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.