Following my June 7 presentation at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle—on the occasion of the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Dinner—I met with and spoke to many in the audience while signing books. Often these people had their own important connections to World War II, and equally fascinating stories to tell. I only wish I could remember, and relate, them all.
Nothing, however, prepared me for the meeting with Shlomo Goldberg and his wife Karen Treiger. Shlomo, who was one of the first in line, revealed to me that his father, Sam Goldberg, had been one of the handful of prisoners ever to have escaped from Treblinka, and even more miraculously, survived to tell the story. Treblinka (which, as I have written about here, was initially run by a psychiatrist, Irmfried Eberl), was a Vernichtungslager. Unlike Dachau, or Buchenwald, or Sachsenhausen, it was an extermination camp, whose sole purpose, like the other so-called Operation Reinhard camps (Belzec and Sobibór) was to kill as many Jews as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible.
Located in northeast Poland, Treblinka began operating on July 23, 1942, and during its approximately 15-month existence, killed somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews. That’s more than any other camp save Auschwitz.
It was constructed using Jewish slave labor, some of whom continued to make up the 300-person squad that kept the camp operating. Sam Goldberg was captured in June 1942, forced to join in the construction of the camp, and was kept on as a member of the Sonderkommando, the operators of the death machinery.
In early 1943 an underground resistance group formed with the goal of seizing control of the camp, destroying it and escaping to freedom. After months of careful planning, the prisoners captured some weapons, set fire to several buildings, and attacked the guards. Many prisoners were killed in the ensuing battle, but approximately 300 men made good on their escape, of which only approximately 72 avoided death in the massive manhunt that subsequently followed.
Sam Goldberg was one of those lucky few. In fact, according to Karen Treiger, he, along with one other prisoner, may have been the only two survivors who were involved in both the original construction and subsequent running of the camp to have successfully escaped.
Sam squeezed through the barbed wire fence, dived into the Bug River, and then kept running until he reached the nearby forest. There he stumbled upon Esther Wzsnia, a Jewish refugee who was already hiding in the forest, aided by a nearby Polish family headed by Aleksander and Helene Stys. Sam elected to stay with Esther and a third refugee, Chaim Kwiatak. Together they dug a pit in the forest, and, with the assistance of the Stys family, remained in hiding for another year, until the area was liberated by Soviet troops in August 1944.
Karen Treiger has just written the story of Sam and Esther (they both survived the war, eventually married each other, and emigrated to America), in her forthcoming book, My Soul is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story.*
Karen was not only the moving force in bringing the Goldberg story to print, she and Shlomo traveled to Poland, revisited Treblinka and the nearby pit, and met the descendants of the Stys family. Thereafter, she was instrumental in obtaining the honored designation of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem for Aleksander and Helene (described as Esther’s and Sam’s angel) as well as their children Antoni, Leokadia and Janina. Mazel tov Karen!
I am very much looking forward to reading Karen’s fascinating tale of a rare escape, a fortuitous forest meeting, survival against incredible odds, and a happy ending in America.
By the way, the date of the Treblinka uprising: August 2, 1943, or exactly seventy-five years ago today.
[*Karen’s book will be available for pre-order from Amazon on September 1, and release on October 1. Karen has also written several blogs about Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day on her website: https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2018/07/17/odd-nansen-a-war-time-diary/, as well as a very positive review on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2GJNQI1OZGNM3/ref=cm_cr_othr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0826521002. Thank you so much Karen.]