In January 1943 code-breakers at Bletchley Park read a radio telegram from an SS police chief in Lublin to the SS head office in Berlin. It concerned "Operation Reinhard" and recorded the number of "arrivals" at four sites, each denoted by an initial letter: L, B, S and T. The sum total of "arrivals" up to 31 December 1942 was 1,274,166. The figure next to T was 713,55. Simple maths showed that a "5" had been left off.
The intelligence analysts showed little interest in this intercept. It had no obvious military or political significance. But we know that the initials stood for the mass-murder camps at Lublin-Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The message was in response to a demand from Heinrich Himmler for a tally of Jews murdered so far, a matter of the greatest military and political importance to him and to Hitler. It represented the body count in their war against "the Jewish enemy".
The discrepancy between these perceptions endures, making Treblinka one of the least familiar sites of genocide. Treblinka disrupts conventional narratives of the Second World War and challenges universal explanations of Nazism. The camp was constructed between May and June 1942 with the sole purpose of exterminating Polish Jews. Initially it was equipped with three gas chambers, each measuring four metres by four, in which people were killed using the exhaust fumes piped from a diesel engine. Later, a block with ten, larger gas chambers was added to increase the speed and efficiency of mass murder.
The camp was quite small; you could walk across it in ten minutes. There were huts for the thousand Jewish slave workers, barracks for the guard unit, which comprised roughly a hundred Ukrainian collaborators, and accommodation for the two dozen SS men who ran the place. There were sheds to store the belongings taken from the Jews before they were killed. Periodically, vast quantities of the valuables and clothing seized were transported to Germany by truck.
From July 1942 until February 1943, the dead were buried in pits excavated by a mechanical digger in one corner of the camp. Later, the bodies were burned on open-air pyres. During this last, macabre phase of operations, the workforce was devoted mainly to exhuming and incinerating the decomposed remains of Jews murdered the previous year.
This was where 28-year-old Yehezkiel "Chil" Rajchman arrived in October 1942 with his 19-year-old sister, Rivka. She was murdered immediately. Chil, who was tall and strong, was one of a hundred men who were picked to join the camp's labour force. At first he was totally disorientated. Like the others, he was forced to strip. SS men bellowed orders at him while the Ukrainians beat him until he poured with blood. But he was quick-witted, and picked up whispered hints from the inmates. When an SS man called for barbers, he volunteered, even though he had never cut hair before.
Over the next ten months Chil observed the camp. He cut the hair of women on the threshold of the gas chamber, collecting every lock for use by German industry. He hauled contorted corpses from the gas chamber to the burial pit, pausing as men from the "dental unit" extracted the metal fillings for reuse by the Reich. Each night he lay, tormented by hunger and thirst, and awoke to the sight of those who had hanged themselves. But he clung on long enough to conspire with other workers whom the Germans spared temporarily because they could not waste time on inducting new slaves. It was almost the only flaw in the killing machine.
The Germans relied on deception to get the several thousand Jews off each transport quickly and into the gas chambers. The labour force had to remove all traces of them precisely to lull the next trainload into a sense of security. Nevertheless, the Jews fought back constantly. A handful with military training inside the camp formed a resistance group. News of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising provided inspiration, but evidence that the camp was winding down supplied the trigger. The slaves knew their days were numbered.
On 2 August 1943 they seized weapons, attacked the guards, and set fire to the gas chambers. About 350 broke through the barbed-wire barriers and reached nearby woodland. Barely half of them survived the SS man-hunts over the next 24 hours. Rajchman wandered for
two weeks, begging terrified peasants for food, until a decent family sheltered him. Using false papers obtained by Polish friends, he finally reached Warsaw.
At that point, Chil suffered a nervous and physical collapse. He was kept going only by his determination to bear witness. He wrote down his experiences in Yiddish, preserving this precious record throughout the Warsaw uprising of August 1944 and then another three months in hiding. After the war he testified to a Jewish historical commission and visited the site of the camp with an official investigating team. He found local people prospecting for valuables in the sand and ash. The area was littered with fragments of bone.
After Chil was miraculously reunited with a younger brother who had fled eastwards in 1939, they emigrated together to Montevideo, where they started a new life. He never published his manuscript, but testified at several war crimes trials and recorded numerous interviews, becoming the focus of memorial work in his adopted city. He died in 2004.
More than 750,000 people, almost all of them Jews, were murdered at Treblinka. In the brief period it existed, it was more lethal than Auschwitz, yet it remains less well known. This is not for lack of histories, testimonies or trials of Treblinka personnel, of which there have been at least three. In September 1944, the Soviet journalist Vassily Grossman wrote a powerful article about the camp which is included in this book. But his attempt to articulate a redemptive message, harping on the heroism of the Red Army, sounds tinny.
The authentic testimony of Treblinka survivors, such as Rajchman's, is uniformly bleak. His unadorned prose takes us to a place unlike any other in human history, at the extreme limits of human endurance and understanding.