Escaping Certain Death: How the Jews of Treblinka Rose Up and Fought Back

During its year of operation, Treblinka extermination camp was one of the most deadly places on earth. Dr. Julian Chorążycki led a band of unsung heroes who helped put an end to these horrors, and gave his life for the uprising that brought Treblinka to its knees. In this article we commemorate the brave young doctor and the courage he showed in the face of the greatest possible adversity

Mia Amran
Dr. Julian Chorążycki (right) and the Treblinka Memorial (photo: Adrian Grycuk)

In 1943, the fearsome Nazi Gestapo secret police published a series of adverts offering a “tempting reward” for anyone who could provide information on the escaped Jews of Treblinka extermination camp. Who were these fugitives and how were they able to leave Treblinka alive at a time when the only Jews who managed to exit the camp ended up in a mass grave?

This news item appeared in the December 31, 1943 issue of The Sydney Jewish News

The facility at Treblinka was opened by the Nazi regime in July 1942, becoming the third camp to be dedicated to the expressed purpose of annihilating the Jewish population and committing mass genocide. The vast majority of the Jews whose unfortunate fate led them to Treblinka would be robbed of their possessions and then taken straight into the gas chambers to live out their final moments. However, a few young and relatively healthy Jews were kept alive for a short while to do the guards’ dirty work. It was there that many of them would meet the notorious “Ivan the Terrible” – a bloodthirsty camp guard who would routinely torture Jews for fun before killing them (Ivan’s true identity has never been fully resolved. John Demjanjuk was suspected as a possibility and even convicted by an Israeli court before the verdict was later overturned).

Those Jews who were spared the gas chambers had to endure days filled by removing the lifeless bodies, hauling them off to be burned or buried, and searching the dead for any valuable items which would be dutifully looted by the camp guards. In the midst of all this, a small but mighty group of workers found a few stolen moments to hatch a plan of escape.

Dr. Julian Chorążycki – a photo portrait, part of a questionnaire submitted by Chorążycki to Nazi occupation authorities. The original survives in the Central Medical Library of Warsaw (via Wikipedia, enhanced with MyHeritage software)

Amongst this group was a Russian Jew, Dr. Julian Chorążycki. Born on August 19, 1885, he had been a revolutionary from a young age. He spent his pre-war life fighting for Jewish rights and the recognition and representation of people with disabilities. He also served in both the Russian and Polish armies during World War I, before finally settling down in Poland. Dr. Chorążycki lived by a strict policy of helping all those who came to him for medical aid, including those who could not afford to pay him for his services. When the Warsaw Ghetto was formed, Dr. Chorążycki decided that he would become the ghetto doctor and help keep the new ghetto residents as healthy as he could. In 1942, as Jews were being driven to their deaths by the thousands, he was packed into a cohort of Jews headed to Treblinka extermination camp. It was there that he spearheaded a plan to escape, and bring down Treblinka with him.

Shimon Peres, then Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption, addressing an audience during a ceremony in memory of the victims of Treblinka, 1970,  the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Dr. Chorążycki formed a group of brave comrades and laid out the plans. The first step in the battle to escape involved stealing a key to the weapons storage used by the Treblinka guards. It took many attempts to break in undetected but when they did, the stores waiting for them were invaluable: rifles, grenades, knives and axes. As the rebels spent time collecting the goods, Dr. Chorążycki was caught with a wealth of resources and immediately taken into interrogation. Faced with the prospect of turning in his fellow Jews, Julian Chorążycki made the decision to end his own life and avoid releasing the details of the uprising and those involved in it.

Rachel Auerbach, in her book “In the Fields of Treblinka” says Dr. Julian Chorążycki was one of “the faces and personalities that distinguished themselves in a large anonymous crowd and gained eternal glory in the last hours of their lives as great Jews.”

Oyf di felder fun Treblinke (“In the Fields of Treblinka”), an audiobook by Rachel Auerbach, originally recorded by the Jewish Public Library, Montreal

Despite not making it out alive, Dr. Julian Chorążycki’s legacy lived on and the other Jewish prisoners continued to prepare for the uprising. In the middle of the afternoon on a stiflingly hot summer’s day, the guards went down to a nearby river to enjoy a swim and cool down. The Jews saw their opportunity and seized the moment. Around a thousand prisoners rose up, igniting explosives, burning buildings to the ground, and fighting their way into the surrounding fields and freedom beyond. “The fight lasted three hours and in the end, all of us who survived tried to escape” said Holocaust survivor Chaim Sztajer.

This news item appeared in the August 1, 1980 issue of the Australian Jewish News (Melbourne)


Chaim Sztajer, a survivor of Treblinka, pictured with a scale model he created of the camp. This image appeared in the March 6, 1987 issue of The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), colorization by MyHeritage

Of the roughly 300 prisoners who managed to escape during the uprising, between 20-90 Jews are estimated to have survived the Holocaust. Their rebellion was not in vain. Shortly after the uprising, the camp was liquidated and by August 19, 1943, those who operated the well-oiled, efficient killing machine known as Treblinka had murdered their final Jew. Over 800,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka during its period of operation, a mere fifteen months. This is the story of the rebellion that put an end to its atrocities.


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