Last victim of Treblinka: He survived SEVEN Nazi concentration camps… but the nightmare caught up with him 44 years after starting a new life
By Tony Rennell
He was just another down-and out, one of the winos who routinely slept out on the perilous granite piers and iron girders of the railway bridge spanning the Clyde in the centre of Glasgow.
There was a possibility that, befuddled by whisky, he accidentally tumbled into the waters swirling below – that he didn’t intend to die.
But the more likely scenario was that he had deliberately jumped from his grim perch. Either way, when he was hauled out of the river, the grey-haired old man was dead.
At one level, Henry Sperling’s suicide was not surprising, and explicable. His devoted wife had died and he had let himself go. He wouldn’t look after himself, he drank too much and he wouldn’t let anyone help him – not even the two sons who loved him and had reported him missing days before his death.
But there was something deeply puzzling about his death, because Sperling, a Polish Jew, was a survivor by nature who had endured unspeakable horrors.
As a teenager, he had been an inmate of not just one, but seven Nazi concentration camps – including the horrific extermination complexes of Treblinka and Auschwitz, where two million men, women and children were gassed and incinerated.
He lived in hell for years and came alive through the very worst of the Holocaust. Yet, 44 years after his ordeal miraculously ended in liberation and a new life, he could take no more.
He had witnessed the extremes of man’s inhumanity. For all his efforts to leave the past behind, the memories of slaughter would never release their grip.
As 62-year-old Hershl Sperling – his real name – sank beneath the murky waters of the Clyde in September 1989, the death camp of Treblinka claimed its final victim.
His story has now been told in a remarkable and moving new book by Mark Smith, who lived round the corner from Sperling in Glasgow and was a close friend of his sons.
He knew him as a cheery, slightly crazy figure, his eyes full of mischief. The number tattooed on his arm was a visible sign of what he had endured but, though his eyes were often moistened with tears and he sometimes howled in his sleep, he seemed to have dealt with the horrors of his past.
Only after his death, when Smith began to piece together the details of Sperling’s past, did he come to realise that he was haunted and tormented every day of his life – and for very good reason. His story was one of unremitting horror from the day the Germans overran Poland in 1939 and began their systematic elimination of the country’s Jews.
He and his family were among 50,000 Jews confined in the squalid ghetto at a town called Czestochowa until, in September 1942, SS troops drove them en masse to the railway to be herded like cattle into trucks.
They were told they were to be re-settled in the east, but most realised this was a lie. They duly arrived at Treblinka – its pretty station with a clock and fake ticket window a cover for its barbarity.
Within 90 minutes, after being stripped of possessions, clothes and all human dignity, they were prodded naked down what the SS laughingly called Himmelstrasse – ‘the road to heaven’ – to the ‘showers’.
Just before he reached the door of one of the camp’s ten gas chambers, a hand reached out and grabbed 15-year- old Sperling, pulling him roughly to one side while the rest, his own family among them, stumbled onwards to their deaths.
He was one of 30 men out of the thousands in his batch selected to join the Sonderkommando, slave squads of prisoners who kept the wheels of the gruesome machine turning.
‘For the meantime, we are safe,’ he noted in the 20-page testimony he wrote shortly after the war, a crucial, long-lost document which Smith uncovered and used as the basis of his book.
‘Crucial’ because Treblinka, which had opened just two months earlier, so thoroughly fulfilled its purpose as a death camp that very few witnesses survived to tell its awful tale – just 60 or so out of close to a million victims.
Almost all the Sonderkommando perished, too, once they had outlived their usefulness in disposing of corpses or, in Sperling’s case, sorting the vast piles of clothes, watches, gold, hair and all the other incidental detritus of mass-murder.
‘Death is constantly before our eyes,’ he wrote. ‘New transports arrive all the time. On average, 10,000 people per day are murdered. There was one day when the human transport reached 24,000.’
As if this industrial-scale slaughter was not bad enough, those who ran the genocidal camp indulged in unfathomable sadism.
One SS officer delighted in choosing children from the newly arrived transports and splitting their heads with a spade, Sperling recalled. Another liked to beat prisoners to death with a riding crop. The deputy camp commander would unleash his ferocious dog, called Barry, to tear off their testicles.
For 10 months, the young man worked hard, learning quickly not to draw attention to himself.
He never lost the skill of becoming invisible.
‘He was always capable of being inconspicuous,’ his son Sam recalled.
But, with hangings and shootings of the 1,000-strong slave force for the smallest of infractions, or just on a whim, his life always hung by a thread – and always at the price of his conscience as he connived with the oppressor in the killing of his own people.
Sometimes, he envied the dead that their suffering was over – but the desire to live was stronger.
As time went by, he came to realise, as did many of the other Sonderkommando, that they too were doomed.
The number of transports was falling. Treblinka’s murderous job was almost done. But the Germans were not about to leave witnesses behind. The Sonderkommando’s only hope of avoiding the same fate as the victims was to fight back.
In great secrecy and in constant danger of discovery, an uprising and escape were planned.
Prisoners in the workshops sharpened knives and axes. A duplicate key was made for the door of the German weapons store and two boxes of hand grenades and 37 rifles and pistols were spirited away.
The break-out from Treblinka on the afternoon of August 2, 1943, was an astonishing event. There had been small rebellions and attempted escapes before, punished with extreme cruelty, but nothing as organised or on this scale.
That morning, an inmate with a spray for disinfecting the huts filled it with stolen petrol instead. Others made up Molotov cocktails. The small cache of weapons was distributed by handcart, hidden under potatoes or rubbish.
The agreed password was an affirmation of their determination. ‘Death,’ the man handing them out would whisper. ‘Life,’ the recipient would reply as he quickly smuggled a gun or grenade out of sight.
As the hour for the uprising approached, tension was at fever-pitch.
But with the first shot – fired 45 minutes earlier than intended after a known informer was seen blabbing to an SS commander – the 800 inmates poured out of their workshops and, armed with whatever they could lay their hands on, rushed the SS barracks and set them alight.
As they swarmed through the camp, many were cut down by rifle fire from the watchtowers – but the rest fought on with all the courage of men with nothing to lose.
‘The Jews remain firm,’ Sperling wrote proudly in his account.
‘They throw hand grenades and position their machine guns.’
Two of the inmates seized an armoured truck with a machine gun mounted on the back and turned it on the guards.
Before they themselves were killed, they managed to switch their aim to a petrol dump, which exploded in flames. Clouds of black smoke filled the sky. The block of gas chambers went up in flames, too.
There were many acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that day as the leaders of the revolt ran among the prisoners, rallying them to keep fighting in the hope that some at least would get away.
One lay on a roof sniping at the SS with a rifle. With each shot, he was heard calling: ‘This for my wife and my child who never saw the world!’
His pregnant wife had gone to the gas chamber 10 months earlier.
Those who made it to the fence hacked a way out and dashed for the forest. But many got snagged and were mercilessly gunned down as they struggled to free themselves.
The fighting went on for two hours, leaving 400 prisoners dead. But almost as many got away. Sperling was one of them, running furiously with a small group of friends into the cover of the trees.
He ran without stopping for three hours, his hand gripping a small sack of diamonds and gold coins he had accumulated during his work – essential if he was to have any chance of getting to the safety of Switzerland.
Meanwhile, having retaken control of the camp, the SS launched a manhunt. The sound of dogs, gunfire and screams echoed through the forest as 200 escapers were tracked down and butchered. Sperling hid high in a tree until nightfall and then continued his flight.
After five days on the run, he took a chance, bought a train ticket and made it to Warsaw. From there he attempted to travel on, but was arrested two days later.
He was not identified as a Treblinka escaper – which would have cost him his life – but taken first to a penal camp and then, on October 2, to Auschwitz, where, for some unknown reason, the records described him not as Jewish but as a Pole.
It was a distinction that kept him alive.
Years later, he would bewilder family, friends and therapists who treated him by insisting that ‘Auschwitz was nothing, a walk in the park’. It sounded unhinged – except to someone who had experienced Treblinka.
As prisoner 154356 in Auschwitz, he committed an infraction that had him sent to the punishment block at nearby Birkenau.
On his return to Auschwitz, he was assigned to Josef Mengele’s special work detail, known as ‘the zoo’, where the doctor was carrying out gruesome medical experiments on human guinea pigs, including castration.
Friends suffered this fate, but Sperling was lucky – he was inspected by the mad doctor more than once, but not selected. His ‘invisibility’ had saved him.
After a year at Auschwitz, he was transferred to another concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, and then another, Kaufering, as a slave labourer, before being marched to Dachau in April 1945 ahead of the advancing Allied forces.
It was there, malnourished, exhausted and suffering from typhoid, that he was liberated by the Americans shortly after his 18th birthday.
But where to go? He spent time in a camp for dispossessed persons, making a living dealing on the black market. Two years later, he turned up in Glasgow at the home of a distant relation his mother had once told him about.
A new life began, which he shared with his wife, Yaja, another Holocaust survivor, whom he met by chance on a railway platform in Czechoslovakia when the two of them were caught up in the chaos following the end of the war.
A new life it was, but rarely a settled one.
He went from job to job. The family moved to Israel, but that didn’t work out either. He tried a spell in Canada, with the same result.
Sperling was doomed, says author Mark Smith, ‘to taste and smell the evil he had seen for the rest of his life’. Not for him the serenity of the survivor, but a never-ending nightmare.
His behaviour was often bizarre. He would put himself at risk, driving at high speed with no hands on the steering wheel.
He shoplifted. He was volatile and unpredictable, ‘like sitting on top of a volcano’, according to his son Sam.
He had a nervous breakdown and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. But not even that could erase the memories.
‘Even when he was calm, he was disturbed,’ said his other son, Alan.
‘We would be watching television, something entirely unrelated to his experiences, and he would turn and say: “You know, I still can’t believe what happened to me.” ‘
In the Sixties, his sons believe he made a secret pilgrimage to Treblinka to pay his respects and to say sorry to the people he could not save.
But peace of mind still eluded him. Yaja was the only one who could soothe him, and her death from cancer was a terrible blow. He took to his bed with cocktails of whisky and valium.
He had a heart attack. He made numerous suicide attempts and had his stomach pumped five times after overdosing.
He began to disappear inside his own head. He wanted to die.
‘This is worse than Treblinka,’ he whispered one day. Sam Sperling believes that what drained his father of hope – the spark that had kept him going through the camps – was when, in a lucid interval, he saw the film The Killing Fields about the slaughter of millions of Cambodians under Pol Pot’s communist dictatorship.
He was deeply moved by it. From the age of 15 he had seen first hand how truly terrible and murderous the human race could be.
The film showed that nothing had changed. The unspeakable evil that Treblinka stood for was still with us. His final solution lay in the beckoning waters of the Clyde.
Treblinka Survivor: The Life And Death Of Hershl Sperling is published by The History Press at £20. To order a copy at £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
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