Review: Israel Cymlich & Oskar Strawczynski, Escaping Hell in Treblinka, Yad Vashem, New York/Jerusalem 2007

Published: 2009-12-13

By Thomas Kues-

In this volume of the series “The Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project”, historian David Silberklang presents the memoirs of the two Polish Jews Israel Cymlich and Oskar Strawczynski, dated respectively to June 1943 and the summer of 1944. Both memoirs are reproduced together with full facsimiles of the extant manuscripts (in Polish and Yiddish respectively). While Strawczynski escaped from the “extermination camp” Treblinka II on August 2, 1943, Cymlich is one of the few former detainees of the Treblinka I labor camp to have published his memoirs (at least three other exists: a brief account written by Saul Kuperhand, published in Miriam & Saul Kuperhand, Shadows of Treblinka, University of Illinois Press 1998; Ryszard Czarkowski, Cieniom Treblinki, Warsaw 1989; and an unpublished account by a certain Jan Sulkowski).
Regarding Treblinka I, editor Silberklang has the following to say:

"The penal labor camp of Treblinka I was established in the fall of 1941. It was located two kilometers away from the extermination camp, Treblinka II, which was opened on July 22, 1942. Initially, most of the prisoners in the labor camp were Poles from the Warsaw area. Later, Jews from the same area joined them. The average number of the prisoners ranged from as few as 100 to as many as 2,000. Approximately 20,000 people passed through the Treblinka I penal labor camp; it is believed that nearly half of them were murdered during the camp's three-year existence. The camp was dismantled in July 1944, as the Red Army approached the area." (pp. 31-32, note 8).

No source is given for this information. We should note here initially 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

Israel Cymlich was arrested for black market activity in the small town Falenica (some miles east of Warsaw) and sent to Treblinka on August 20, 1942 (p. 29). Cymlich writes that by “the second half of July” that year, the Jews in Warsaw still “had absolutely no clue as to what was going on, or about the destination of the transports. The Germans proved to be very cunning, by proclaiming that the deportees were leaving to work in the East” (p. 25). On the other hand, certain rumors were already circulating: “foreman Ickiewicz, on a visit to our apartment, told me that all the transports departed for Treblinka, where Jews were let out to some electrical fields and the 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). Killing by electricity was generally attributed to Belzec during the war years.
When Cymlich’s transport reached the Treblinka station, it was divided. One part was sent to Treblinka II, while the other part, carrying our witness, continued on along the railway spur to Treblinka I. On the way, however, Cymlich caught a glimpse of the “extermination camp”:

"And there we were, passing through the Treblinka railroad station, through the woods, until, all of a sudden, we beheld a sight straight out of Dante's Inferno. 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 managed to escape 18 days later, speaks of mass burials but mention nothing of cremations (cf. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka... p. 85). The witness 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 I labor camp is, needless to say, portrayed by Cymlich as a living hell, with SS guards such as Untersturmführer Prefi, “a madman and a thug” who “carried out massacres single-handedly” with his machine-gun, and Unterscharführer Schwarz, who “derived sadistic satisfaction from tormenting, torturing and killing” inmates in the Malkinia subcamp with blunt instruments, with a daily quote of at least a dozen killed (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", even if “every few days, patients would be taken from the barracks to the woods or to the death camp” (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. Some Poles "could leave the camp grounds" and some were brought parcels from their families. "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 German and Czech 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 in 1948:

“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 came to learn 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).

This description has caused Silberklang to insert 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?
Moreover, 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 knowledge to Polish detainees? One may recall in this context that the alleged first gas chambers at Belzec were constructed by a team of 20 local Poles (cf. Mattogno, Belzec…, p. 43).
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 (cf. M. Novitch, Sobibor. Martyrdom and Revolt, p. 147, Ehrenburg & Grossman, The Black Book, p. 439; Yuri Suhl (ed.), They fought back..., p. 20). There is even an indication that the collapsible floor tale was once applied to Auschwitz (C. Edvardson, Bränt barn söker sig till elden, Stockholm 1984, p. 57).
Later during his stay in the labor camp Cymlich also got into contact with inmates from the death camp, who supposedly told him further details about the killings. A young Jew told him “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). I will return to the issue of the “vacuum chambers” later in this review.
Israel Cymlich escaped from the labor camp in April 1943, just before he was to be transferred to the “death camp.” He returned to Falenica, where he supposedly finished writing his memoirs on June 10 the same year. Treblinka II was liquidated three months later, yet Cymlich is able to deliver a “correct” prophecy about the end of the alleged death camp:

"Before war's end, undoubtedly everything would be leveled, plowed over, trees would be planted over the graves of the hundreds of thousands of people incinerated there. Only the resident of the neighboring villages would be able to point out the empty area of the greatest execution site in the history of the world." (p. 46)

Cymlich, who admits that he has “described Treblinka very briefly and not very accurately” (p. 52), concludes that “the blame belonged to the entire German people, who not only knew about the crime, but willingly helped to carry it out. The pleasure of tormenting the innocent was in the blood of every German" (p. 45). His personal judgment of an entire people is more than a little harsh: “This organized crime, which had been planned down to the last detail, must be avenged in blood. The German people must be taught a ‘lesson’ that would burn out its thuggish nature for centuries to come." (p. 62)
After the war Cymlich moved to Uruguay, where he was still alive in 2005.

Oskar Strawczynski’s ten months in Treblinka

Oskar Strawczynski was born in Lodz in 1906. On October 5, 1942, he was sent to Treblinka together with his family from the Czestochowa ghetto. On August 2, 1943 he participated in the uprising and mass escape from the alleged death camp together with his brother Zygmunt. After the war he moved to Canada. In 1964 he testified at the Düsseldorf Treblinka trial. Strawczynski died in Montreal in 1966.
Regarding the origin of the published account, members of the Strawczynski family informs 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 head of the unit, a certain Gabrysz Fryszdorf, “wanted to ensure that an eyewitness account of the events at Treblinka was preserved for history” and provided our witness with paper. The original manuscript was supposedly lost, but a copy made by Fryszdorf’s wife 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, but Strawczynski’s sister reportedly translated the YIVO copy into English in 1981. We are further informed that Strawczynski after the end of the war presented either the original manuscript or another 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, similar to Cymlich, 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. One should recall here that Treblinka allegedly was a “pure extermination camp” where the few who were selected for work in the camp could be sure that they, too, sooner or later would be killed. The staff in turn consisted of trained killers who allegedly tortured and murdered inmates for the slightest transgression of camp rules, besides carrying out a mass murder of thousands of Jewish deportees on a daily basis. Nonetheless 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 a transport 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:

"’'You are Jews like us. Is this Treblinka? 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."

It is worthy of note that Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad has consciously distorted this passage from Strawczynski's account. In his summary of it (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka..., p. 254) Arad writes:

"When the people from the transport disembarked, they had no idea where they were. They asked the Jewish prisoners if they were in Treblinka, but their questions were left unanswered."

Yet according to Strawczynski, the prisoners had told the deportees that they were in a transit camp!

Needless to say, the ‘Reds’ are portrayed as scum from the Warsaw underworld, and their kapo Jurek as someone who raped young girls bound for the gas chambers (p. 140). On a side note, we are informed in this chapter that some Jews from Czestochowa had been issued special papers exempting them from resettlement by the ghetto commandant Degenhart (pp. 142-143).
The female detainees are, with only five exceptions, described as tramps who “went to parties, got drunk, and enjoyed themselves to the utmost”. Supposedly, they slept around with Jewish kapos as well as Ukrainian guards and SS, and never received physical punishments (p. 154).
The members of the Jewish “aristocracy” in Treblinka were so well seen to that, in case of illness, they were not taken to the “Lazarett” to be shot, but instead, if they died, “a funeral was arranged according to Jewish tradition” (p. 162).
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 “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” (perhaps Hermann Höfle?) to Treblinka just to hold a speech to the detainees about the supposedly fake resettlement (pp. 146-147).
In the spring of 1943, at the same time as hundreds of thousands of rotting corpses were allegedly turned into ashes in the death camp proper (also known as Camp 2), the SS set out to “beautify” the camp and introduce entertainment and pastimes for themselves as well as the inmates. Responsible for most of this was SS Kurt “Lalka” Franz, who is generally described by eyewitnesses as the worst sadist in the camp. Franz saw to that a boxing ring was set up:

“A boxing craze spread through Treblinka. In the free evening hours, you could spot groups of people surrounding two fools sporting swollen noses and black eyes" (p. 156)

Also, “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 “Lalka” had special costumes made (white jackets with blue collars and lapels). The orchestra performed behind elegant, custom-made music stands. "You could not ask for anything better in the finest resort" (pp. 155-156). Israel Cymlich also mentions this orchestra:

"The Jews set out for work in the morning singing, and they sang upon return. Especially in the evenings, after the end of the working day, the Jews marched as if on parade, singing to the sounds of an excellent jazz orchestra, and sometimes to the sounds of a violin or an accordion. One could only imagine what a passing stranger might have thought when hearing the song of a thousand sated, and also usually slightly drunk, workers." (p. 46)

The Germans liked the Jewish jazz musician so much that they threw a big party to celebrate this 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!
During the period of beautification several new camp “streets” and buildings were constructed:
"New streets and avenues are paved with stone and given various names, e.g., Kurt Seidl Strasse, named after the chief of the 'street-builders' brigade; and Siedlerstrasse [Settlers' Street!], leading toward Camp 2" (p. 165).
Between the two German barracks a small brick building containing a bathhouse for the Germans “with a tower for the waterworks” was set up, together with an armory and the well-known Treblinka “Zoo” (p. 166, 174). Strawczynski further claims that the following odd contraption was installed in the camp’s administrative office:

"Berl Kot also constructed a special iron cupboard. Inside it were some metal shelves like a grating. On a special shelf, there was a little bottle of gasoline and some matches, and underneath was a large glass bottle containing several liters of gasoline. Over it hung a weight tied to a rope, which was fastened outside the cupboard. (…) The secret documents of Treblinka were kept on the remaining shelves. A pipe from the cupboard went through the roof as though from a stove. It served the following purpose: In case of a sudden, unexpected attack, all those inconvenient documents could be burned instantly and completely. In such an event, the contents of the small bottle would be spilled and ignited; the doors of the cupboard hermetically sealed; and the rope loosened, causing the weight to fall and break the large bottle. The gasoline would then catch fire and the documents would be burned." (pp. 166-167)

This sure sounds like a risky security measure!
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” and who met with Strawczynski in the Polish forests 10 months after the mass escape, at the time the account was reportedly written (p. 171). The description of the gas chambers presented by Strawczynski reads as follows:

"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 transport 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 shower-heads 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. A German controls the progress of the 'work' through the little windows in the ceiling. When he is sure that everyone inside is dead, he opens the side panels, and the corpses fall out onto the cement platform. And elderly Jew from Czestochowa, known as 'the dentist,' checks the bodies for gold or metal teeth, which he pulls out. The bodies are then piled onto stretchers and carried to the oven, where they are flung into the fire and burned. The blood that has collected in the cubicles streams out into specially dug ditches. The 'bath' contained 10 cubicles, four big ones and six smaller ones" (pp. 169-170)

The notion that the air was sucked out of the hermetically sealed chambers by pumps before the exhaust gas was led in does not make much sense. For one thing, the feasibility of the process is dubious, due to the issue of pressure. Moreover, if the air could really be sucked out of the chambers, why bother introducing the exhaust gas, since deprived of oxygen the victims would have suffocated in no time? Apparently aware of this oddity, 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 mistaken 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 were introduced. Ether was burned and this vapor introduced inside. Then there was also chlorine” (quoted in 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 goes completely unmentioned by established Treblinka historiography. Furthermore, vacuum as killing method is mentioned by two other witnesses from Camp 2, Abe Kon (alias Stanislaw Ko(h)n) and the aforementioned Chil Rajchman, alias Henryk Reichmann (ibid.). A most widespread “misunderstanding”!
There are three further oddities to be found in gas chamber description: 1) the notion that the pulling out of gold teeth was carried out by a single “dentist”; 2) the size of the chambers – witnesses and historians generally assert that all the chambers in the new building were of the same size; and 3) the claim that the progress of the gassing was checked through small windows in the ceilings of the chambers. This claim is found in Sobibor testimony (Novitch, p. 56, 147), but as for Treblinka, historiography has it that the observation windows were placed in the entrance doors to the chambers (cf. Arad, p. 120).

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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Review: Israel Cymlich & Oskar Strawczynski, Escaping Hell in Treblinka, Yad Vashem, New York/Jerusalem 2007
Published: 2009-12-13
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 13, 2009, 12:03 a.m.
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