Jankiel Wiernik, a Jewish camp labourer, vividly recalled the nightmarish conditions of Treblinka, but also individual moments of defiance, recounting the story of a woman who wrenched a rifle from a Ukrainian guard and gunned two down before she died. “She was our nameless heroine”, Wiernik wrote.
In the summer of 1943, a number of Jews with military experience arrived at Treblinka, bolstering the burgeoning underground. Merceli Galewski, a kapo (labour supervisor), formulated the plan to sabotage the camp, escape, and broadcast the horrors they had witnessed. Wiernik, able to move between sites, passed messages between the lower camp and the execution area. He recalled their resolution to fight:
We knew what lay hidden beneath the surface of this soil. We were the only ones left alive to tell the story. Silently, we took our leave of the ashes of our fellow Jews and vowed that, out of their blood, an avenger would arise.
On 2 August, the plan was set in motion. After obtaining an impression of the armoury key, weapons were raided and passed to groups strategically poised to take out the watchtower guards. However, provoked by the arrest of a member, a prisoner opened fire an hour before schedule, sparking the revolt. Prisoners set the fuel depot ablaze with Molotov cocktails, and mayhem ensued. In the smoke and commotion, inmates clambered over the gates and fences, or else cut through them.
Less than a third of the 500 prisoners escaped into the woods after surviving the heavy fire and the minefield, and only 50 were ultimately able to survive after reaching the forests. Several escapees joined partisan units. Samuel Willenberg travelled to Warsaw and fought in the uprising. During his time in the city he made contact with Wiernik, who had written his account of the camp, which was circulated in New York in 1944.