BERLIN, Aug. 1 (JTA) — His eyes have seen what they never should have seen. He has heard what no one ever should hear. Josef “Yossel” Czarny is one of very few Jews to survive the Treblinka death camp in Poland. Czarny recently came here from Israel, part of a delegation marking the anniversary of the July 20, 1944, failed attempt on Hitler’s life. For many Germans, that date symbolizes resistance against Nazism. But for Czarny, who has attended the annual ceremonies several times, it’s not so simple. “If the 20th of July plot had succeeded, if it worked, maybe the regime would have ended and the camps, like Auschwitz, would have been shut down,” said Czarny, who turns 78 this year. “But the 20th of July was not done for the Jews. It was for the Germans, because they saw that Hitler was making Germany kaput.” Annemarie Renger, 86, agrees. She was among those Germans who hated Hitler. “Those who tried at the last minute to prevent the worst — theirs was a great deed,” even if they were not all pro-democratic, Renger told JTA. As a member of the Social Democratic Party, Renger headed the German Parliament from 1972 to 1976, and she’s president of the Central Association of Democratic Resistance Fighters and Organizations of the Persecuted. Renger hosted some 50 members of the association, including Czarny, at official ceremonies marking the somber anniversary. The events included wreath laying at sites in Berlin where the nearly 5,000 July 20 conspirators or sympathizers were executed. The day concluded with the swearing-in of new German soldiers. Czarny, a petite man with expressive eyes, also visited Berlin’s new Holocaust memorial and attended Sabbath services at a local synagogue. Born to a Chasidic family in Warsaw, Czarny was 12 when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. By the time Czarny was deported with his three sisters in the summer of 1942, their parents had died of starvation. Czarny was packed into a boxcar, destination unknown. He recalls being so thirsty that he wiped condensed sweat from the ceiling and licked his fingers. “They took us to Treblinka. We didn’t know what Treblinka was, but we knew it was our last trip,” he said. On arrival, the prisoner orchestra was playing marches and Yiddish songs. Ukrainian and German guards shouted, “Run faster!” Czarny recalls. “We were numb. We didn’t know where we were. But we smelled burning flesh.” The new arrivals were forced to disrobe, and Czarny remembers his shock. “I came from a religious home. I thought, ‘How can this be, that the women are standing naked?’ ” Within hours, virtually all had been asphyxiated in the gas chamber, and their bodies burned. Czarny ended up in the barracks of working prisoners, who protected him. The Germans assigned him to cut up the clothing of the dead, looking for hidden money and jewels. “We put them into suitcases, and they were shipped to Germany,” he says. Against all odds, Czarny survived. Nearly 900,000 people were gassed to death or shot in the period of the camp’s operation, from July 1942 to late summer 1943. Of the prisoners assigned to work, many committed suicide. In the summer of 1943, knowing that the camp would soon be liquidated, prisoners planned a revolt. On Aug. 2, they set fire to the gas chambers and escaped. According to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, of the 750 who fled that day, only 70 lived to see liberation. But Czarny was one of them. “I ran and ran. Ukrainian guards shot at me. I lay as if dead,” he says. He later ripped his way through barbed wire, looking back at the burning camp. “I said to myself, ‘Yossele, you are not in Treblinka anymore.’ ” After wandering without food for several days, Czarny approached a farmer for help. He should be in the Garden of Eden, Czarny says of Szymon Celka. “I told him I was a Jew and had escaped from Treblinka. I am from a religious family, I could not lie,” Czarby says. Celka gave him potatoes in warm milk. “I ate and cried and ate and cried,” Czarny said. Offering help to Jews in Poland was an offense punishable by death. Celka later was recognized as one of the righteous among the nations at Yad Vashem. Less than a year later, the Red Army liberated the area. Czarny, who had been hiding in the forest, returned to Warsaw. Only one other relative, an uncle, had survived. “The ghetto was gone. I was alone,” he says. Czarny spent about a year in a displaced persons camp at Bergen Belsen. There he met a young woman, Frida, who had survived Auschwitz. In 1947, Czarny joined the Jewish Brigade and moved to Palestine. He married Frida; they have three children and 10 grandchildren.
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.