The Last Jew of Treblinka quickly became an essential piece of Holocaust historiography, as it is the raw and heartbreaking memoir of one of the few survivors of Nazi Germany death camp, Treblinka. Rajchman sadly asks the question that so many survivors seemed to ponder, why did some live while so many others perished? As his story accounts for the lives of the many children, old men, and beautiful women who perished in Treblinka he wonders why he was left to live through the hell he experienced. His answer is simply that he is left to tell the story that so many were unable to tell. Rajchman provides the only survivors’ record of Treblinka. As provided in the memoir’s description, originally written in Yiddish in 1945, without hope or agenda other than to bear witness, Rajchman's memoir shows that sometimes the bravest and most painful act of all is to remember.
Chil Rajchman was born in Lodz, Poland, where he was an active member of the Jewish community. He documents the hopeless trip to Treblinka in the packed train car with his sister and friend. This trip is one of fear and uncertainty as they finally realize they are headed to a certain death. Rajchman’s sister perished while he somehow is able to avoid the gas chambers - which run night and day, killing hundreds of thousands of victims. During his time in Treblinka he witnessed horrific acts at the hands of the Nazi SS and Ukrainian guards. His story of survival is one of brutality and pain, as he and the other victims are subject to daily beatings and the fear of death. He survived for a year in the notorious Treblinka death camp and was part of the Treblinka workers’ revolt. Though not documented in his memoir, Rajchman was also a key witness in the prosecution of a Treblinka guard known as “Ivan the Terrible” during a war-crime tribunal in Germany. He emigrated to Uruguay, where he passed away in 2004. The Last Jew of Treblinka was posthumously published and continues to remain an integral piece of history.
Rajchman’s brief entries express the urgency of the time spent in a death/concentration camp. It shows that though they had to become hardened to survive, when given the chance to feel their pain they felt nothing but raw emotion. Personally after having conducted my own research and having read many books and accounts of this horrific time in history, I can attest that The Last Jew of Treblinka is one of the most brutal and raw experiences I have come across. I was saddened, enraged, and repulsed by the brutality detailed in this memoir. Though the accounts are brief they are detailed and difficult to imagine as reality. One of the most eye opening sections of the book was the juxtaposition of the portrayal Rajchman provides of the murderous Nazi soldiers next to the pictures of the same men smiling and laughing in their SS uniforms. It is difficult to comprehend that a human, smiling and seemingly happy, could conduct such horrific acts against another innocent human being.
The crimes committed and witnessed in the memoir are horrific and enraging, yet these stories must be told. That, I believe, is one of the reasons accounts like Rajchman’s are so important so that we know that these atrocities were committed and continue to learn about this devastating part of history so we do not repeat it. Though this is not a book for the weak at heart, it is an important piece of history that needs to be shared. Pieces like this are so important and should not be forgotten or overlooked. This isn’t a historical fiction novel that incorporates love, adventure, or other ideas of fiction into factual events, this is a first hand account of a tragedy that cannot and should not be forgotten. This book should pass through everyone’s hands as it is truly an integral piece to not only the Holocaust, but to world history.
Book: The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Memoir
Author: Chil Rajchman
Publisher: Pegasus, May 1, 2012
Paperback: 192 pages
Purchasing information: $13.6