The Painted Bird
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It was Jeanne Moreau, drawing down the corners of her mouth, who spoke of the holiday crowds at Saint-Tropez; each winter-pale body turning gold in the sun and each pair of hands grasping the covers of Treblinka. At first in France, and now in Britain, Germany, and the United States, the signs of a best seller have appeared. Tens of thousands of people who will never read Hilberg or Reitlinger or the West German trial reporting, who have never visited a concentration camp, never seen a documentary film about one, nor met a survivor, will now form their impression of the Final Solution from this. Jean-François Steiner’s documentary novel will from now on become the general reference for “the camps,” as The Diary of Anne Frank and its dramatizations became ten years ago the general reference for the tragedy of the innocent individual under the Thousand-Year Reich. Therefore the first question to be asked about Treblinka is not “is it a good book?” nor even “is it a genuine novel?” though I think it is neither, but: Is it accurate?
Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were the three camps set up in Poland under Aktion Reinhard to serve, not as labor or holding camps, but as extermination factories pure and simple. They were not in operation very long, but in about eighteen months Treblinka’s gas chambers put to death some seven hundred thousand men, women, and children, including the population of the Warsaw Ghetto. They were staffed by a small SS leadership commanding a motley guard unit, mostly Ukrainian. In Treblinka, a group of Jews temporarily diverted from the gas chambers did maintenance and construction work, and sorted the mass of baggage, valuables, human hair, and clothing from the incoming transports. The conditions under which this “Camp I” worked, although appalling, were considered enviable in comparison to those in “Camp II,” where a much smaller group of Jews shifted and cremated the corpses from the gas chambers, which were capable of “processing” between five and six thousand human beings daily. In the summer of 1943, when Treblinka had completed its allotted task, preparations began for the “liquidation” of the camp. Thousands of corpses which had been buried in pits were exhumed and incinerated as part of a methodical routine of obliterating all traces, and it was clear to the surviving prisoners that they would be obliterated too as soon as their labor was no longer required. Against incredible odds, a camp rising was planned and carried out. Several hundred Jews managed to escape into the forests, where most of them fell victim in the following months to German patrols, Polish anti-Semites, and other armed marauders. Some sixty are believed to have survived the war. After the rising, the dismantling of the camp was completed with thoroughness: nothing today remains.
Through M. Steiner, who interviewed many survivors, the world at large will now hear this story of utmost horror and supreme courage. But it must be said that in many …
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