(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On September 11, 1942, Meir Berliner, an inmate of the Treblinka Extermination Camp, stabbed Unterscharführer Max Bialas to death with a penknife during evening roll-call. The Nizkor Project summarizes:
At the evening roll-call of the prisoners, Max Bialas instructed those who had arrived that same day to line up on the side. It was not clear who was to be liquidated — the new arrivals or those who had arrived earlier. At that moment Berliner jumped out from the ranks of the prisoners, lurched toward Bialas and stabbed him with a knife. A great commotion followed. The Ukranian guards opened fire. Berliner was killed on the spot. and in the course of the shooting more than ten other prisoners were killed and others were wounded. When the tumult subsided the prisoners were lined up again for roll-call. Christian Wirth, who was in Treblinka at the time, arrived on the scene accompanied by Kurt Franz, the second in command of the camp. Ten men were removed from the ranks and shot on the spot in full view of all the others. On the following day, during the morning roll-call, another 150 men were taken out, brought to the Lazarett [the so-called “hospital” which was in fact an execution site] and shot there.
Little is known about Berliner.
According to the testimony of fellow-inmate Abraham Krzepicki, he was a middle-aged Jewish citizen of Argentina who had lived in that country for many years.
He and his wife and young daughter traveled to Poland on vacation in the summer of 1939. They could have picked a better time: when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939, the Berliners were unable to return home. Their Argentine passports should have protected them, but they ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto and were transported to Treblinka. Berliner’s wife and child were gassed immediately, but he was spared to work.
This reprieve would be expected to last days, or a few weeks at the most before he too would go to the gas chamber. Berliner became consumed with rage and the thirst for revenge, supposedly saying, “When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.”
And so he took the first opportunity he could to kill one of his tormentors. As Yitzhak Arad said in his book Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps*: “His was an individual act of heroism and despair.”
As he must have known he would, Berliner died a horrible death — according to Krzepicki, he was beaten to death with a shovel.
Ironically, following Bialas’s murder, conditions for prisoners at Treblinka actually improved.
This was strictly for pragmatic reasons, as Arad noted: “The Jews selected for temporary work were a danger to the Germans, and the Berliner incident had proved it … When people knew they had nothing to lose, an act of despair like that of Meir Berliner could happen again and again.”
Rather than constantly killing and replacing their workers, the Nazis in charge of the camp decided to create a permanent staff of prisoner-workers and treat them with relative humanity. In this way, they hoped to prevent further acts of suicidal violence on the part of the Jews.
The existence of a permanent cadre of workers made it possible to plan and organize a revolt and mass escape from the camp. In August 1943, after months of conspiring and gathering the necessary weapons, the inmates killed most of the guards and made a run for it. About 300 or so actually made it outside of camp; of those, approximately 60 would survive the war.