Monday, October 21, 2013

The Last Jew of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman translated from Yiddish by Solon Beinfeld, published in the U.S. in 2009 with a preface by Samuel Moyn

"Rajchman’s searing story, frequently narrated in the present tense, has a powerful authenticity and should not be forgotten." from a review in Kirkus Reviews 10/25/2010
Chil Rajchman’s memoir of his incarceration in Treblinka is an important eye-witness account of the workings of a deadly camp set up not as a clearing house or a labor camp, but strictly as a site for killing all Jews who were transported there. In spare prose that highlights the horror, Rajchman describes in short vignettes the geographical layout, the personnel, and the daily activities that were arranged and monitored so that the camp worked as efficiently as possible.
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That Rajchman survived is astounding because so few did. He was young, in good health when he arrived, and had his wits about him. He knew that he had the best chance to survive for some length of time if he could work, especially in a capacity that didn't involve backbreaking physical labor, so when they needed barbers, he stepped forward and said he was a barber, though he wasn’t. When they needed dentists he stepped forward and said he was a dentist, though he had no such training.

He relied on those more experienced than he to teach him what he needed to know so he could perform these tasks. But what he learned in the camp from others that was most important were general lessons about how to survive. He learned that he needed to do what he could not to anger guards and other officials, he needed to keep his head down and to work quickly,  to not make mistakes or in any other way call attention to himself. He could not let officials know if he got sick, and he needed to avoid getting beaten on his face where a visible wound would prompt someone in charge to shoot him.

Rajchman’s matter-of-fact style conveys the reality of the camp with all its terror where the abnormal was quickly normalized. His job as a barber was to cut off the hair of women who were about to be gassed. He worked as a dentist removing gold from the mouths of gassed corpses on their way to the burial pits.

The end of Rajchman’s memoir describes a revolt he and many of his co-laborers planned and carried out. Many were caught and killed, but luckily he escaped and hid in the nearby woods. He eventually made his way to Warsaw where a Polish friend provided him with Aryan identity documents.

This memoir includes an informative Preface by historian Samuel Moyn who places Treblinka in the context of concentration and extermination camps. He also discusses the importance of the memoir as the recording of an eye-witness account of Treblinka where very few lived to report about it.

This memoir also includes a map of the camp and family photos.

To watch a clip of a documentary that includes interviews with Chil Rajchman click here
To read an interview in 2012 with the two last survivors of Treblinka (Rajchman died in 2004) click here.

Family
Abraham and Java Froim
   Yekhiel (Chil) Rajchman son of Abraham and Java; author
         Jose, Andres, Daniel Rajchman – sons of Chil
Rivka – daughter of Abraham and Java
Monek – son of Abraham and Java
Ratza – daughter of Abraham and Java
Ruska – daughter of Abraham and Java
Isaac – son of Abraham and Java

Friends
Wolf Ber Rojzman
Leybl Goldfarb
Moyshe Ettinger
Zhelo Bloch
Rudolf Masarek
Yankel Wiernik

Places
Ostrow Lubelski
Treblinka, Poland

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