The BBC showed a one hour documentary last night: Death Camp Treblinka: Survivor Stories. The survivors in question were Samuel Willenberg and Kalman Taigman. They were among 600 prisoners who escaped during a revolt at the camp on August 2nd, 1943. Only 40 of them were known to have survived to the end of the war, and now, only Samuel Willenberg remains to bear witness – Kalman Taigman died in July this year.
The programme was profoundly shocking – Treblinka II was a death camp that existed for no other purpose than for the killing of human beings. Over 800,000 Jews and Gypsies were gassed, shot and cremated during the 13 months of the camp’s operation.
What struck me was how small Treblinka II was – only 600 metres by 400 metres. The Nazis kept between 700 and 800 prisoners to operate the camp, while 90% of the inmates sent to Treblinka were killed within the first 2 hours of arriving.
Willenberg and Taigman told their stories to camera, and they were harrowing. For example, Willenberg found the coats of his two younger sisters among the personal effects of the dead he had been made to sort through by the Nazis. Or the fact that during his escape from the camp, a fellow escapee, who was wounded, begged Willenberg to shoot him, rather than be recaptured. Willenberg gave him his wished-for coup de grâce.
The light at the end of the tunnel was the closing section of the programme that showed that the two men had survived the horrors of Treblinka and rebuilt their lives. Taigman had gone on to fight in the Warsaw Uprising, while Willenberg was a witness at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The closing moments of the programme managed to bring a profound sense of peace and regeneration of the human spirit at its best – something that I never thought would be possible given what I had just seen and heard earlier in the hour