Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory by Chil Rajchman is probably the most powerful, and I would argue one of the most important, pieces of literature that exists. This isn’t just a book – this is a recording and recollection of the cruel murder of 800,000 people.
This book literally hit me like a kick to the stomach – I felt utterly compelled to read it in one sitting, and having read it, I actually felt sick in my stomach the next day. I can honestly say the world seemed tangibly different to me having read this book.
Chil describes a true hell on earth. “Hell” in every sense of the word – the hell of senseless murder, butchery and torture, the hell of inhumanity, the hell of stark desperation and hopelessness.
This hell was the hell of Treblinka, a Nazi death-camp in Eastern Poland. Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware of any distinction between “concentration camps”. Auschwitz for example was a death and labor camp, whereas Treblinka was purely a death-camp. Please do not think I am saying one or other was “worse”, there can be no hierarchy when it comes to this matter of course. I am simply stating that people were brought to Treblinka to be immediately murdered. No “labour”, just immediate death.
800,000 men, women and children were murdered in Treblinka, at the rate of sometimes 20,000 per day. Of the approx. 800,000 brought to the Treblinka death-camp, only 67 people survived. Yes, it is not a typo – 67 people from 800,000 survived. So when Chil calls this “a survivor’s memory”, it is tragically apt.
The German SS, as is detailed gruesomely in the book, made every “effort” to destroy any evidence that this camp ever existed – thankfully they were not successful in that endeavor, and I believe that was part of Chil’s motivation for writing this memoir.
This is a book that cannot be reviewed as per normal – the rules don’t apply to this memoir, when you consider the magnitude and depravity of what it covers. Chil simply describes events as he experienced them in the death-camp, and it has all the more devastating an impact on the reader for this simplicity and matter-of-fact-ness. One of the things that really struck me, was how he does not refer to the camp “guards” that we hear of in most Holocaust accounts. He calls them “murderers” – simple devices like this really effect you.
Chil’s account itself is approx. 120 pages, but the book also contains a genius piece of journalism by the Soviet hero Vassily Grossman. Vassily is susceptible to what can only sound to modern ears like ridiculous Soviet propaganda, but the occasional occurrence of that aside, this piece of journalism is truly stunning and epic. I have never read a piece of journalism or reportage like this, and I challenge you to find such insightfulness and outrage so eloquently expressed as it is here. In fact Vassily puts modern journalism to shame – I’m sure even Robert Fisk would agree!
Whilst reading this book, I had some surreal moments, very similar to when reading Slaughter House Five, when I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that this was reality, that this could actually have happened, and have been perpetrated by human beings on others. Hell on earth is the only way I can think of to describe it – Chil describes it infinitely better of course, which is why you must read this book.
I don’t say this lightly at all, and I am not trying to be overly dramatic – upon reading this memoir, I couldn’t help but feel that humanity itself owes these victims an unpayable debt – maybe we can start to make some reparations by remembering, reflecting upon and acknowledging what happened to these people – which you can accomplish by reading this book.