been found and were probably destroyed, because noone knows how many Jews the Nazis killed in Treblinka. This really was a camp they kept from the world. Like I mentioned before, experts have counted out that at least 700 000-900 000 died there. The Nazis even forbade photos being taken, of and at this camp, which was very unusual. But then this was no usual camp was it?
In June 1943, 11 pits had been totally cleared and filled with the ashes of the dead. On top, lupines were planted to make it look like just an ordinary field in the countryside. Himmler was to come for a visit in July and that man could not stand to see anything nasty. Nor could the guards, according to Nazi policy, who every 6 weeks were allowed to go on furlow for 24 days. But they came back meaner than when they left, so it seemed to the prisoners, like they appreciated their time in the camp more than at home. They were after all surrounded by all sorts of luxuries in the camp, that they could not get elsewhere.
Eventually the camp administration had to change tactic and not get rid of their workers, as fast as they had. They finally realized that if you got rid of prisoners, who knew the drill, it slowed down work, while the new ones had to learn. A policy which saved Rajchman’s life of course. But the place was not safe, because of this. Not being able to wash themselves and not eating enough, meant that most of them soon walked around with typhoid and a high fever. The kommendant decided that sick people should
stay in the barracks and a hospital barrack would be installed. Noone would be killed for staying in bed. For a couple of days at least, but then the Ukrainian guards came in and dragged people out by their feet. Unless the person fought it, they were shot. Rajchman fought for his life when they grabbed his feet and got to stay sick in bed. But none of the ones spared that day, 13 people, dared to be sick anymore. There were changes being made though. They received a clean shirt every week and some water to wash themselves with, on Sundays. And a loo which you had to get a queue number for. The mean guards sometimes refused to hand out the numbers and they always dressed the Jew, who had to oversee that noone sat for more than two minutes, in humiliating clothing.
By getting to live longer, people started talking and soon they found out that the first camp was planning an uprising, when number 2 camp had received 15 new people, from that other part of the camp, in January 1943. By talking loud to workmates, close to the fence, the people on the other side of the fence could hear what was up and a key had been made for the weapon’s arsenal. The rebellion was planned for the 2nd August 1943 and while they waited, the elder of the barrack, who was also the camp butcher, sharpened both knives and tongues to cut wires with. They also had it carefully planned, so that no work would be finished, so the guards could not have them locked up. Water needed to be fetched, the fires had to be kept burning. At 15:30 they finally heard shots from the other part of the camp. They were ordered to stop working and that is when they saw a huge fire from
the gas chambers. As guards were having their throats cut, others cut the barbed wire and Rajchman was actually one of the last ones to leave the camp. They all ran in different directions. Rajchman ended up in a group of ten hiding in a forest. They heard shooting the entire time and heared civilians helping with the search. After three days, he and a friend ventured up to a farmer’s house to ask for help and food. They were not let in but were given some food, which they had to pay for in gold. They were told to go hide in bigger forests, further away because all farmers had been instructed to turn the Jews in. After 14 days Rajchman was fed up with farmers not helping them and trying to eat off what they could find in fields and suggested that they all should got to Warsaw But noone dared to come with him. His journey was a long and hard one of two months, getting help from some and having to flee from some. He finally did arrive and found friends who were able to give him false Aryan documents, so he could continue living out the war as a Pole. But he did not really want to live anymore, feeling he did not deserve to after what he had seen and done in Treblinka. His friends had to convince him that he had to live to be a witness of it all.
And that is why you should all read this horrid book, so that he gets to tell where his beautiful sister Rivka, the beautiful Bulgarian Jews and all the families arriving at Treblinka, disappeared to. It is far too easy for revisionists and neo-Nazis of today, to say that these things did not happen, because the Nazis of that time, were far too skilled and able to get rid of the evidence. But millions do not just disappear in thin air, without being “helped” to vanish! They did not all put on Harry Potter’s invincibility cloak but were instead forced to walk in to a chamber, against their will, soon filled with gas, and to the last-minute, believing in the people of Schiller not being able to do such a ghastly thing, as killing people who had done nothing else, but happen to be born in to the tribe of Judah.