Israel Cymlich and Oskar Strawczynski, "Escaping Hell in Treblinka"

Book Review
Published: 2010-01-01

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Israel Cymlich, Oskar Strawczynski, Escaping Hell in Treblinka, Yad Vashem, York/Jerusalem 2007

In this volume, historian David Silberklang presents the memoirs of the Polish Jews Israel Cymlich and Oskar Strawczynski, dated respectively to June 1943 and the summer of 1944. While Strawczynski was a detainee at the “extermination camp”; Treblinka II, Cymlich is one of the few former Treblinka I labor camp inmates to have published his memoirs.

Regarding Treblinka I, editor Silberklang states that it was established in the fall of 1941 and located 2 kilometers away from the “extermination camp”;. The detainees were initially mostly Poles from the Warsaw area. Later they were joined by Jews. The average number of prisoners ranged from as few as 100 to as many as 2,000. Approximately 20,000 people passed through the camp, and “it is believed that nearly half of them were murdered during the camp's three-year existence”;. The camp I was dismantled in July 1944 (pp. 31-32, note 8). No source is given for this information. We should note here that, accepting the presented figures, half of the detainees were released either during the operation of the camp or at its liquidation.

The Treblinka experience of Israel Cymlich

Cymlich was sent to Treblinka on August 20, 1942 (p. 29). He writes that the Jews in Warsaw at that time still “had absolutely no clue as to what was going on”;, while the Germans proclaimed that the deportees “were leaving to work in the East”; (p. 25). Certain rumors were already circulating: “foreman Ickiewicz (…) told me that all the transports departed for Treblinka, where Jews were let out to some electrical fields and then burned”; (p. 26). E. Ringelblum mentioned electricity as a murder method at Treblinka on October 15, 1942, and the same method was mentioned also in the Nuremberg document USSR-93 (Graf & Mattogno, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp?, pp. 50-51, 61-62).

When Cymlich’s transport reached the Treblinka station, one part of it was sent to Treblinka II, while the other part, carrying our witness, continued on along the railway spur to Treblinka I. On the way Cymlich caught a glimpse of the “extermination camp”;:

"At first, I wasn't sure whether it was real or a mirage: a huge mountain of clothes, naked people running all around it, throwing more clothes higher and higher, black smoke billowing from huge pits. (...) We barely had the time to make out a number of barracks, machine-guns mounted on the roofs, firing frequently. Then we saw only a fence of young pine trees, and smelled the terrible odor of burning human bodies" (p. 31).

No other eyewitness claims that bodies were burned at Treblinka II as early as August 1942. Abraham Kszepicki, who was deported to Treblinka II on August 25 and escaped 18 days later, speaks of mass burials but mentions nothing of cremations (cf. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka... p. 85). R. Glazar claims that the burning of bodies began in November (R. Glazar, Trap with a Green Fence, p. 29), whereas Chil Rajchman dates the same event to December (C. Rajchman, Ich bin der letzte Jude, p. 113). Historians generally claim that cremations began in March 1943 (cf. Arad, p. 173).

The Treblinka labor camp is portrayed by Cymlich as a living hell, with SS guards such as Untersturmführer Prefi, who “carried out massacres single-handedly”;, and Unterscharführer Schwarz, who “derived sadistic satisfaction from tormenting, torturing and killing”; with blunt instruments (pp. 34-35). On the other hand, our witness survived a 3-week bout of typhus in a quarantine barrack together with "many other patients" (pp. 40-42).

At the time of Cymlich’s arrival, 400 Jews and about 200 Poles were held in the camp; by November 1942 there were 1,200 Jewish and some 100 Polish detainees (p. 36). The Poles stayed in the camp two or three months, and most of them had a term of release. "Meeting with Poles and talking to them were not allowed; to this end, the latrine was the meeting place of choice" (p. 37). According to Cymlich, groups of Jews from the extermination camp were regularly sent to Treblinka I to replenish its labor force (p. 40). Among the detainees in the labor camp was also a group of Jews who had participated in the construction of Treblinka II:

"They had worked for a long time at constructing the other camp, without a clue as to what they were building. The contingent that used to go to work there was called the ‘T-Group,’ pronounced Tej. The prisoners explained the meaning of ‘T’ by suggesting it meant Treblinka or technical group. They didn't know that the name T-Group was for the death camp under construction: the so-called T-Halle, or, to be more exact, Tothalle" (p. 32).

How Cymlich knew about this bizarre name, which does not appear in any other witness testimony, is never made clear. Jan Sulkowski, a Polish prisoner from the labor camp who had taken part in the construction of the “death camp,” testified:

“I was told by the SS-men that we were building a bath-house and it was after a considerable time that I realized that we were constructing gas-chambers”; (Arad, p. 40).

Cymlich learned the following about the killing installations from other labor camp inmates:

"All we knew was that corpses were completely burned; nothing specific, however, was known about the methods of mass killing. People said that the newly arrived victims were told to undress under the pretext of [that they were] going to take a bath, which actually was a barracks [sic] with an electrified floor. Some claimed that this barracks was in fact a gas chamber. After the killing, the floor slid out and the corpses were thrown into pits, which doubled as furnaces" (pp. 38-39).

To this description Silberklang has added an explanatory note:

"It is noteworthy that even when he was in the camp and was able to acquire much information about the death camp, Israel Cymlich and others had mistaken notions about the method of murder. Only ‘some’ believed that the Jews were being killed in a gas chamber. And, of course, there was no sliding floor in these chambers" (p. 39, note 17).

But if there were inmates in the labor camp who themselves had participated in the construction of the “gas chambers,” how come that such ridiculous notions, completely contradicting the established “truth”;, were spread among them?

If the Germans really were constructing installations for mass murder and wanted to keep those a secret, why would they involve Polish labor camp inmates, who according to Cymlich usually were released after two or three months (p. 37), or for that matter Jews from Treblinka I, who possibly could have passed on their know-ledge to Polish detainees?

It is further noteworthy that the tale of the electrical floor which, once the killing was done, opened to a furnace pit, is strongly reminiscent of propaganda spread about Belzec (Mattogno, Belzec…, pp. 11-22). The collapsible gas chamber floor also appears in the testimonies of several Sobibor witnesses.

Later Cymlich got into contact with inmates from the death camp, who told him further details about the killings, among them “that there was a large barrack, partitioned into several chambers, to which pumps were hooked that sucked the air out. After the victims were locked inside, the pumps started working and the victims suffocated. Whoever survived for several minutes was finished off with a bullet”; (p. 45).

Again Silberklang adds an explanatory note:

“At Treblinka, of course, the gas was pumped in, and [it was] not the air that was pumped out. After the gassing was completed, the gas chamber was ventilated. Apparently Cymlich's contact misunderstood the purpose of the engines that stood outside the gas chamber. Moreover, the effect of the gas entering the room may have been as though the air had been pumped out”; (p. 45, note 18).

We will return to the “vacuum chambers”; later.

Cymlich escaped from the labor camp in April 1943. After the war he moved to Uruguay, where he was still alive in 2005.

Oskar Strawczynski’s ten months in Treblinka

Oskar Strawczynski was sent to Treblinka II on October 5, 1942. On August 2, 1943, he participated in the uprising and mass escape from the camp together with his brother Zygmunt. In 1964 he testified at the Treblinka trial. Strawczynski died in Montreal in 1966.

Regarding the origin of the account, members of the Strawczynski family inform us that it was written in Yiddish “during the spring and summer of 1944,” when the witness joined a unit of Jewish partisans from the ZOB (Jewish Combat Organization). The original manuscript was supposedly lost, but a copy was deposited in the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York (pp. 188-189). When exactly this happened is not made clear. We are informed that Strawczynski, after the end of the war, presented either the original manuscript or a copy of it to the Jewish community organization in Lodz, which refused to publish it "because of the frankness with which the Jews collaboration in Treblinka was depicted" (p. 124).

Besides the fact that the beginning of cremations at the camp is dated much earlier than by the official version (our witness speaks on p. 130 of feeling the “smell of charred flesh”; as he arrives in early October), and the claim that the Treblinka victims numbered in the “millions”; (p. 131), the most remarkable aspect of his tale is indeed his portrayal of the relation between camp staff and detainees. Our witness wants us to believe that fraternizing went on between the SS and the detainees, like some “Stockholm syndrome”; in extremis, and that inmates even took initiatives to “deceive”; arriving Jews that they had come to a transit camp. On pp. 140-141 we are told of “bold and militant”; Jews from Bialystok or Grodno, who at their arrival to the camp in December 1942 asked the Jewish work commando (the “Reds”;) at the reception square:

"'Are we going to our death? We are ready. We will free us all.' Instead of telling them the truth, the 'Reds' told them that this was just a transit camp, that tomorrow they would be transported to other camps for labor. With great difficulty, the 'Reds' convinced them to undress."

The security at the camp is described as being so lax that, up until at least November 1942, "about 30-40 people escaped daily”; (pp. 145-146)! In the end, however, the SS grew anxious "that the secret of the 'resettled' Jews" would become known to the outside world (p. 146). We are told that the Germans had “been spreading rumors that the 'resettled' Jews were being sent to the Ukraine for farm work”; and that there even was “a sign in Treblinka to this effect”;. The SS even bothered to send “an ‘important personage’ from the central office in Lublin”; to Treblinka just to hold a speech to the detainees about the supposedly fake resettlement (pp. 146-147).

In the spring of 1943, while hundreds of thousands of rotting corpses were allegedly turned into ashes in Camp 2, the SS set out to “beautify”; Camp 1 and introduce entertainment and pastimes for themselves as well as the inmates. “A show would be held almost every second Saturday: concerts, boxing, athletic competitions" (p. 156). Responsible for the music was usually the Arthur Gold jazz orchestra, for which Kurt Franz had special costumes made. The orchestra performed behind elegant, custom-made music stands (pp. 155-156).

The Germans liked the Jewish jazz musician so much that they threw a big party to celebrate his 40th birthday:

"The Treblinka bakery supplied pastries; the German warehouse supplied drinks and sweets. Gold arranged a special program for the occasion. The hall was beautifully decorated and the orchestra was in gala attire. Special invitations were issued to all the Germans and the Jewish camp aristocracy. Toasts were drunk to the German victory. Gold reached his peak with his oration in which he praised the Germans for their benevolence, and declared that their handling of the Jews was understandable and in the interests of the German people. I have no idea what the Germans could have thought of that speech”; (p. 157).

No wonder that the Jewish organization in Lodz refused to publish this account!

According to Strawczynski, the detainees in Camp 1 “were strictly forbidden to enter Camp 2" (p. 170). Our witness, however, received descriptions of the “Totenlager”; from two Jews who had worked there. Herszel Jablkowski, who had been “employed in building the 'bath'”, and Szymon Goldberg, “who worked in Camp 2 for four months”; (p. 171).

The description of the gas chambers presented by Strawczynski reads:

"It was a large, concrete building standing on a cement platform. On its roof, visible from a distance, was a wooden Star of David. Running through the middle of the building was a corridor. The entrance was covered with a red curtain. Off the corridor were doors leading to small cubicles into which the arrivals from the trans-port were introduced. Outside, over the platform were large openings covered by panels hinged at the top and fastened with steel bands. Inside the cubicles, smooth tiles covered the slightly slanted floors and halfway up the walls. On the ceiling were mounted a few showerheads. There was also a small window in the middle of the ceiling [of each cubicle]. The doors are hermetically sealed, and the motors start to work. The air from inside is sucked out, and fumes from burnt gasoline is forced in. The cries from inside can be heard for about 10 minutes and then it becomes silent. The entire process, from the arrival at the camp to the oven, lasts only about half an hour" (pp. 169-170).

The notion that the air was sucked out before exhaust gas was led in makes little sense. First, the feasibility of the process is dubious, due to the issue of pressure. Second, if the air could be sucked out of the chambers, why bother introducing the exhaust gas, since deprived of oxygen the victims would have suffocated in no time? Silberklang remarks (p. 170, note 19) that “the effect of pumping the poison exhaust into the gas chambers was to replace the air there", suggesting that like Cymlich’s Treblinka II contact, Strawczynski’s informant had “misunderstood the purpose of the engines”; and confused the supposed ventilation following the gassing with the sucking out of the air prior to the introduction of the poisonous fumes. How credible is this explanation?

At the end of 1945, Strawczynski’s informant Szymon Goldberg testified:

“The Jews were poisoned in that the air was pumped out – there was a machine for pumping out the air – and gas of a vehicle was introduced. Ether was burned and this vapor introduced inside. Then there was also chlorine”; (Mattogno & Graf, Treblinka…, p. 67).

Thus the informant who had worked for four months at the alleged killing installations not only alleged that the air was sucked out of the chambers, but also spoke of ether and chlorine as other poisons used in the killings – gases which go completely unmentioned by established Treblinka historiography. Furthermore, vacuum as killing method is mentioned by two other witnesses from Camp 2, Abe (Stanislaw) Kon and Henryk Reichmann alias Chil Rajchman (ibid.). A most widespread “misunderstanding”!

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Israel Cymlich and Oskar Strawczynski, "Escaping Hell in Treblinka", Book Review
Sources: Smith’s Report, No. 168, January 2010, pp. 12-15
Published: 2010-01-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 26, 2015, 5:42 a.m.
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