Chad Gibbs Lectures on Women and Spaces of Resistance at Treblinka

Thu, 10/01/2020 - 4:31pm

“Locating Women in the Revolt: Gender and Spaces of Resistance at Treblinka”

Chad Gibbs (PhD Candidate in History, University of Wisconsin at Madison)

2020-2021 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow

September 29, 2020

Following his monthlong virtual residency at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, the Center’s 2020-2021 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow Chad Gibbs delivered an online lecture about his research in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. The lecture, entitled “Locating Women in the Revolt: Gender and Spaces of Resistance at Treblinka,” focused on the role of women in the acts and spaces of resistance that led to the 1943 uprising at Treblinka.

Gibbs opened his lecture by briefly recounting the relatively well-known Treblinka uprising, which is one of the most gripping acts of armed resistance to the Holocaust. What is less known, Gibbs pointed out, are the roots of this uprising and the strategies used by prisoners to achieve it. Gibbs’ exploration of prisoners’ strategies to create what he calls “spaces of resistance” has led him to discover the important and largely silenced roles of Jewish women in resistance at Treblinka. In his talk, he focused on three such spaces of resistance - the official camp infirmary and adjacent storage building (horse barn or Pferdestall), the camp kitchen, and a barracks building near the gas chambers. He traced the ways in which, as we move through each of these spaces, the importance of women’s roles rise. Yet the level of historical recognition for their contributions fall. Gibbs argued that our knowledge of these spaces is influenced by gendered thinking and gendered ideas that conceal the very existence of women at Treblinka both in the testimonies of male survivors of the camp and in historical texts.

Next, Gibbs turned to the discussion of the number of known survivors of Treblinka. He noted that the original list of Treblinka survivors, assembled by Alexander Donat and published in 1979, numbers 68 survivors. This list has been largely unchallenged and updated only slightly by a museum at the site of the camp, which lists 85 survivors. Gibbs has discovered many more survivors through his research in multiple archives. Through survivor testimonies in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive alone, Gibbs was able to identify 42 additional Treblinka survivors who do not appear on any list of Treblinka survivors. (He has 14 additional leads in the VHA still to explore.) Together with his findings from other archives, he has identified 238 Treblinka survivors, with 29 more leads he is still investigating.

Gibbs emphasized that we will never know the true number of Treblinka survivors. There are likely many survivors who never gave their testimony for varying reasons, especially women, Gibbs argued. He pointed to the example of a woman who was at the camp but avoided testifying at the Treblinka trials because she lived with a German man and feared that her husband would abandon her. Gibbs also noted that the original list contained only two female survivors, but that he has identified six more who were at the camp, though not during the uprising or for a long period of time. Gibbs pointed out that the lack of female survivors’ accounts means researchers interested in the lives of Jewish women inside Treblinka rely on the sources left behind by men who offer contradictory statements on the presence and role of women at the camp.

In the next section of his lecture, Gibbs discussed the three spaces of resistance at Treblinka: the official infirmary and adjacent storage building (horse barn), the camp kitchen, and barracks near the gas chambers. The control of the storage building and the infirmary enabled the revolt conspirators to safeguard their sick comrades and to hasten the removal of distrusted informants. According to Gibbs, women assisted in both of these endeavors as carers of the sick and the carriers of messages between the infirmary and the main prisoner barracks. Survivors also spoke to the use of the storage building both as the actual healing place for the sick and as a space for planning and covert communication during the daytime. Women helped remove informants and carried information from the storage building about guard visits and any changes during daytime. A female prisoner-doctor, Dr. Irena "Irka" Lewkowski, assisted the resistance efforts, while another prisoner, Bronka Sukno, who worked at a nearby camp tailor shop, acted as a courier. Sukno and other women could enter and watch the storage building at any time; however, these contributions are rarely mentioned in male survivors’ oral histories. Women also contributed to the provision and the concealment of arms for the uprising. Survivor testimonies detail how the arms were hidden and collected from the camp kitchen before the uprising. However, many male survivors do not mention that Jewish women-prisoners consituted the kitchen staff, or that there were women at the camp at all. Gibbs illustrated this by sharing several conflicting examples from survivor testimonies where one survivor denies the presence of women in the camps while another survivor, who was likely in the same transport and in the same barracks as the first, confirms the presence of women and that women staffed the kitchen, tailor shop, and the laundry at the camp at least partially.

Gibbs pointed out that contemporary male survivor witnesses are not the only ones to erase women from Treblinka and the story about resistance, but some historians do the same. He touched upon the 1989 book authored by Yitzhak Arad The Operation Reinhardt Death Camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, which included a five-page chapter on women prisoners. In this volume, Arad quotes the survivor Eliahu Rosenberg who said that 13 women were brought to Treblinka and worked in the laundry, kitchen, as a doctor’s assistant, or were allotted to various kapos. However, Gibbs pointed out that Arad used an incomplete quote from Rosenberg’s statement. Through his research at Yad Vashem, Gibbs discovered that Rosenberg actually stated that women were allotted to various kapos for “private use” and that other kapos could visit these women between 6 and 10 pm in the evenings. Gibbs argued that this statement and a few other sources reveal the existence of forced sexual exploitation at Treblinka. Another survivor, Szhlomo Hellman, stated that Jewish women “distracted” the Ukrainians who put down their rifles (eight rifles), which the women secured for the uprising. Gibbs argued that statements such as those by Rosenberg and Hellman point to the pivotal participation of women in the revolt.

In the concluding section of his lecture, Gibbs discussed some possible explanations as to why male survivors do not mention women at the camp. He noted that this might be due to this topic being too traumatizing for their masculine self-conception, as they could do little or nothing to protect Jewish women prisoners. Sometimes, Gibbs argued, the interviewers would not inquire about women at the camp. When they did or when the topic arose, Gibbs argued, the context of the interview might have factored into mens’ ability and willingness to discuss this topic. Interviewees were often surrounded by or within earshot of female members of their families, as Gibbs illustrated with interviewer notes and with a powerful clip of testimony rendering one interviewee’s reluctance and discomfort about discussing sexual exploitation in front of women in the room. Gibbs also discussed whether the interviewer’s gender might have influenced the discussion of the topic. In the 91 USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive interviews of male Treblinka survivors that Gibbs worked with during his monthlong research, 75% of those men were interviewed by women. Of the male survivors who were in Treblinka for longer than one day, 89% were interviewed by women.

Gibbs concluded that our knowledge of the events at Treblinka, and during the Holocaust more broadly, is often a product of gendered thinking at the time and in the years following, as women had more or different reasons to fear coming forward as trial witnesses and later oral history subjects. Gibbs stated that the attention to the networks and spaces of resistance at Treblinka allows us to read against the silences, distortions, and evasions of male testimony to recover and recognize the contributions and incredible actions of women in resistance at Treblinka. 

Gibbs’ lecture was followed by a long and thought-provoking Q&A session that covered conceptions of resistance, sexual exploitation of men, teaching and writing about the tension in narratives about female survivors, approaches to addressing sexual violence in oral history interviews, the camp brothel and the perpetrators of sexual violence, the role of the VHA’s indexing thesaurus in locating additional Treblinka survivors, and possible differences in testimonies given at different locations and for different organizations.

Summary by Badema Pitic

Badema Pitic