Testimonies and Resistance at Treblinka: Reflections from 2020-2021 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow Chad Gibbs

Wed, 11/11/2020 - 1:05pm

My recent stay at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career.  From the remarkable power and content of the Visual History Archive, to the welcoming and helpful nature of the staff and donor community, I leave my term as the Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow strengthened by new friendships and enriched by new findings for my work. 

My current research focuses on the social networks, geographies, and gender dynamics of Jewish resistance at Treblinka.  In all that I write or present on this topic, I begin by explaining how little Nazi documentation on this camp survives or ever existed.  Nazi SS authorities designed the Operation Reinhard camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka to annihilate the Jews of Poland in secrecy and silence.  It was their intention that these places would disappear from history and memory without a scrap of documentation and zero surviving witnesses.  At least as far as documentation is concerned, they were very nearly successful.  Jewish resistance, however, foiled their plans to leave no witnesses to their monumental crimes. 

The lack of perpetrator documents makes oral histories recorded by Treblinka survivors and witnesses all the more important.  With this in mind, I set out to use my time at the Shoah Foundation to hear as many of these voices as I possibly could.  In work during this fellowship and previous opportunities to use VHA, I have identified 42 individuals not currently listed among the known survivors of Treblinka.  While historians have long believed that only 68 Jews survived this extermination camp, I can now name 238 survivors of Treblinka from my work in the VHA and other collections.

Interviews given by these newly recognized voices and those from better-known survivors of Treblinka shed light on the August 2, 1943 prisoner revolt and so much more.  As supervisor of the laundry detail, survivor Sam Goldberg’s interview provides details on the lives of Jewish women who worked in the laundry as few others could.  Richard Glazar, meanwhile, tells of the organization of resistance and the layout of the camp in startling detail.  Still further survivors like Isadore Helfing, Chil Rajchman, and Edward J. Weinstein provided VHA interviewers their perspectives on long-term life in the camp and the organization of early escapes, resistance, and the ultimate uprising.  What’s more is that each of these men gave multiple interviews or wrote other accounts over the course of their lives after 1945.  These additional sources allow a look at how survivor memories do (or do not) change over time and how the interview process itself can sometimes alter what the witness reveals.  Analysis of these differences in telling—especially in regard to how men recall women prisoners—formed the center of my talk, “Locating Women in the Revolt: Gender and Spaces of Resistance at Treblinka.”

In viewing the testimonies of male survivors and their writing on Treblinka, I found that men are less likely to discuss what women endured in the camp during oral history interviews.  Even men who did write of what happened to women and women’s roles in resistance may avoid discussion of female prisoners or even deny that there were Jewish women in Treblinka.  During his VHA interview, Adek Stein becomes visibly uncomfortable, shifting in his chair and pausing often as he recalls the sexual abuse of Jewish women by Nazi forces.  He says to the interviewer, a woman, that he does not want to tell these stories in front of “these girls” as he looks around the room.  Though his interviewer asks him to go on, Mr. Stein is clearly shaken by the prospect of recalling what he saw in front of women.  His interview is but one example of a phenomenon I believe is important not only for the study of Treblinka, but also for the use and creation of oral histories in general. 

My work as Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow adds depth to my consideration of gendered retelling as an important factor in how we should analyze oral histories and other survivor sources.  This and further discoveries during my stay at the Shoah Foundation are improving my research in important ways, though the most striking memories I will take away from this experience are, of course, the voices of the survivors.  Their words and the raw emotion of their interviews have the ability to bring Holocaust history to the viewer as little else can—often in unexpected ways.  I will always remember watching Mira Szlamuk’s oral history as one of these moments.

As do many other survivors, Mrs. Szlamuk recalls boarding the overcrowded boxcars that would take her to Treblinka and the terrible conditions of that journey.  What sets apart her telling of this moment, however, is the context.  While Szlamuk calmy and clearly describes that transport the sound of an actual train passing her home rises in the background.  Hearing that train brought me to tears almost immediately.  This startling accidental soundtrack of her oral history is just one example of the many ways that survivor recollections in the VHA cut through to the viewer as little else can.  The experience of watching Mira Szlamuk speak over the click-clack of steel wheels on railroad tracks is something I will never forget.  Her interview and all the other survivor voices I now include my research will be with me for years to come.

Chad Gibbs