BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
Ex-inmate recalls Nazi camp breakout

By Krzysztof Dzieciolowski
BBC reporter in Warsaw

Samuel Wilenberg was 19 when he escaped from the Nazis' infamous Treblinka concentration camp on 2 August 1943 - the night prisoners staged a daring revolt.

Samuel Wilenberg today
Wilenberg is one of only four living survivors of the breakout
Mr Wilenberg, a Polish Jew, was one of only 200 people who survived the mass breakout.

He is one of just four survivors who have lived to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the event.

Mr Wilenberg, the only son in a family of five, was sent to Treblinka in October 1942 from Opatow, a small town in southern Poland.

Fleeing Nazi persecution, his family had been forced to separate early in the war.

His two sisters had already died in Treblinka, the second largest extermination camp after Auschwitz.

At the height of the killings, up to 17,000 people were gassed daily in the camp's 13 chambers.

"Those days of helpless despair are still painful today. The family cried so much," he said.

Old men, and those who could not keep up were killed and their bodies were thrown into the ditch
Samuel Wilenberg
Mr Wilenberg was forced to go to Opatow's small cattle market along with several thousand other Jews after the Nazis decided to empty the ghetto.

They filed towards the waiting train carriages.

"Old men, and those who could not keep up were killed and their bodies were thrown into the ditch beside the road. Once on board, I heard voices saying 'Jews, you're going to become soap,'" he recalled.

Once at Treblinka, Mr Wilenberg narrowly escaped death because an old friend, who was already at the camp, told him the Nazis were looking for bricklayers.

He volunteered, and instead of being herded to the gas chamber he was directed to a wooden barracks.

"That day 6,000 Jews lost their lives. I survived. I became prisoner Number 937. It was hard work. The Nazis were beating us, persecuting, torturing. I lost six teeth," he said.

Stealing weapons

In July 1943, inmates heard rumours the Nazis were planning to shut down the camp and kill all the prisoners. They decided to act.

It was like flying on wings. I was shot in leg. My shoe was full of blood.
Fortunately, they had got their hands on a copy of the key to the weapons store. One night they stole in and removed some arms. Child prisoners hid hand grenades and rifles in baskets and prams.

The revolt began at 0400 on 2 August, after a German guard became suspicious and the prisoners had to kill him.

As the alarm sounded the prisoners had to act quickly. They set fire to the barracks and began to cut the fences. Many were picked off by sentries atop the guard towers.

Seeing a hole in the fence Samuel Wilenberg scrambled over the bodies of his dead friends through the barbed wire. His good friend fell beside him under the hail of bullets and pleaded with him to end his agony. Reluctantly, he did so.

"It was like flying on wings. I was shot in leg. My shoe was full of blood. I don't know how long I had to run for," he recalled.

Staying alive

In the fighting, 85 Nazi guards and around 800 prisoners were killed.

Once outside Mr Wilenberg split from the other escapees and was given shelter by farmers in a nearby village. But Nazi patrols forced him to keep moving within days.

He made his way to Warsaw, where he hoped his father was still alive.

After searching for two weeks, father and son were reunited. His father, a former synagogue painter, had stayed alive painting Catholic religious pictures with the words, "Jesus, I trust you!"

Samuel Wilenberg joined the Polish resistance, took part in the Warsaw uprising, and emigrated to Israel after the war.

Before the revolt forced its closure in November 1943, Treblinka concentration camp claimed the lives of 870,000 people, mainly Jews.

Today, farmland surrounds the site. A small museum and solitary monument stand testament to its tragic past.

Warsaw Jews mark uprising
20 Apr 03  |  Europe
Poland apologises to Jews
10 Jul 01  |  Europe
Timeline: Poland
10 Jun 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
16 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific