Shmuel Willenberg: Siedlce in flames

Shmuel Willenberg 2013

It was a warm autumn morning. I worked on a pile of coats, I had to arrange in packages. I looked around carefully to find out if an SS was approaching, I was afraid of being caught idle. Among the coats, protecting me from the cold, I glanced at the shipments yard. It was completely empty. On the side of the stack, near the fence interwoven with pine branches, separating the shipments yard and the clothes sorting yard, piled up a huge pile of shoes a few meters tall. Prisoners were called ‘cobblers’ worked around it. The shoes were sorted out and arranged in pairs. The SS man. carrying a 1.5 meters long whip, urged people to hasten their work. His red neck veins bulged from shouting strained and hoarse shouts: “Schnell, schnell, Arbeitn, Paula Banda”, meaning – fast, work fast, lazy gang. To the cries of this were added to shouts of collaborators and other SS. The entire yard rumbled.

Suddenly there was a long train whistle: a new shipment came into the camp. And members of the SS burst into the sorting yard and using whips hurried the prisoners to enter the dock. Following the members of the SS., armed Ukrainians burst to the dock. They lined up in two rows, forming a double wall between the platform and the clinic.

Haunted by SS men we reached the platform with the train cars which were pushed with menacing thunder. The ‘Reds’ also came with us, dragging – instead of horses – a cart full of blankets. We were given blankets, one for each pair of prisoners. There were also ‘Blue’, as usual.

The train stopped. Usually we heard voices from a distance. Through the small openings of the wagons used or animals transportation and covered with barbed wire, watching us always curious and frightened faces. This time there was a silence of death here. There was no sound and there were no human faces. All were silent. Even members of the SS. The collaborators were the first to begin talking. They ordered us to load the packages we arranged earlier into the cars. They believed, as we did, the empty train was designed for goods. Brutal Mita ordered to open the wagons.

Through the widening open slot a child’s hand dropped by. Suddenly, we saw that all the cars were full of corpses. Adult corpses, corpses of children, and all of them completely naked, a dense mass of human corpses with clear traces of beatings to death and bullet holes.

The Ukrainians were behind us, hitting us with whips and guns, shouting: “Schnell! Schnell!” Shouts were ordered to remove the bodies out of the cars and bring them to the clinic. We separated tangle of bodies, loaded them on a blanket and dragged them into the clinic. Only now did I realize, why we were given the blankets. With the Ukrainians whipping us constantly, we could not protect ourselves from the beating, because we were holding blankets laden with corpses.

Whenever we came to the clinic we threw the bodies as far away as possible and ran back for another round. Again we were beaten with guns and whips on our bare faces. The SS man did not stop squealing. His neck veins tense, his face red like most drunks and holding a whip, devised especially for the “Hofjuden” – “court Jews” who were Jewish professionals, who worked in various jobs for the Germans. He increased the lashings when he discovered that instead of stacking the corpses we threw them to the sides of the pit, and we left half empty spaces.

By order of Ukrainians and members of the SS we piled up the corpses. Fire had been lit at their feet. Not once did we walk on the corpses, with fire between us. I looked up at the sky. I had no appreciation for them, no attitude or confidence. A great autumn morning in front of me with bright hot sun – and at my feet the pile of corpses is growing. The priest Alpher ran past and other acquaintances, and they are loaded with corpses. Some were trying to remove the children’s bodies from the block of corpses, to reduce weight and avoid further beatings. Ironic, I thought, why did we get here: looking for the bodies of children to relieve ourselves, prisoners of Treblinka.

Twenty cars were emptied, but twenty more arrived at the dock, also full of corpses. Again, the Ukrainians and members of the SS beat us. And Hell begins anew. Our bodies are bruised. Our teeth are uprooted. Salty taste in my mouth and Alfred, running next to me, shouting: ” Katzf , Katzf , blood flowing out of your mouth!” Again we took the corpses. Only corpses. For a few hours we got out of the cars and transported to the clinic approximately 600-700 dead bodies.

Word of mouth passed the rumor that the shipment arrived from Siedlce, located approximately 6 kilometers from Treblinka. Residents there knew, apparently, where they were led to. They resisted, but members of the SS shot them and robbed them. Clothes and personal belongings of the victims were sold to speculators and received money for liquor and replaced them with two carriages loaded with bundles of rags, carefully weighing them to match the original weight. Members of the SS in our camp were furious at not enjoyed the loot: could one SS man cheat another? It’s robbery! Who allowed them to plunder the corpses in Siedlce, while they were intended to be mugged at Treblinka!

Brutal Mita was particularly furious. He pounded his whip right and left, complaining to Commander Galbeski: “There is no justice! Dirty work occured! They should not have killed on the way -they had to bring them here alive! After all, we are here to eliminate them! They could not even steal – members of the SS in Treblinka do not steal, they just take in accordance with the law!”

Strange way of law and justice in our world. For long hours the fire lit all its surroundings, thousands of corpses of Jews from Siedlce burnt.

Written by Shmuel Willenberg the book: “Ancestors Tell Siedlce”.

Samuel Willenberg, nom de guerre Igo, (February 16, 1923 – February 19, 2016) was a Polish-Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando in the Treblinka extermination camp who participated in its perilous prisoner revolt. He took part in the Warsaw Uprising before the war’s end. Willenberg was the last survivor of the August 1943 Treblinka prisoners’ revolt upon his death. After the war he lived in Israel. He received the highest of Poland’s orders including Virtuti Militari and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit awarded by President Lech Kaczyński. His memoir, titled Revolt in Treblinka, was published in Hebrew, Polish and English between 1986 and 1991. He was a sculptor and painter. (more)

Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.