Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling

BOOK: Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling
7.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

For my family and the Sperling family.



Just as the water reflects one’s face,
so does one’s heart reflect other human hearts.
– Proverbs.

Table of Contents

Title Page


The writing of this book was most painful to those closest to it. I am grateful to them for persevering with me in what was a difficult, at times lonely and often emotionally draining endeavour. Family and friends were always there to steady, guide and encourage me. I am in their debt.

The largest part of this debt of gratitude, however, belongs to Hershl Sperling’s sons, Sam and Alan. I feared many times that I was probing too deep and reopening wounds that if not fully healed had at least fleshed over, so they might continue to live in this world. But I did probe and reopen their wounds, and they bled willingly, with honesty and courage. My gratitude to them carries with it the unease of knowing they were hurt by the memories they were asked to recall. On many levels, this book is borne through their suffering.

The contribution of Sam Sperling requires its own acknowledgement. His intelligence, gentle criticism and guidance – from the project’s very conception to its conclusion – helped me immeasurably in making this work as honest a reflection as possible of Hershl Sperling. He was an inspiration at almost every stage of the book. It is to him I owe my greatest debt.

A writer also needs time; and I am indebted to the Scottish Arts Council, without whose financial support and belief in the project I would not have been able to take time out from the daily grind to sit at my desk each day and write. I also want to thank Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn Products, who helped support the project. Leslie Gardner, my agent, stuck it out tenaciously, and I am grateful for her perseverance and belief in the book.

I want to thank Roy Petrie, my travelling companion in Treblinka and Warsaw, for the excellent maps he devised for this book, and also for his encouragement and for sharing the experience with me. I am grateful to Heather Valencia for her translations and Yiddish-language expertise.

I am indebted to my wife, Cath, and to my friend, Chris Pleasance, whose reading of the text in its umpteen stages helped me see my errors, inconsistencies and stupidities. Industrious study of the completed manuscript by Hana Sholaim and Ian McConnell located further errors and inconsistencies that even the most astute and diligent of readers would likely have accepted. The errors that remain in this work are mine alone.

To write this work, many books needed to be consulted. There were numerous sources, chief among them were Martin Gilbert’s
The Holocaust: A History of the
Jews during the Second World War
Jews in Poland
by Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski,
in Treblinka
by Samuel Willenberg,
Trap Within a Green Fence: Survival in Treblinka
by Richard Glazer,
If This is a Man
The Drowned and the Saved
by Primo Levi,
Extermination Camp Treblinka
by Witold Chrostowski,
Into that Darkness
, by Gitta Sereny,
Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps
, by Yitzhak Arad,
The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy
by Christopher R. Browning,
Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust
by Dina Wardi,
Dachau Liberated,
The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army
, edited by Michael W. Perry,
After the
Holocaust: Jewish Survivors in Germany After 1945
by Eva Kolinsky, and last but not least,
by H. Sperling.


When Mark first mentioned that he would like to write a book about my father I felt both happy and scared. Primarily, my fear concerned whether he would be able to remain faithful to my father’s experience and produce a book that my father would have felt he could endorse, were he still here. These fears were allayed when Mark explained that he wanted to base the hub of the story around my father’s testimony and that he would include the testimony in full within the book. My father’s own account, his own words, would be included and I knew that he would be happy with that.

My next fear concerned whether I would be able to read the book. I have spent almost 50 years finding strategies to avoid the past, and the memory I have of my father’s pain does not really subside as the years go by. Did I really want to focus on these? And then there were fears about how my brother would react. He is ten years older than I, and probably even more affected by the Holocaust’s aftermath.

I found it surprisingly easy to read when Mark sent me the manuscript. I read it, I wept, then it was over. When a few days passed, I found myself wondering about the meaning of the book. As far as any experience has meaning, this struck me as a book that warns of man’s condition. It is a story about prejudice and racism in general and a study of the potential beast within all of us, that could so easily consume us if we do not learn lessons from the past. Sadly, it seems these lessons have not been learned yet. Just as I play mind games that enable me to suspend the past and continue in the ‘here and now’, society does the same. I always remember my father having compassion but I rarely, or never, remember him showing such deep empathy openly as he did when he saw the film
The Killing Fields
. You see, it confirmed to him that it was not over. The herd could still be manipulated into acts of unspeakable evil, and if we could not learn from the Holocaust what would it take?

Anti-Semitism, the theme of this story, is only one manifestation of this evil. It is an old traditional form ingrained in many cultures, especially within Europe. It lives on in several forms, including within the right-wing fascist politics of hatred. Sadly, in today’s Europe, it is increasingly thinly veiled as anti-Israeli sentiments within many supposedly left-wing organisations, too. I am not advocating that Europe suspend all criticism of Israel or that Palestinians should not have the right to as good an existence as Israelis, but all too often I am found questioning the double standards and motivations of many of Israel’s overly zealous critics.

In all too many cases it is the supposed ‘intelligentsia’ that are at the forefront of this group. Shamefully, they push a myth that says education defeats racism, as if to say they are immune because they have read a few books. They have missed the point. Anti-Semitism, and racism in general, is about what is in your heart, not your head. It is about being decent or not, it is non-discriminating of intellectual ability.

I hope and trust that readers of this book do not see this as an exclusively Jewish story; it is about all people and their right to a free life without any fear of the irrational mob that we are all capable of joining.



Sam Sperling



On Tuesday morning, 26 September 1989, Hershl Sperling, a survivor of two Nazi death camps and at least five concentration camps, contemplated suicide. He was 62 years old. Strange, at least at first glance, that a man who had survived Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and other hellish places – certainly in part through acts of hope and inner strength – would consider taking his own life. He was, after all, a survivor. He was also a widower, and the father of two adult sons who loved him. He was now in Scotland, far away from his old country and the source of his torment – places that today still conjure up terrifying images of fire and mountains of twisted corpses. Strange also to think that this quiet Polish Jew in the suburb of a faraway Scottish city, this man who had once lived around the corner from me and whose son was my best friend, had witnessed that fire with his own eyes and had dragged into it those twisted corpses. I see him now, sitting at his kitchen table in his house at 63 Castlehill Drive, Glasgow. He winks at me as I enter. I can tell he likes me. ‘Boychik,’ he says, watching me with his pale green eyes that are full of mischief and madness. ‘How are you today?’ There appeared no cause for survivor guilt or shame here. What did he have to feel guilty about? Hershl Sperling had been an innocent victim, not a perpetrator. Yet here he was at the precipice.

That Tuesday morning, there may have been something familiar about the day’s beginning – some strange, lingering echo of that time, 47 years earlier, when his world changed forever. How normal the world was before the Nazis came – children playing, laughing, families working, living, cooking, struggling, loving each other without even knowing it, people simply being. Now thousands of skeletons, all those dead Jews he carried, reached out their bony hands to him– all those children. It is the murder of children that is the stuff of nightmares. In many ways, Hershl Sperling was crazy, and he knew it; but the world was crazier.

Dawn had come dim and dry. This was an Indian summer, at least for Glasgow’s normally dreary climate. Hershl had slept the night inside the old Caledonian Rail Bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow’s city centre. His previous suicide attempts had been foiled by those who cared about him; this was not the first time he had disappeared to wander the streets of Glasgow, seeking out the company of down-and-outs. As he lay prostrate atop one of the iron girders, deep in the dim netherworld of criss-crossing metal supports and hidden platforms, there approached the haunting sound of clicking metal wheels on the track above him, shocking him out of an alcoholic stupor. The sound gathered pace until it shook the entire structure as it passed overhead and disappeared slowly into the silence of the morning. By 6.00am other trains had begun their deafening rattle across the bridge. Hershl dragged his thin body upright and moved like a phantom through the dark recesses of the bridge. He stepped around the unconscious, oblivious bodies of others who had sought a night’s refuge here, and he climbed down on to the bank of the River Clyde.

Hershl had been one of the Treblinka
– a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy plucked from the mouth of death to become a slave of murderers. To Hershl, the entire world could be explained through Treblinka. The experience could never be forgotten and the wounds that had been gouged could never heal. He had witnessed crimes beyond belief, unimaginable in magnitude. He had also been one of the few who had revolted and escaped; he should have been proud of that. His very existence belied the assumption that all the Jews had gone to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. Hershl and other escapees had torched the camp on the way out. He had wanted the factory of death to be obliterated. I remember how courage came easily to Hershl Sperling; but courage was not enough to keep him in this world. His final drama, on the streets of Glasgow, remains a testament to those who survived, but whose suffering did not end with liberation.

He wandered now in a haze of drugs and alcohol along the riverbank and through the city streets. Those who saw him likely mistook him for one of the many drunken homeless in this city. Traffic and crowds began to throng the streets. The odour of exhaust fumes from cars and trucks already permeated the air. Diesel and gasoline engines had been used by the Nazis to pump carbon monoxide into the Treblinka gas chambers. He could not forget that deathly stench.

* * *


That Hershl was alive on that Tuesday morning is in itself extraordinary. All except a minute fraction of those who entered Treblinka, let alone Auschwitz and Dachau, were consumed in its gas chambers and flames. Among the random sampling of human beings who were swept together in the Nazi round-ups and sentenced to death, they took a fifteen-year-old boy whom, it seems, could not be killed. Like all survivors, two prime factors kept Hershl alive – good health when he entered the camps and the improbable confluence of unlikely events. He could also be daring, cunning and fearless.

He was raised in a strictly orthodox Jewish home in an old Polish shtetl and had once believed in the innate justice of God and his fellow man. It has been said that when he was young, Hershl was kind, and that he laughed more than most, but what use was joy in the abject degradation of Treblinka, where beatings, cold, fatigue, humiliation and starvation had to be endured each day? It was Treblinka that stayed with him. He survived in part because of hope, inner strength and resourcefulness, but so many victims were just as strong and resourceful as he and had perished.

Many times I walked his probable routes through the city streets during those final days. I tried to imagine his psychological condition and the dreadful memories he carried. What would I have done in Hershl’s place? Would I have survived? Statistically, the odds were massively against, but in the end it is too trite a question.

When I knew Hershl, he was still a kind man and he smiled often, although I also remember him howling in his sleep during afternoon naps. He spoke little of those terrible years – not because he had chosen to remain silent, but, as I came to understand, because he could not express all the horror he had seen nor the magnitude of the loss he felt. Later, when I asked his sons if they thought Hershl would want me to break his silence, one son replied that I was the only one who could. So now, long after the Glasgow rains and the Polish snows have washed away all the tears Hershl shed, I am writing his life. It is, in part, another warning. Hershl knew better than anyone that warnings must be repeated. In a decade from now, there may be no survivors left, and as the years advance the truth deniers and the glorifiers of the Nazis grow in strength. The number of Treblinka survivors alive today, as I write these words, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

During the afternoon of that September Tuesday, a small article in the
Evening Times
recorded the police search, which had been launched after Hershl’s eldest son, Alan, reported his disappearance. During one of our many phone calls, Alan told me: ‘My father had been absolutely furious in the past when we reported him missing. Police and ambulances had always found him and brought him back. He wanted to kill himself. But, I’m sorry, when a human being is in that state, never mind that he was my father, and he walks out of a house after taking a large handful of pills, gets into a car and drives off, you have to do something.’

The newspaper article noted that Hershl, or Henry as he was called in his adopted country, had been missing since Friday from his home in Newton Mearns, a suburb on the south side of Glasgow. He was described as five feet seven inches tall, with grey, receding hair and wearing a light brown windbreaker jacket and blue jogging trousers. The search, it said, was concentrated around Whitecraigs Golf Club – Jews unwelcome at the time – after Hershl’s car was found in the club parking lot. This place likely served a dual purpose for Hershl: to confuse the search and to confront anti-Semites, even in death. His strategy worked well. Police asked local residents to check their outhouses, sheds and garages for any sign of him. Police and dogs also searched nearby Rouken Glen Park. There are many places in that park where a man could lose himself, or even lie undiscovered for days. But he was not there.

* * *


It was another warm day, exactly 47 years earlier, on 26 September 1942, when Hershl Sperling was packed on to the train that would take him to Treblinka. The Gestapo had discovered Hershl and his family hours earlier, hiding in a bunker in Częstochowa, the Polish city revered by Catholics as the home of the Black Madonna. Hershl spoke of the terrible thirst of the freight car, of the desperate souls crammed in like cattle, and the sweet odour of death that hovered over Treblinka as the train pulled towards its destination. ‘Auschwitz was nothing,’ he used to say. ‘Auschwitz was a holiday camp.’ How terrible was the hell of Treblinka if Auschwitz had been nothing to him?

In the sweltering heat of the boxcar, three days into the journey, the train slowed to a stop just outside the village of Malkinia, seven kilometres from murderous Treblinka. It was a beautiful autumn morning. Hershl pulled himself up amid the crush of bodies and looked through a grate laced with barbed wire. He saw Polish farm workers labouring in the fields beside the train. People called to them from other boxcars. Hershl had recalled: ‘They shout one word at us, “Death”.’

Recruitment into the
of Treblinka was conducted minutes before the doors of the gas chambers slammed shut. Perhaps the most ingeniously vicious crime at Treblinka was the formation of these death camp slave squads. Hershl’s conscription was the unwilling price he paid for survival. These slaves were forced to operate the extermination process. They maintained order among new arrivals, cut women’s hair, extracted gold teeth from the mouths of the dead, sorted the belongings of the murdered, removed the dead from the wagons and gas chambers and dragged them to the pits where their corpses were turned to ash. Yet the gift of life was intended only as a temporary reprieve, because they were also the keepers of the terrible truth. The SS was diligent in ensuring that the mass murder of European Jewry was kept secret. Their Jewish slaves knew everything and so were ultimately destined to share the fate of so many others.

Hershl’s contemplation of suicide 47 years later begs yet another question: had he known then that his torment would outlive Treblinka itself, would he have tried so hard to live? Hershl had spoken of Treblinka’s culture of death. In the barracks, death became a form of resistance. How could he forget the nights and the cries in the darkness of ‘
’ the Yiddish for ‘now’? One man, who could endure no more, climbed on to a wooden crate with a noose around his neck. Another man, in an act of friendship, kicked away the box from under his companion’s feet. Death was everywhere – in the barracks, on the trains, on the ramp, in the camp courtyards, in the gas chambers, and in the fiery pits, the source of Hershl’s nightmares, where the dead were dumped and burned.

Sometimes Hershl laid out old photographs of dead relatives on the kitchen table at his home in Glasgow for his sons to see. He spoke about his mother and father and his younger sister, but he never mentioned their names. Then he would begin to cry and leave the room. Did he feel that he did not deserve to be alive, in spite of what he had come through? There must have been guilt that he was alive in the place of others, and that he was not worthy. In the days before he climbed into the bridge, he had told one of his sons that his suffering now was ‘worse than Treblinka’.

* * *


The police search was also conducted in the Scottish seaside towns of Ayr and Prestwick, where, the newspaper said, ‘Mr. Sperling often visited’. This was true. In Ayr, he would walk along the pier and stare out to sea. The last time Hershl had disappeared, he was found in a hotel room in Ayr, drowsy from whisky and pills. He had also been found and returned by police after previous disappearances in nearby Prestwick. Once, years earlier in Germany, he had vanished for almost three weeks, but had come home of his own volition. Hershl was trying to foil the police as well as the inevitable search by his two sons. He did not want to be found.

The newspaper article’s personal description made no mention of the blue-black number – 154356 – tattooed on Hershl’s upper arm, a mute reminder of his year in Auschwitz. Hershl had been puzzled about the number, which had been imprinted unusually on his inner bicep, instead of the forearm where most Auschwitz prisoners had been tattooed. He always said there was something strange about the tattoo, not so much the number itself, but its position, and that other prisoners who had been similarly marked on the upper arm had also survived the camps. Perhaps the number’s position had something to do with his contact with the infamous Nazi Angel of Death, Dr Josef Mengele, he had conjectured years earlier. Yet how could his survival and the number be connected when Mengele killed so many of his patients? Hershl said he had once looked into the eyes of Dr Mengele. Several times he recalled a prisoner who had returned castrated from a session with the Doctor.

Hershl would have been sixteen then, and in truth we will likely never know what Mengele did to him, or planned for him, if anything. Nor did Hershl really understand why he had lived through the camps. Over the years, he tried to find out about the unusual position of his tattoo, but he was unsuccessful. He had once met other similarly marked Auschwitz survivors in New York in the 1960s, but they had no answers either – they were equally confounded by their survival and the position of their tattoos.

Instead of the outhouses and sheds around Whitecraigs Golf Club, and instead of Ayr, Prestwick, or Rouken Glen Park, Hershl walked from the golf club parking lot, his mind already heavy with Valium and Amitriptyline. It was late afternoon. The traffic on Ayr Road, the main thoroughfare through Newton Mearns and Whitecraigs, was heavy as usual that day, and he walked the half-mile to Whitecraigs train station, where he purchased a ticket and boarded a commuter train to Glasgow’s city centre.

BOOK: Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling
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