Forgotten death camp survivor′s story unearthed | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.09.2011
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Forgotten death camp survivor's story unearthed

'Treblinka Survivor' is the remarkable story of Hershl Sperling, who lived through six Nazi concentration camps and called Auschwitz 'a walk in the park.' But he took his own life and his story was almost lost forever.

Treblinka concentration camp

"Auschwitz was a walk in the park," claimed Hershl Sperling.

Next to Treblinka, he may have been right.

A lot is known about the Nazi concentration camps, such as Auschwitz or Dachau, but Treblinka is a different story because there were so few survivors - and even fewer wanted to recall the things they had experienced to pass on the story.

Hershl Sperling was a Polish Jew who was sent to the Treblinka death camp at the age of 14. Of the 800,000 people who were sent there, Sperling was one of just 68 who got out alive.

They pulled off one of the most daring escapes of World War II.

Almost 50 years later - in his adopted hometown of Glasgow in Scotland - Sperling took his own life. The suicide left many questions unanswered. His story has been rediscovered and explained in "Treblinka Survivor," a book by the American journalist Mark S. Smith, who knew Hershl and his son, Sam.

Investigating the past

Cover of the book Treblinka Survivor by Mark S. Smith

Sperling survived Treblinka and five other Nazi camps

"Hershl was my neighbor," Smith told Deutsche Welle, "I knew he was a Holocaust survivor but I had no idea what Treblinka meant. He didn't talk about it, I just knew that he had been in this place and he was a survivor and he used to act a bit strange but he was very kind to me."

After Sperling's death, Smith wanted to find out why his neighbor had committed suicide so many years after the horrors he had experienced.

In his book, "Treblinka Survivor," Smith goes on a journey to find out why Sperling committed suicide so many years after the horrors he had experienced. Along the way, Smith discovers a long-lost manuscript written by Sperling shortly after the liberation of Auschwitz. Smith says it holds the key to why Sperling finally decided to end his life.

"He used to say, 'Auschwitz was nothing, Auschwitz was a walk in the park,'" said Smith.

"[It was] a really strange thing to say but I realized it was a bit of a key to what had happened to him because if Auschwitz was nothing, what on earth had he gone through, what on earth had made him what he was? The key was Treblinka, not Auschwitz."

Hershl Sperling first faced the Nazis at the age of 12 when the Wehrmacht marched through Poland. His family were rounded up with the town of Klobuck's large Jewish population and eventually taken to Treblinka, where his parents and young sister went straight to the gas chamber. Sperling was saved because the Nazis thought they could use him.

"Just at the doors of the gas chamber, he was pulled out," said Smith. "He had a few things in common with other survivors. He was young - about 14 years old - was in good health and spoke a lot of languages. He spoke good Polish, good German, Russian, probably Czech and Yiddish, so he was useful to them."

Archive photo of people being transported to Treblinka death camp

Up to 7,000 people were brought to Treblinka every day

Death camp

Treblinka was different from the other camps. "It was not a work camp, it was not a concentration camp, it was not a penal camp, it was a death camp," said Smith. "Franz Stangl, the commander of Treblinka, boasted they could go from train to death in two hours."

Sperling was part of a special task force that pulled the gold from the teeth of the dead. He buried the dead, folded their clothes after their deaths, and exhumed bodies.

"He was the unwilling accomplice to a mass murder. How you get through that after you have survived it, I don't know," said Smith. "These are all keys to his suicide."

But the more Smith researched his book, the more he began to understand that the question was not why Sperling had committed suicide, but why had he survived so long without doing it.

Escape and survival

Sperling survived Treblinka as part of one of the most courageous escapes of World War II. First, he and others set fire to the camp and cut themselves through barbed wire.

"As the machine guns were taking them down, they made a bridge over what they called the Spanish horses - there were rolls of barbed wire, tank defenses and they made bridges of bodies and escaped into the forest," said Smith.

About 400 escaped and 200 made it to the forest, but only 68 of them survived. "And today there are two living Treblinka survivors - and that's it," added Smith.

Lost story

Memorial at Treblinka extermination camp

About 310,000 Jews were sent to Treblinka from Warsaw alone

Sperling never spoke about Treblinka and his experiences there.

But during a telephone conversation in 2005, Sperling's son Sam told his journalist friend that his father had written a book.

"I asked him if he had read it himself," said Smith, "and he said 'No, I wasn't allowed to read it.'"

Smith eventually tracked down the book in Jerusalem. "It was a detailed, raw historic account of the escape, what life was like in Treblinka, and also about his own personal capture," said Smith, calling it the key to Sperling's suicide.

"We act according to our society and if its focus is murder and death," said Smith, "human beings behave in the worst possible ways and there are victims. And in this case the victims were the Jews of Europe."

The message can be applied to countries all over the world - Cambodia, Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others - explained the author.

We all have a killer inside of us, says Smith, and we need to learn from history.

Author: Lillian McDowall / za
Editor: Kate Bowen

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