Sunday, 17 April 2011

Book Review: Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling by Mark S. Smith

Treblinka Survivor coverTreblinka was a Nazi extermination camp situated near the village of Treblinka in Poland.  Extermination or death camps were different to concentration camps in that they were never designed for the incarceration of prisoners but simply to expedite the efficient extermination of thousands of people at a time.  At a conservative estimate, over 850,000 people entered Treblinka Death Camp between July 1942 and October 1943 and less than seventy came out alive.

Hershl Sperling was one of the inmates who escaped during the Treblinka Uprising on Monday 2 August 1943.  Prisoners attacked the SS headquarters, destroyed petrol tankers, and set buildings alight.  They entered into the extermination portion of the camp, killing informants and attacking watchtowers before finally escaping through the perimeter fence and across the anti-tank defences.  Many of the survivors lost their lives within the camp, while crossing the anti-tank defences, or during the relentless pursuit through the surrounding woods and in fact, most of the escapees were caught and murdered within that first 24 hours.

Treblinka Concentration Camp Sign

Of the escapees that survived the woods and reached the surrounding houses, many were betrayed and handed over to the SS by local residents.  Yet a local family helped sixteen-year-old Hershl Sperling and two others by feeding them and helping them to escape to the south-west, towards Warsaw.  He made it to Warsaw but Sperling was eventually recaptured on a train and sent to Auschwitz via Radom, then on to Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Kaufering and Dachau where he was liberated. 

By the time he was eighteen-years-old, Hershl Sperling had survived two Nazi death camps, five concentrations camps, the escape from Treblinka, a death march, starvation, malnutrition and slave labour.  What would cause a man who had survived the greatest horrors of the twentieth century to jump off a bridge in Scotland 44 years later?

Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling by Mark S. Smith is an attempt to understand what Hershl went through and the events that eventually lead up to his death.  Much of the book is based on Hershl’s own testimony (Treblinka by Hershl Sperling) which appeared in a journal published shortly after the war entitled From The Last Extermination: Journal for the History of the Jewish People During the Nazi Regime.  As an eyewitness testimony, this work is extremely valuable and is translated and published in full at the end of the book. 


Author Mark S. Smith was a childhood friend of Hershl’s son, Sam Sperling and the book follows four main storylines: Hershl’s life before and during the Holocaust, as related by him to his sons and through his written testimony; Hershl’s life and struggles after the Holocaust, as recalled by the author, his sons and others who knew him; the struggles and experiences of his sons Alan and Sam as they grew up in the house of Holocaust survivors; and finally, the experiences of the author as he travelled to Poland and America to research the book, with visits to the sites of Treblinka and Auschwitz.  

KZ Treblinka, Lageplan

Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling is an extremely well-written book.  It is an authentic historical account and not dry as one might imagine, but highly readable. Having said that, there were parts that I had to force my way through as the sense of horror builds and I realised that yet another mind-blowing revelation awaited me.

The book is especially powerful as the original testimony is interspersed with a huge body of research and the author's commentary.  It is also corroborated by the testimony of other camp survivors as well as the meticulous records kept by the Nazis. 

The accounts of life and death in Treblinka were shocking and may upset sensitive readers.  This is simply the most disturbing book I've ever read.  The accounts and descriptions were vivid and well-written and I found it hard to rid my mind of the images the book evoked.

Photo of Treblinka site from 1945, mass graves were disturbed, and bones and personal effects are visible

The sheer scale of the murder at Treblinka was astounding. Ten to fifteen thousand people were systematically murdered each day between July 1942 and October 1943.  This was no concentration camp, no internment or work camp: this was a death camp.  Hershl notes in his testimony that up to 24,000 were killed on one particularly ‘efficient’ day.

It is not surprising that I experienced nightmares and sleeplessness while reading this book and felt quite unable to think of anything else.

Treblinka - Rail tracks

This is a devastating and horrific book but an important one and one that I am glad to have read.  The account of how lost Hershl felt after the Holocaust and especially after the death of his wife, of his depression and struggles with alcoholism, seemed to highlight the depths of despair to which he sank.  Anyone who has ever suffered from acute depression might understand how Hershl could ever utter, "this is worse than Treblinka".

Caught in that twilight between death and dying for so long that his reactions were forevermore a manifestation of denial, bargaining, numbness and grief, it seems that Hershl Sperling never entirely escaped Treblinka.  The author explains that he was in a perpetual state of fight or flight, in the motion of the survival instinct.  Perhaps his suicide was one last stand to live or die at his own hands and not at the hands of the Nazis or the ghosts that haunted him.

Treblinka Memorial - each stone represented a community destroyed at Treblinka

Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling is a devastating book and it is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is, however, an important and authentic historical account of one of the great horrors of the Holocaust and I would certainly recommend it to anyone with a desire to know and understand what happened during that time.

I appreciated the author’s mentions of the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica as well as the on-going situation in Darfur.  It reminds us that genocide, mass murder and hatred did not end in 1945 but carried on with a destructive force right up to the present day.  It is important to know what happened during the Holocaust and even more so now as the last of the survivors begin to pass on. 

I cannot fault Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling and would wholeheartedly recommend this book in spite of the gruesome subject matter and the necessarily graphic descriptions that must accompany it.

I give Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling five out of five stars.

Purchase Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling at ¦

Photo credits:

  1. Treblinka Concentration Camp sign at Yad Vashem (David Shankbone) (GNU Free Documentation License)
  2. Map of the Holocaust in Poland during World War II, 1939-1945 (Dennis Nilsson) (Creative Commons)
  3. KZ Treblinka, Lageplan (Commons:Bundesarchiv) (Creative Commons)
  4. Treblinka 1945 (Public Domain) (Wikimedia)
  5. The symbolic "remains" of the railroad in Treblinka (Little Savage) (Wikimedia Commons)
  6. Treblinka's Memorial in Winter (Little Savage) (Wikimedia Commons)

Article first published as Book Review: Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling by Mark S. Smith on Blogcritics.



  1. There is no easy way to write of the events at Treblinka, I'm sure. Perhaps there shouldn't be. It was an ugly reality and too many minds have already forgotten the horrors suffered. Too many hearts still harbor hatred of groups whom they know nothing about. Thank you for this review, Emm. You always give us the truth, as difficult as that may be.

  2. @ Cher: I agree - it was not an easy book to read or review but I would absolutely recommend it.

  3. it does sound like a really sad disturbing story but one that keeps you gripped and want to keep reading and not put down im sure.

  4. Welcome to my blog Emm! I'm glad you like it. And thank you so much for the kind words.

    I love deserts too! There's plenty more I'd love to visit... money is the big issue of course...

    Love your blog, too - coming from an English/Jewish-German background, I'm very interested in history and politics, so I'll definitely spend some time reading your posts!

  5. I'm surprised to find myself suddenly after all this time making intuitive sense of the structure of the extermination camp system simply from that map. Thanks.

  6. @ Tina: Yes, it is an important book. Not easy to read but I’m glad I did.

    @ Dominic: Good to meet you too! That is an interesting background!

    @ Owen: The maps and diagrams in the book certainly helped because otherwise your brain doesn’t want to take in the sheer horror of it all.

  7. Wow, it is hard to imagine this kind of life, that coming from having survived a childhood of rape and sodomy myself and a mother whom almost killed me a few times... There is a possibility to take value from great pain, but it takes a lot of work and an ability to know our karma and work on it... My heart comes out to all that have been abused, and killed, and or both.... I feel your suffering...


  8. I read the book too and found it fascinating. It reminded me of the book "1984" and the part in the Ministry of Love where the character O'Brien tells Winston, "Things will happen to you here that you will never, ever, ever get over, no matter how long you live." Even with our modern psychiatry and drugs and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder I doubt there was anything we could have done for Hershl. I think Hershl died at Treblinka, and it just took him another fifty years to realize it.

    1. Hi Charley Ross - thank you for your visit and your comment. I think you might be right, perhaps some part of him died in Treblinka and never recovered. So many people overcome the most terrible atrocities and crimes but to me, Hershl's reaction seems the most human of all.

      Have you read my interview with the author Mark S Smith?


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