Daily Archives: 27 May, 2010

Treblinka Survivor by Mark S. Smith

The title of this book suggests just how unique this story is – no-one was supposed to survive Treblinka. While the more infamous Auschwitz is estimated to have killed over a million people, it was also a work camp – hence a proportion of inmates, against the odds, managed to survive. Yet Treblinka – and its Operation Reinhard counterparts Sobibor, Chelnmo, Belzec and Madjanek – were established with the sole purpose of murdering millions of people on an industrial scale. Therefore, the term ‘Treblinka survivor’ is almost a contradiction, so rare is Hershl Sperling’s story. In the region of 800,000 peole were killed there. Yet survive he did.

Born in pre-war Poland, Sperling experienced anti-semitism in Polish society before the Nazi’s invaded in September 1939. After being herded into Ghettos he and his family were transported to Treblinka, where Hershl was selected to survive and work in the sonderkommando, slave labourers at the camp. The rest of his family were murdered soon after arrival. Hershl’s work largely involved cleaning out the filthy cattle wagons that transported the Jews to Treblinka. His account describes untold brutality – of forced boxing matches for the pleasure of the SS, of an attack dog trained to bite a man’s genitals, and of how when off duty the SS men were provided with their own zoo.

The sonderkommando were intended to be murdered when their work was done. However, they staged an uprising, and after torching the camp many of them managed to escape. Most were re-captured very quickly, but Sperling managed to escape by train to Warsaw – an incredible feat for an escaped Jewish prisoner in occupied Poland. He was soon picked up by the Gestapo, but crucially he was never discovered to have escaped Treblinka. If the Nazi authorities had realised this, he would no doubt have been killed very promptly.

After being held at a prison near Radom, Hershl Sperling was sent to Auschwitz. Interestingly, he referred to Auschwitz as a ‘walk in the park’ compared to Treblinka. This is even more remarkable, when we consider that it is believed that he spent time in the ‘care’ of the infamous Dr Josef Mengele. Although he did not write or talk about what happened to himself, Sperling passed on stories such as men being castrated without anaesthetic. Also while at Auschwitz Sperling spent time in a penal gang, and the length of his sentence suggests that he was being punished for trying to escape.

From Auschwitz, Sperling and many others were sent to Dachau near Munich, and it was here where he was liberated by the US Army in 1945. After an unhappy to return to Poland, where he encountered anti-semitism, Hershl met his wife Yadwiga, a fellow holocaust survivor, and eventually to Scotland. Sadly, he suffered from depression for many years, and committed suicide in later life. It appears that many holocaust survivors have suffered from the condition known as survivors guilt.

His story has been pieced together in this book by a friend of his son. Hershl Sperling left an understandably patchy memoir, and passed a few snippets of information onto his sons. The author also travelled to Treblinka and Auschwitz, and consulted with Historians. Unfortunately all books relating to the Holocaust will always come under the close scrutiny of those who seek to belittle or deny it, but Hershl Sperling’s story is beyond doubt.

This is a vey important book – after all, it is estimated that only some 60 people survived Treblinka. And Sperling must be one of very few holocaust survivors who was recaptured after escape and lived to tell the tale. This is also an insightful, hard hitting and moving look at the events leading up to, during and after the holocaust – how anti-semitism was rife in Poland, the thoughts of the author and Sperling’s sons, and the emotional journey by which his story was pieced together.

This book deserves to rank alongside holocause testimonies by Primo Levi, Rudolf Vrba and Anne Frank.

Treblinka Survivor is published by The History Press

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70 years ago – the Battle of Dunkirk begins

By late May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force and elements of th French and Belgian Armies were becoming bottled up in a small pocket based on the English Channel, cut off by the advance of the German Panzers. The situation was so serious that General Sir Alan Brooke wrote that “nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now”. Lord Gort, the BEF’s commander, informed the Secretary of State for War that there was a risk that a large part of the BEF would be lost in France.

Yet for reasons which Historians have never been able to substantiate with any certainty, on 24 May Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt and to leave the task of finishing off the Dunkirk perimeter to the Luftwaffe and the infantry. This may have been one of the most critical decisions of the war, for by the time the Panzers began their advance again on 26 May the BEF had managed to withdraw relatively unhindered towards the coast. The vital breathing space also allowed the Royal Navy to begin planning the evacuation.

Lance Sergeant Albert Reypert, 30 and from Portsmouth, was killed on 23 May 1940. He was serving with 9 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 9 Field Regiment were part of the 5th Infantry Division, a unit that was part of BEF GHQ reserve.

Corporal Alexander Boag, 29 and from Southsea, was killed on 26 May 1940. He was serving with the 4/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, a Cavalry unit. He is buried at Essars in France. 4/7 Dragoon Guards were the armoured reconnaisance unit in the 2nd Infantry Division. Essars is a communal cemetery, just south of Bethune. Boag was killed during a fierce battle where the resumed German advance pinned down the 2nd and 50th Divisions. The 2nd Division in particular suffered heavy losses. But they managed to keep a corridor open through which much of the BEF could reach the coast.

Bombardier Harry Short, 34 and from Eastney, was killed on 26 May 1940. He was serving with 5 Battery, 2 Searchlight Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 2 Searchlight Regiment were part of 5 Searchlight Brigade, which was attached to BEF GHQ.

Gunner Frederick Morgan, 28 and from Stamshaw, was killed on 27 May 1940. He was serving with 5 Battery, 1 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. He also has no known grave, and is remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. 1 Anti-Aircraft Regiment were part of BEF GHQ.

Lance Corporal Henry Bonner was killed on 27 May 1940. He was 28 and from Portsmouth. He was serving with 7 Field Company of the Royal Engineers. He is buried in Comines, Belgium. 7th Field Company were part of the 4th Infantry Division. Comines is 12 Kilometres south of Ypres. On 27 May General Brooke was conducting a holding operation near Ypres, which became known as the battle of Wytschaete.

Two things become immediately clear from what we know about the men from Portsmouth who were killed in the early stages of the Battle of Dunkirk. Looking at their ages, most of them were obviously pre-war regular soldiers. In addition, that some of them were serving with Anti-Aircraft units or Searchlight units, who might expect to be some way back from the front line, suggests that the fighting was extremely muddled, and/or that the Luftwaffe was attacking the Dunkirk pocket with ease during this period.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War Two