Spring was on the horizon yet the air was crisp and the ground was only beginning to thaw. The chill did not bother Yankel Wiernik as he and Hershl dragged the dead body of a fellow Jew to the burial pits as they had been doing all winter. The toil kept them warm.
Yankel dropped the leg of the man he was dragging and stretched his back.
“Oy vey, you think there would be a cart or a wagon to move all these dead bodies. These Germans are said to be efficient machines!” Yankel complained.
“Yes, this is most grueling. I must go sneak some water.” Hershl said and took off for the well which was situated in the middle of the part of the camp where all the bodies were being buried.
This is Treblinka in March of 1943. A pure extermination camp of the Nazis, created for the mass murder of the Jewish people. Since June of 1942 some 700,000 Jews had been unloaded from trains and walked, naked, to ‘take a shower’. No shower did they receive. Instead they received death. At first the camp only had three gas chambers, each about 25 square meters, which is a tenth of the size of a tennis court. 450-500 innocent Jews were crowded into each of those chambers. Later ten more chambers were built which were upgraded to 50 square meters each, about the size of three and a half parking spaces, or twelve and a half king size beds. 1000-1200 unfortunate souls could be shoved into each one of those deadly rooms. The entire gassing building was 6975 square feet, which is as big as two fifths of a hockey rink.
The entire camp was no more than 42 acres. To imagine how big that is, picture two-fifths of The Mall of America. The murdering portion took up about a third of the camp. The Nazi’s, with their evil genius and the slave labor of Jews, had managed to bury seventy million pounds of innocent human flesh in this relatively small area. If you want to conceptualize that many people just think of the Rose Bowl Stadium. Now fill it seven times. This impossible sounding feat is a testament to the senseless killing of a race of people for no reason at all.
The area around Treblinka is covered in lush vegetation in the warmer months, which would soon be upon them. The surrounding land consists of woods, farmland and swamps. Surprisingly much of the rainfall is in May and the early months of summer. The winters, cold with some snow. So cold, in fact, that while children waited outside the gas chambers their feet froze and stuck to the icy ground.
While Yankel was taking his much deserved stretch break a SS man named Franz marched up to him. His sadistic smile was shaded by his helmet and he had a large killer dog by his side.
“Yankel, vie are you standing around? I vip you!” Franz whipped poor Yankel.
“Sorry sir,” Yankel stammered and picked up the dead man’s legs and started toward the pit.
“No!” Franz whipped Yankel again. “Vie are not doing that any more! Himmler has ordered that vie must now burn die bodies!” Franz pointed over to a long grill made of old railroad ties. “Take die bodies over there.”
Yankel looked over to the pyre. He then looked about the camp, seeing no stores of fuel anywhere he asked, “Where do I get wood?”
“Vood? Vat vood? Use the vomen for kindling, you idiot!” Franz whipped Yankel yet again. “ Arbeiten! Schnell! Schnell!”
Thus began the arduous task of unearthing hundreds of thousands of bodies and burning them on outdoor pryes to nothing but ashes and bones. And then pounding the bones that weren’t totally burnt to dust using round wooden poles on sheets of tin. And then after that running the smashed bones through a fine mesh screen and repounding the parts that didn’t go through the screen.
It was a sizzling summer day on August the 2nd of 1943. The heat was made more intense by the inferno from the grates burning human bodies that nearly took up the whole yard, almost all the way up to the fence. Yankel and the rest of the inmates had little sleep the night before but felt like he could take on the whole world. Today was the day. The day they would escape.
“Julian, Good morning.” Yankel said as he entered the latrine.
“Yankel.” Julian lamely replied.
Julian was the unfortunate fellow that had to act as the Scheissmeister, or Shit Master. The Germans cruelly forced him to dress like a cantor and grow a goatee for their sadistic amusement. His duty was to make sure the prisoners spent no more than three minutes relieving themselves. He wore a large alarm clock on a string around his neck to aid him with this humiliating task. Although Julian was in this pitiful position Yankel would often burst out laughing just at the sight of him.
“2:47, Yankel, you’re cutting it close.”
“Don’t worry about that, my friend, soon we will have all the time in the world.”
Yankel made his way to his worksite. These days he was working as a carpenter instead of a corpse dragger. On the way he noticed two of his pals Samuel and Djielo, taking a cigarette break. They were sitting in the dirt next to the perimeter fence. The fence was of a genius German creation. Made of barbed wire and eight feet tall. Pine branches were woven into the fence to hide the atrocities happening inside. This was the stuff of top secret security. And this sort of top notch security was needed as the train line leading from the village of Treblinka to Siedlce was only 300 meters away.
All this secrecy did not keep the local populace from engaging in a lively bartering system with the inmates, however. Looking to earn some gold, the Polish peasants would bring baskets filled with rolls, roasted chickens, cheese, butter, cream, and so forth to sell at Treblinka everyday.
Yankel sat down by his fellow inmates. “Today’s the day, boys, be alert.”
Yankel grabbed Samuel’s lit cigarette and took a long drag, much to the chagrin of Samuel. As Yankel was handing it back the cherry broke off and landed on the dry tree branches of the fence. Yankel leapt forward and frantically patted the embers out.
“Whew, wouldn’t want to burn the place down, now would we?” Yankel laughed.
Samuel and Djielo looked at each other and said nothing as Yankel strode away.
Yankel went about his duties and at 5pm he found himself back in the barracks with the others. They were sitting close together and exchanging anxious glances. Every few minutes someone would remark that the end was near.
Suddenly a shot was fired. It was fired into the air as to be distinguishable from the other shooting that went on in the camp. It was the signal!
Everyone leapt up and like a well oiled machine they all fell into their prearranged task with meticulous care.
Yankel rushed to the guard towers where the Ukrainian guards were stationed. At the base of one of the towers he shouted, “Hey You!”
The guard looked down, gun pointed at him. Yankel responded by flashing a gold coin.
“What’s that there?” The guard stammered. He dropped his gun and rushed down the ladder. As he attempted to take the gold Yankel grabbed him and easily finished him off. He retrieved the gun and was running free. Killing every German and Ukrainian guard he came across and amassing more weapons. More fires than usual were raging all around. When the path to freedom laid bare Yankel decided to ditch his weapons and pick up a saw and an axe.
The fence proved easy to get through as the branches covered up the barbs on the wire. The goal was to reach the woods where the Germans would not want to follow for some reason. The closest patch of said woods was five miles away, but that was not the only problem. The extra shootings and fire must have alerted trouble as German and Ukrainian guards spilled out in all directions from Malkinia, Kosow and the Treblinka Penal Camp. Malkinia was about three miles north, Kosow about 7 miles southeast, and the penal camp was about one mile south of the camp.
Across swamps, meadows and ditches the escapees ran. Bullets were whizzing all around. Yankel’s will to survive and tell the story of the unbelievable events at Treblinka was air in his lungs and speed to his feet. Yankel was almost to his safe haven when he heard a pursuer getting much too close.
A shot rang out and Yankel felt a sharp pain in his shoulder.
“Stop or I’ll shoot again!” The pursuer was a Ukrainian guard from the Treblinka Penal Camp.
Yankel was all out of gold coins, still luck was with him as he noticed the guard’s weapon was jammed. He seized the opportunity and set on him. Coming close he struck his axe into the guard’s chest. He was dead and Yankel was free at last.
After Yankel had gone deeper into the thicket he took a moment to check on his shoulder. He couldn’t believe what he saw. The bullet had gone through his clothing but stopped at his flesh. He wasn’t really hurt at all!
Finally Yankel could have some peace and quiet.