It’s hard to imagine that a simple decision to lie about one’s vocation and skills could ever save your life – but this is exactly what happened to Chil Rajchman when, recovering from a severe whipping, he was faced with a life or death decision on his first day at Treblinka – although at the time he didn’t realise its gravitas, he held his hand up and declared himself a skilled barber – that one decision, and four others like him, enabled him to survive that first gruelling day.
One cannot stress the importance a document such as “Treblinka: A survivor’s Memory” holds in our history; our very being. Without it, and others of its ilk, we would remain to this day uneducated as to the severity of what transpired in camps such as Auschwitz, Sobibór, Be??ec and Treblinka – to name but a few. The mass genocide, the rapes, the brutality, the starvation, the sheer ignominy of the SS and the Ukrainian “murderers” as Chil Rachjman put it – helped shape our lives ensuring no such depravity occurs ever again – we live in hope.
Chil Rajchman, a Polish Jew, was arrested with his younger sister in 1942 and sent to Treblinka, a death camp where more than 750,000 were murdered before it was abandoned by German soldiers. His sister was sent to the gas chambers, but Rajchman escaped execution, working for ten months under incessant threats and beatings as a barber, a clothes-sorter, a corpse-carrier, a puller of teeth from those same bodies. In August 1943, there was an uprising at the camp, and Rajchman was among the handful of men who managed to escape. In 1945, he set down this account, a plain, unembellished and exact record of the raw horror he endured every day. This unique testimony, which has remained in the sole possession of his family ever since, has never before been published in English. For its description of unspeakably cruelty, Treblinka is a memoir that will not be superseded.
In addition to Rajchman’s account, this volume includes the complete text of Vasily Grossman’s ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, one of the first descriptions of a Nazi extermination camp; a powerful and harrowing piece of journalism written only weeks after the camp was dissolved.
Introduction by Samuel Moyn, Professor of History at Columbia University and author of A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France.
Treblinka: A survivor’s Memory is a poignant account of one man’s struggle to not only see life one day at a time but to make every second count – survival was by no means guaranteed. By appearing to be sick, taking too long to cut a woman’s hair, taking too long to complete an instruction or simply by standing up tall – you would be taken to one side, forced to strip and summarily executed on the spot to cries of laughter and merriment from the on looking officers who considered it nothing more than a sport.
How good it is that my mother did not live to be tortured, to experience a ghetto, poverty, hunger and, at the end, Treblinka: to have her hair torn away, to be gassed, then tossed into a pit like tens of thousands of other dead people. I am happy she did not live to see that.
The sheer brutality of this book forces one to take stock and look at one’s life and truly appreciate the comforts we take for granted on a daily basis. We live in an age where groceries can be purchased seven days a week, water – clean and purified at that – is available on tap and a doctor is a mere telephone call away. Rajchman and other prisoners in camps like Treblinka had no such luxury where muddy water (if they could get it) and meagre bread rations the norm.
Rajchman’s authenticity is unquestionable in Treblinka: A survivor’s Memory, his words and passion have lost little significance and power from its Yiddish origin – respectfully translated by Solon Beinfeld. We gain a unique insight into what life was like for the thousands who had the misfortune to spend time within the six metre high barbed wire fences that surrounded Treblinka. The daily whippings, the shooting, the depravity and perhaps most of all – their dignity. How on earth do you make it through one day faced with a relentless barrage of abuse from the SS soldiers? It’s impossible to even remotely understand what people like Chil went through but documents such as this and Vassily Grossman’s essay “The Hell of Treblinka” – also included in the book – go some ways to helping us understand these atrocities.
I recall a father and son who had been in this hell [both sick] for two days. They decided to commit suicide. Having only one strap between them, they agreed the father would hang himself first and after that the son would take him down and use the same strap to hang himself. That is in fact how it happened. In the morning they were dead.
Treblinka: A survivor’s Memory is a heart-breaking account of one man’s struggle to survive against all odds. Powerful and passionate at best, depraved and horrific at worst, it serves to remind us all a fraction of the price people like Chil Rajchman paid for the freedom we so take for granted today. I urge you to pick up this book – whether from your local library or bookstore – the significance of remembrance and understanding cannot be overemphasized.