Rudolf Masaryk didn’t have long to live, but for now he was fighting with all of his life. As he stood on top of a roof in the burning Treblinka concentration camp, he yelled down toward the Nazi guards he was shooting at.
“This is for my wife and my child who never saw the world!,” he yelled.
Hours later, Masaryk was dead along with most of the other prisoners of the Treblinka death camp who rose up against their Nazi captors in August 1943. And if Masaryk’s story sounds like it could have come out of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a few months earlier, that’s not by mistake. The uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto helped inspire Treblinka’s lesser-known revolt—a brave final stand that, like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, had deadly consequences for its fighters.
As news of the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto revolt made its way across Europe, it inspired resistance in the Holocaust’s second deadliest camp, Treblinka. Though the two uprisings were not planned by the same group of conspirators, they were connected—and both represent the wave of hope and resistance that spread through occupied Poland during the height of the Holocaust.
Located just 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka had been in operation since 1941, first as a forced labor camp and then as a death camp. In just three months in 1942,around 265,000 Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto were taken to Treblinka and killed in gas chambers there. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was planned in part as a response to this wave of transports and murders.
Treblinka was different than most other Nazi camps. Its purpose wasn’t to enslave Jews and others on behalf of the German war machine—its purpose was to kill. However, about 1,000 Jews were kept alive to run Treblinka’s terrible machinery of death.
By the time the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943, the Germans were on the run throughout Europe. A long string of defeats, most notably the loss of theBattle of Stalingrad, had weakened the Third Reich’s army and made it clear that the Nazis would soon be forced to flee Poland. The inmates of Treblinka worried that they’d be caught up in a German retreat from Poland and murdered as the Nazis tried to cover up all traces of their crimes.
As news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—and prisoners swept up in the Nazis’ dragnet in Warsaw—arrived at the camp, hope began to surge. A small group of prisoners that called themselves “The Organizing Committee” had been considering a rebellion for over a year, but they were thwarted when Julian Chorazycki, a Jewish doctor who helped run an infirmary for SS officers at Treblinka, was discovered with a large sum of money he planned to use to purchase weapons for a revolt inside the camp. Rather than give up the names of his co-conspirators, Chorazycki swallowed poison and died.
The conspirators’ cover had almost been blown, so they decided to lay low. Meanwhile, about 7,000 Jews who had been captured by the Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising were taken to Treblinka and murdered upon arrival. The conspirators, buoyed by news of the Warsaw Ghetto’s resistance to the Nazis, found a new leader: Berek Lajher, a Jewish doctor and retired Polish Army officer who was put in charge of the SS infirmary after Chorazycki’s death.
It now looked as if it would be impossible to get arms from outside the camp. The prisoners were isolated, under careful watch by Nazi guards, and entirely cut off from the outside world. But the Organizing Committee had an ace up its sleeve: a clandestine imprint of a key to the camp arsenal.
They had another weapon—their determination. “[Their] task was to avenge at least to some extent the millions of innocent people executed,”testified Samuel Rajzman, one of the camp’s few survivors, after the war. “They dreamed of setting fire to the whole camp and exterminating at least the cruelest engines at the price of their own lives.”
On August 2, 1943—a day without gas chamber operations—the rebellion began. The conspirators took advantage of construction work near the arsenal to sneak inside and steal 20 hand grenades, 20 rifles, and a few handguns. Then they awaited the signal: a single gunshot.
Their plan was almost ruined when a German guard discovered that two of the conspirators were carrying money they planned to use once they escaped the camp. He stripped off their clothing and began to beat them. Worried that the men would reveal the names of the conspirators, another prisonershot the guard with one of the stolen guns.
Thinking the signal had been fired, the conspirators sprang into action. They turned against the Nazi guards, lobbing grenades and shooting SS officers. A man usually assigned to spread disinfectant around the camp had used a hose to douse a large portion of the camp with gasoline. As chaos erupted throughout the camp, Treblinka burst into flames.
Up to 300 people are thought to have escaped Treblinka in the pandemonium that ensued. As fire engulfed the camp, blowing up the arsenal and consuming almost everything but the gas chambers, people swarmed over and through barbed wire fences and ran for their lives.
Most of the members of the Organizing Committee died that day, but not before killing about 40 guards. The prisoners who escaped were largely hunted down by the Nazis, who chased them in cars and on horses. Escapees hid in nearby forests and nursed their wounds.
Others weren’t that lucky. Only about 70 of the 300 or so people who escaped Treblinka survived the war. The others were punished along with those who did not try to run. The Nazis forced them to tear down the remainder of the camp, then murdered them all.
The Treblinka revolt wasn’t the only death camp uprising: a similar rebellion in nearby Sobibor—also inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—led to that camp’s destruction and closure, too. These revolts weren’t just symbolic. The survivors were able to provide critical information about the camps, from their layout to who worked there to how they functioned, the Times of Israelnotes. The few who survived Treblinka spent the rest of their lives telling their stories—and reliving their trauma so that others might never go through a similar experience.