CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
August 1943, Occupied Poland
Mahks Bohle and Erich Von Laursen walked the grounds of Treblinka. No executions had taken place for a week. Instead, the remaining prisoners were ordered to clear the debris from the remnants of the chaotic revolt that had damaged most of the camp.
Bohle showed Von Laursen the compound where the children of the camp had smuggled munitions and small arms in their sacks. He showed him where the first shots were fired on two mercenary Ukrainian guards. He showed him where hundreds of fleeing Jews had been killed by Germans in the machine gun turrets.
And he showed him the various points on the barb-wire fences that the prisoners had torn their flesh on. And escaped.
“How many?” said Von Laursen.
“Initial reports were 300. I’m afraid it could be as many as 600,” said Bohle. “They scattered in a hundred different directions like cockroaches.”
“Major, am I to tell Reichsführer Himmler that we don’t have an exact number?”
“My apologies, General. They burned our records office, and the officer in charge of registration was murdered during the uprising.”
Von Laursen shook his head. He touched the fence and ripped off a piece of clothing that was still dangling from the revolt. He smelled it and inhaled its stench. He did not gag nor flinch. Instead, he choked it in his fist and then threw it back against the fence.
A week earlier he’d received the telegram /TRANSPORTATION OF JEWS FROM EASTERN PROVINCES SUSPENDED/PROCESSING THROUGH RESETTLMENT CAMPS HALTED/SEEKS YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION/
He knew what it meant—Jews had escaped. Itwaswhat the Reich always dreaded. The Nazis feared information about the camp leaking out to the public. The Allies knew about the slave labor camps. But Treblinka was different. There was no work. It was simply a death camp. Very few had an extended stay. Jews arriving at Treblinka were often gassed the same day. Sometimes moments after being unloaded from the train.
“How many have you rounded up and questioned?”
“We’ve killed around fifty. They would not be taken alive, General.”
“What about them?” Von Laursen asked, pointing toward the prisoners who were knocking down the charred remains of the SS offices.
“Some did not join in the escape. Too weak I suppose. Maybe too scared. Some just put their faces in the mud and didn’t get involved. I’m told they are hoping that their loyalty will be rewarded.”
Von Laursen grunted. He was continually amazed at the Jew’s sense of false hope. “In a month this camp will be closed. They’ve damaged too much to continue. Everyone goes. No witnesses. Shut it all down. Especially that.”
He pointed to the concrete building that had served as the gas chamber. The fences that blocked the horrors from plain sight had been burnt and torn down. Nearly 800,000 had passed through the doors to the windowless concrete barracks. Those who somehow survived the seven minutes of torture would be shot if they were lucky. The rest were left to rot in the sun. Some had been buried alive. The Allies must not be allowed to know of its existence.
Von Laursen observed a guard circling the compound, observing it. Studying it.
“That man over there, Major Bohle. Who is he? Why has he wandered from his post?”
“That is Sgt. Priebenholt, sir. He is not on duty today. Yet he always walks the grounds regardless. He is the man who saved my life,” said Bohle. “And not the first time either.”
Von Laursen stared at the sergeant, who was scanning the chamber. Never stopping. Just looking. Von Laursen had heard the name many times and had even sent orders to him, yet had never met the man.
“Splendid,” Von Laursen finally said. “The status of our guards?”
“The Jews killed forty Germans. Wounded another thirty, sir.”
Von Laursen turned and headed back towards the medical wing. It was pristine and untouched.
“You did a fine job of protecting our research, Major Bohle. I spoke with Dr. Heimzel upon arrival. He informed me that your guards followed your emergency procedures perfectly. You made it clear that protecting that specific compound was of the utmost importance.”
“Thank you, General.”
“Reichsführer Himmler has instructed me to inform you that you are to be commended for quelling the rebellion. I’m sure it will not take long before you recapture the prisoners hiding in the woods with their pistols and stones.”
“Again, thank you, General. And no, it will not take long. I have already commissioned local men to assist in their recapture.”
“Excellent,” said Von Laursen, staring back at the figure inspecting the gas chamber. “Arrange for the sergeant to meet me in the medical wing after dinner. I wish to meet him.”
“Yes, sir. Heil Hitler!”
Sgt. Victor Priebenholt stood at attention in the makeshift office created for the general. Unaware why he had been summoned, he assumed he would take the blame for the escape as one of the middle ranking guards of the camp. Stagl and Bohle were experienced veterans with connections. Victor had no political ties, and therefore, no allies.
Someone would have to pay for the camp’s failure. Someone always did.
He thought he would be more worried. Instead, all he could concentrate on was the gas chamber. He thought about the two steel doors that couldn’t be pried open by the strength of a hundred men. The water lines that were not really water lines, but exhaust fumes that choked and suffocated men, women and children. Infants as young as two or three would just be thrown in. The women would make their best efforts to catch them and squeeze them tight. Typically they weren’t their mothers. It didn’t matter to them anymore. The women wanted someone to hold. To feel loved for just one last moment. Others who suspected what was to come just wanted to embrace someone at their end.
The exhaust fumes were not as potent as the poison gases used at the other camps. Sometimes the Jews would still be alive. That’s when Victor would have to order his men to shoot those gasping for oxygen.
He hated the building. And yet his revulsion drew him to it. He was appalled yet amazed. He wondered what type of scientific mind, with all the possibilities of creation that exist, could come up with the idea for a gas chamber? An unadulterated mechanism of death.
“Sgt. Priebenholt, would you tell me your interpretation of the events that occurred on Aug. 2?”
Victor repeated everything he had already written in his report five days ago. The revolt was a chaotic free-for-all. Clearly, there was organization and ringleaders. It had started with the small children, who polished the shoes of the SS men in a small hut. In that hut was an armory. For weeks, the children had been stealing grenades and ammunition. Victor deduced that at some point they must have stolen or copied a key to the building, and the Jews entered it an hour before the revolt. The stolen small arms were then smuggled around the camp in buckets and potato sacks, and then hidden in dirt piles or the workshops.
“Did the attacks commence simultaneously?”
“Initially. The prisoners began luring SS men into the workshops and the motor factory. There, the prisoners attacked and killed them.”
“Were you aware of these actions?”
“No, sir. No one was. It took Ukrainian guards finding two Jews in an unauthorized building to bring it to light. The guards were disciplining the trespassers when a man fired his pistol, killing the guards. That’s when the prisoners started setting fire to buildings and throwing grenades. Then they rushed the fences.”
“Where were you throughout all this?”
“By chance I happened to be walking the grounds near Major Bohle’s office. I heard gunfire and ran to the front of the building. There I witnessed two men throw firebombs—bottles of alcohol set on fire—through his window. I shot both of them, killing one and wounding another. Then I rushed inside and dragged Major Bohle out.”
“What were Major Bohle’s orders?”
“He informed me to search the rest of the office for survivors, then head to the medical wing.”
“Your report stated you saved another two lives in Major Bohle’s building, is that correct?”
“And what did you find at the medical lab?”
“It was well-protected, as Major Bohle had ordered it to be guarded 24 hours a day. Several prisoners who tried to enter it were dead. Only one doctor of ours was killed. He ignored the order to stay inside the compound and was beaten to death with a shovel by a prisoner.”
“And how was the revolt suppressed?”
“Thousands tried to flee, but Major Bohle, while wounded, took control of one of the machine-gun turrets that was left abandoned by a Ukrainian guard and began to fire at the mob. This slowed down the escape and allowed other guards to do the same. There were some skirmishes outside the compoundI’m told, but I have no knowledge of their exact location or outcome, sir.”
Von Laursen said nothing. Victor sensed that he was awaiting further response. Instead he gazed at the wall in front of him, over the general’s head.
“Bohle tells me you’re a real cold heart, Priebenholt,” Von Laursen finally said, dropping formalities.
Victor fumbled for words.
“At ease, Sergeant. He speaks very highly of you. He told me you saved his life twice. He says you are a fine solider, brave in battle and afraid of nothing.”
“The highest of compliments, sir.” He looked at the general but didn’t break posture.
“He also told me you are colder than most. That your own men are scared of you. And that you killed some of your own men. We all have heard the stories about feared Sgt. Priebenholt, the cold-hearted Nazi whowould kill his own men if they did not follow the orders of the Reich.”
Thoughts of that day raced in his mind. Not of the soldiers that he killed, but of that young girl running through the field. He dreamt about her often. He even gave her a name: Delilah.
Victor snapped out of it. “They endangered the camp, sir. They were undisciplined,” he said. “I admit my actions were excessive and I accept any punishment you see fit.”
Von Laursen stood up. “At ease. I agree with your methods that day. Undisciplined soldiers must be made examples of. I assume you never had a problem with the rest of the guards, did you?”
“And you never will again, I wager.” Von Laursen opened up his desk drawer and pulled out tobacco. “I was told you enjoy a pipe. Will you smoke with me?”
Victor nodded and the two sat down and puffed away at the fine taste of
“Victor, I understand you don’t enjoy this type of duty.”
“Duty is duty. I understand that, General. But if you’re asking if I prefer life on the battlefield, then my answer is yes.”
“That’s where soldiers belong,” said Von Laursen. “I need a man like you. Fearless. Willing to perform his duty. Eager to get back on the battlefield.”
Victor puffed. He was waiting for an opportunity out of this hell hole. This could be his chance.
“Since Heydrich’s death, SS generals in the battlefield have been encouraged to have a personal bodyguard. I find it tough to trust a man I just met, but Major Bohle has endorsed you.”
“Are you headed back to the battle, General?”
“Hopefully. These camps have a limited lifespan, especially after incidents like this. There’s no need for you to be reassigned to another camp. I want you with me as my head of personal security. I’m taking the medical team with me, and you will also be in charge of those men’s lives. To make sure nothing disrupts their research.”
“An honor, sir.”
“Who would dare plot a coup against Sgt. Priebenholt, the most feared Nazi officer in the SS? The man who would kill dozens off his own men if they did not obey?”
“General, dozens is far from true.”
“No matter. Sometimes the story is better than the truth,” said Von Laursen. And with you behind me, I shall only have to worry about my enemies from the front.”
“I assure you, I’ll be back on the battlefield soon. They need me there. The war is changing. You will be by my side.”
Victor was relieved to be leaving Treblinka behind. No more railroad car unloading. No more burning pyres of bodies that would blaze for hours and stink for days. No more seeing Delilah every time his gaze wandered to the fields. She was the reason why he wept. She was the reason those soldiers mocked him. She was the reason why he murdered them.
Hopefully, she would stay behind at Treblinka.
The next morning he took one more walk around the complex, not saying a goodbye to anyone except Major Bohle. He thanked him for the recommendation, while Major Bohle thanked Victor for saving his life.
Victor wanted to examine the concrete building one more time, and strolled around it in a morbid curiosity, wondering how in the hell someone could think of building a gas chamber.
He touched the metal doors and expected them to be cold and chilling. Instead, they felt warm and angry.