Jankiel Wiernik was deported from Warsaw to Treblinka extermination camp on 23 August 1942. On arrival, he was one of the very small number of prisoners selected to work in the camp, disposing of the bodies. He escaped in the Treblinka Uprising of 2 August 1943 and told his story in a pamphlet distributed by the Polish underground in 1944. This was the first detailed account of life in an extermination camp to be published.

I almost went insane on the day when I first saw men, women and children being led into the house of death. I pulled my hair and shed bitter tears of despair. I suffered most when I looked at the children, accompanied by their mothers or walking alone, entirely ignorant of the fact that within a few minutes their lives would be snuffed out under horrible tortures. Their eyes glowed with fear and still more, perhaps, with amazement. It seemed as if the questions: “What is this! What for and why?” were frozen on their lips…

Although our physical suffering surpassed the endurance of normal human beings, our spiritual sufferings were far worse. New transports of victims arrived each day. They were ordered to disrobe immediately and were led to the three old gas chambers, going past us on the way. Many of us saw our children, wives and members of our families among the victims. And, when on the impulse of heartache, one rushed to his kin, he was killed on the spot.

At least 780,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. More than 700,000 of them were killed in just five months in 1942: in other words, more people in a single calendar year than at any other place in any other year in the history of the world. The camp was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943: the photograph shows a memorial created in the 1960s.

Photo: memorial, Treblinka; Holocaust Educational Trust

Testimony: Jankiel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka. An Inmate Who Escaped Tells the Day-To-Day Facts of One Year of His Torturous Experience (American Representation of the General Jewish Workers Union of Poland, 1944)