In August 1977, a Ukrainian immigrant named John Demjanjuk (1920-2012) living near Cleveland, Ohio was accused by Holocaust survivors of being the notorious guard known as Ivan the Terrible at the Treblinka Nazi death camp. He was extradited to Israel and eventually convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1988. One of the survivors who testified against Demjanjuk was a Polish Jew named Chil Rajchman (1914-2004), one of a handful of death camp survivors whose memoirs help us understand the true meaning of the Holocaust.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Here’s how Rajchman describes Ivan the Terrible in his novella-length memoir, The Last Jew of Treblinka: “From time to time he feels the urge to take a sharp knife, detain a worker who is running past and cut off his ear. The blood spurts, the worker screams, but he must keep running with his litter [carrying a corpse for burial in a pit]. Ivan waits calmly until the worker runs back and orders him to put the litter down. He then tells him to strip and go over to the pit, where he shoots him.”
The Last Jew of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman (2011) 160 pages ★★★★☆
He calls them murderers and monsters. But those are just words.
Rajchman refers to Ivan and his fellow Ukrainian and German guards as murderers, beasts, bandits, sadists, and monsters. But can any word, any language, convey the depths of depravity that led these men — all of them children of mothers and fathers — to erase the existence of ten to twenty thousand human lives every day for years on end?
FYI, Demjanjuk’s sentence was later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2012, he died in Germany at the age of 91.
A moving death camp survivor’s memoir
Rajchman was twenty-eight years old when he and his nineteen-year-old sister were captured in October 1942 and shipped to Treblinka. She was murdered almost instantaneously upon arriving there. But he was pressed into service as a “barber,” employed to cut off the hair of women and girls before they were herded into the gas chambers.
Later, as a “dentist” — removing teeth to extract the gold and platinum — and as a laborer in the Sonderkommando, he survived because he was strong and useful to the Nazis. And then, in the course of a camp-wide revolt, he was one of about one hundred Jews who escaped.
Weeks later, he made his way to Warsaw, where he witnessed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After the Soviet liberation of the city, he “migrated to Uruguay, where he lived a productive life in the business world and had three sons.” Rajchman died in 2004 at the age of 89.
A Yiddish manuscript unpublished for decades
As Samuel Moyn reveals in an informative Preface to the Kindle edition of Rajchman’s memoir, the book “lay in Yiddish manuscript for decades, and the very name ‘Treblinka’ became widely known only decades after war’s end.” The Last Jew of Treblinka was first published in 2009 in French and German and in 2011 in English.
However, a memoir by another survivor of the Treblinka death camp, Yankl Wiernik, had been published in New York in 1944, long before British and American troops liberated the concentration camps in Germany. And that raises the question of why, when documentary evidence of the Final Solution — Wiernik’s was far from the only testimony to make it out of the camps — was available in the West before the war ended, American officials could have been so surprised when the photos arrived from Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. It wasn’t just Germans who denied the evidence in front of their eyes.
“Concentration camps” vs “extermination camps”
Moyn notes the clear distinction between “concentration camps” such as Bergen-Belsen or Buchenwald and the later “extermination camps” or death camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which were constructed for the sole purpose of killing hundreds of thousands of people in industrial fashion. Moyn notes, a little misleadingly, that “the latter “became lethal only in the last months of the war, as a failed regime lost its ability to feed its prisoners.”
At Treblinka, for example, nearly 800,000 people, all but two thousand of them Jews, were killed in not much more than a year. (However, those murders took place in 1942-43, when the camp was closed following a revolt by the prisoners, not in 1944-45.) And as Rajchman documents in The Last Jew of Treblinka, much of the work he and his fellow prisoners were forced to do involved unburying and incinerating the bodies that would otherwise have served as proof of the Nazis’s crimes. (The captors had been shocked by the discovery of the Katyn Forest Massacre engineered by Stalin and were determined to avoid the verdict of history.)
For related reading
You’ll find more than a dozen other good books I’ve reviewed about the Holocaust at Good books about the Holocaust.
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