Seated on a bench surrounded by poster-sized black-and-white images of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” in action, Eddie Weinstein stares off at a picture of a Jewish rebellion at one of Poland’s most hellacious death camps, Treblinka, as he recalls his miraculous escape from there nearly 70 years ago.
“You never forget the smell—the burning smell,” says the 87-year-old Little Neck resident, the last survivor of the camp living in the United States, referring to the stench of burning flesh that constantly hung in the air. Out of the 40 who escaped the camp—which claimed an estimated 870,000 lives—just three worldwide still live to talk about it. “If you didn’t escape from those camps, you was dead.”
Weinstein recalls all of this while in the Center’s third gallery, which maps out the location of various camps, shows pictures of prisoners unwittingly being led to their deaths and offers statistics on the victims. The room reveals the depth of the massacres while putting faces to but a fraction of the vast number of casualties. This is the part of the tour that turns stomachs. Weinstein remembers it all vividly.
Having twice escaped abusive German soldiers prior to arriving at the death camp, Weinstein knew he had what it takes to make a getaway. But like most Jews confined to ghettos, labor camps or concentration camps by 1942, Weinstein had no idea that the Nazis had established surreptitious human slaughterhouses.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” says Weinstein of the day the Nazis ordered everyone to leave his hometown-turned-ghetto, Losice. Several thousand Jews were forced into a death march to a train station while German guards shot anyone who fell behind. It would be the last time Weinstein saw his mother alive.
Many died of suffocation or dehydration on the overcrowded train, many others were fatally shot for trying to flee or drink whatever water they came across. When the train arrived at Treblinka, Weinstein was ordered to help stack bodies. Joining about 200 other prisoners tasked with such dirty work helped him narrowly avoid being executed in the days to follow.
The day after he arrived, Weinstein was shot through the chest while waiting on line for water after having dumped the latest batch of dead bodies. He pulls out photos of his bullet wound—front and back—from his wallet as he proudly boasts his luck in surviving the excruciating pain without ever seeing a doctor.
Weinstein was helped into a hut filled with the clothes of the dead where he lay for days as he tried to recuperate. After applying iodine to his wound and surviving off food found among the belongings where he was holed up, Weinstein eventually snuck out and rejoined the workers. At one point he was selected along with a group as part of a routine culling, but he ducked out of the line and snuck onto another assignment—digging a new mass grave.
Days later, after they had cleaned up the train platform, more trains started arriving. He later learned that many were duped into believing they were destined for a labor camp.
“All of the sick and wounded were shot and thrown into the pit,” says Weinstein of the fiery mass grave hidden at the camp. There was no warning of the impending mass murder, just a red cross nearby aiding the ruse that the death camp guards were bringing the victims to a nonexistent infirmary. “Till the last second, they didn’t know,” he says.
“There were babies sitting near the pit,” Weinstein says, adding that none of them were crying, but they were looking up as if trying to find their parents. “I still see their faces. I’ll never forget until the day I die,” he says, as he begins to tear up after he first shrugged off the emotional drain of talking about the traumatic experiences.
Weinstein was 18 at the time. Perhaps it was teen angst, the overwhelming will to survive or some combination thereof, but once he was ordered to pack the belongings of the dead onto a train leaving the camp, he and a small group of other prisoners hid in one of the cars and made their escape. “The will to live is so strong, you have no idea,” he says.
He details his experiences in his book, 17 Days in Treblinka: Daring to Resist, and Refusing to Die, which he wrote while living in a displaced persons (DP) camp after World War II ended.
“I always escaped. Why? I don’t know. I was a quiet boy,” Weinstein says. After eventually reuniting with his father at a labor camp, the two escaped together and went on the run to warn others about the death camps. “I took a chance,” he says. “You had to take a chance, otherwise I would not be here.”
Nowadays he speaks proudly of his accomplished sons and his grandkids. Having sold a sweater factory he owned in Queens five years ago, Weinstein has taken to reliving this atrocious chapter of history for those who have only read of it in books or seen it in movies.
“I have to tell my story; in a short time there are not going to be any survivors,” Weinstein says, keenly aware that despite his successful teenage efforts to cheat death, he cannot live forever.
Tucked in the post-war gallery at the museum hangs a wedding photo of a young Weinstein with his late wife, Jean Zucker, who were married in a DP camp. Even after Weinstein is gone, his story will live on.