Briv funem arkhiv: A Memoir in Four Acts: Moyshe Klaynman and Survival at Treblinka

Chad Gibbs and Matthew Greene


In gevebs briv funem arkhiv (let­ters from the archive) series high­lights archival finds that are too good not to share. You can learn more and sub­mit your own briv here, or see all briv posts here.

The Treblinka II extermination camp was so overwhelmingly lethal that historians long believed only sixty-seven individuals survived to bear witness. Though recent research by staff at the Muzeum Treblinka brings this number to eighty-five, neither the original nor the current list includes the name of Moyshe Klaynman, author of the “Diary of Moyshe Klaynman” held by the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland. 1 1 Permission to publish translation of the pages excerpted here are courtesy of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland. See: Moyshe Klaynman, “Diary of Mosze Klajnman,” n.d., Sign. 302/118, The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute. For this Briv, we have decided to spell Moyshe Klaynman’s name according to YIVO transliteration guidelines, privileging the original Yiddish of the text over the occasional Polonization of his name as Mojsze (or Mosze) Klajnman in other sources or archival metadata. A detailed reading of Klaynman’s original work conclusively proves that all spellings of his surname without the N are in error. For authors that use alternate spellings, see: Michał Wójcik, Treblinka ’43: Bunt w Fabryce Śmierci (Kraków: Znak litera nova, 2018); Barbara Engelking, “‘Odłamane kawałki mego serca’ .O milczeniu w Treblince.,” Magazine,, August 9, 2013,,75968, 14410036,_Odlamane_kawalki_ mego_serca___O_milczeniu_w_Treblince_.html; Edward Kopówka and Paweł Rytel-Andrianik, Dam im imię na wieki: Polacy z okolic Treblinki ratujący Żydów (Oxford-Treblinka: Biblioteka Drohiczyńska, 2011), 83; Yoram Lubling, Twice-Dead: Moshe Y. Lubling: The Ethics of Memory, and the Treblinka Revolt (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 120; Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), op. cit. 14, pp. 420.

In this manuscript, Klaynman recounts his ten-month imprisonment at the camp, his escape during the August 2, 1943 prisoner revolt, and much more. His writing gives voice to prisoners’ lives at Treblinka and how Jewish slave laborers planned their uprising. In 1943, while the war still raged, Klaynman put pen to paper and recorded his experiences in the full freshness of memory. Yankel Wiernik’s 1944 A yor in treblinke is the only other known survivor source written so early, and there are no other known Treblinka survivor memoirs available only in the original Yiddish. 2 2 Jankiel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka: An Inmate Who Escaped Tells the Day-to-Day Facts of One Year of His Torturous Experience, eBook (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014). Archivists at the Jewish Historical Institute confirm that Klaynman has never been published in Yiddish or translated to another language.

In addition to his memoir on Treblinka, Klaynman penned a 77-page narrative of his experiences during the war and a one-page autobiographical abstract. None of this, however, offers insight into what became of Moyshe Klaynman and why he has not previously received greater attention from historians or any notice from postwar prosecutors searching for Treblinka witnesses. At present, only four works on Treblinka cite Klaynman, though none draws any attention to the unique form, style, or content of his writing. 3 3 Yitzhak Arad cites Klaynman as a historical source in his history of the camp while Yoram Lubling makes brief use of Klaynman’s writing in the attempt to recover the life and death of his own grandfather inside Treblinka. Barbara Engleking’s essay in Wyborcza quotes from Klaynman to set the emotional scene for her piece. Michał Wójcik’s recent book as well as that by Edward Kopówka and Paweł Rytel-Andrianik both cite Klaynman as a historical source. None of these authors discusses the distinctive nature of Klaynman’s work in any regard, see: Wójcik, Treblinka ’43: Bunt w Fabryce Śmierci; Barbara Engelking, “‘Odłamane kawałki mego serca’ O milczeniu w Treblince;” Kopówka and Rytel-Andrianik, Dam im imię na wieki: Polacy z okolic Treblinki ratujący Żydów, 83; Lubling, Twice-Dead: Moshe Y. Lubling: The Ethics of Memory, and the Treblinka Revolt, 120; Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, op. cit. 14, pp. 420.

What the JHI labels a diary and Yad Vashem catalogs as a memoir transcends the ill-defined borders of several literary forms; it even exhibits characteristics of a play or dramatic musical theater. Klaynman records his experiences in two major parts. The first, comprised of 72 pages focusing only on Treblinka, is divided into four sections entitled “Acts,” followed by a conclusion occurring after his escape in the uprising. Klaynman formats each act and the conclusion as a dialogue, labeling speakers as in a play, and includes the lyrics of six songs. One of these is the Treblinke lid that appears in other sources under the German title “Fester Schritt.” Klaynman’s version is the first known documentation of this “camp anthem” in Yiddish. This likely means he translated the song for his reader, as survivors state that guards forced Jewish prisoners to sing in German. 4 4 For other versions of the song as recalled by survivors and one former guard, see: “Statement of Shalom Kohn – July 18, 1960,” Bundesarchiv Außenstelle Ludwigsburg, Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, B162, F3824, pps. 1644-1650, pps. 1646-1647; Richard Glazar, Die Falle mit dem Grünen Zaun: Überleben in Treblinka (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992), 119–20; Richard Glazar, Trap with a Green Fence: Survival in Treblinka, Jewish Lives (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995), 118–19; Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film, Second (New York: De Capo Press, 1995), 95–96; Adam Kemp, Death Camp Treblinka: Survivor Stories, Television Documentary (BBC, 2012).

Historians and survivors alike have often overlooked women’s experiences at Treblinka, and the original list of Treblinka survivors includes only two women. However, women feature prominently in Klaynman’s memoir. Four of the songs are sung by a Jewish woman whom Klaynman calls dos meydl; he also writes speaking lines for women on 25 of his 72 pages of dialogue. While many male survivors of Treblinka have omitted or downplayed women’s roles in resistance, dos meydl is present for planning discussions and fully informed of the prisoner revolt conspiracy, and she joins Klaynman’s successful escape. Women’s presence in Klaynman’s writing adds precious color and detail to scant historical sources on women’s lives inside the camp and their roles in the uprising.

Fela Gwiozda-Zilbershtayn, a wartime acquaintance of Klaynman, handed over his notebooks to the JHI in 1947. In a signed, two-page statement entitled Kharateristik fun moyshe klaynman dem mekhaber fun tog bukh, Gwiozda-Zilbershtayn explained what she knew of Klaynman and how the notebooks came into her possession. We provide here an English translation of these same pages with the permission of the JHI. Gwiozda-Zilbershtayn’s statement places us on a path toward understanding what became of Klaynman. She indicates that in 1947, when she handed over his writings, Moyshe Klaynman was in acute emotional distress. His experiences in the khurbn and the initial years following the war may have left him institutionalized or otherwise incapable of telling his story or delivering his writings himself.

Without Klaynman present to advance his own narrative, his writings long received little notice. He did not become a witness for Polish investigations of the camp, later West German trials of former Treblinka guards, or succeeding American legal actions. Moyshe Klaynman seems to leave the historical record around the time Gwiozda-Zilbershtayn deposits his works, depriving the world of a truly unique voice of survival and resistance at Treblinka.

We hope that this source will come to greater attention from scholars in history, Yiddish studies, comparative literature, drama, Holocaust musicology, and others. Resting at the intersections of these fields and interests, Klaynman’s words offer opportunities for a fuller understanding of Treblinka history, a basis for discussion of the boundaries between dramatization and factual representation, and so much more.


“Description of Moyshe Klaynman, Author of the Diary”

Moyshe Klaynman, thirty-five years of age, is a laborer. At the time of the German occupation, he lived in Sobin, eighteen kilometers from Otwotsk. 5 5 Today Sobienie-Jeziory, Poland, and Otwock, Poland. In 1942, during the deportations, he was sent to Treblinka. He was in Treblinka for ten months. He fled [the camp] during the uprising at Treblinka in 1943. He then went back to a village near his birth shtetl. He hid there with a Christian named Bojeńczyk. He remained with this man for a further ten months, until the liberation.

While hiding with the Christian in [the] shtetl, he wrote about what he experienced and his opinions on various questions. He wrote this, as I explained before, in 1943. During the liberation, someone told him that the Russians were murdering Jews. That made a terrible impression on him and he became slightly disturbed. He now keeps to himself, working among Poles in Sobin. In 1946, he spent a certain amount of time in Łódź and worked in a factory on Wólczańska Street, but he quit this work and went back to Sobin because he longed to return to Bojeńczyk, the peasant who had saved him. He also returned because he once attended a Zionist meeting and expressed himself against Zionism and strongly praised the Soviet Union. He was then beaten [for this]. At that moment, he went back to Sobin. He was the only Jew there working among the peasants. His abnormality arose in that, remembering the worst that the Jews had gone through, he could no longer go on with life. He would stay silent the entire day, speaking only when someone asked something of him.

The witness Gwiozda-Zilbershtayn, who lived in Łódź, Andrzeja Street 24, and was in the shtetl Sobin the entire time until the deportations, supported the statement of the peasants by whom he [Klaynman] was hidden that the entire time until the liberation he was normal.

Signature of the Witness:

Fela Zilbershtayn

Signature of the Transcriptionist:

P.S. The three-notebook diary was received by the commission in Łódź from Mrs. Gwiozda-Zilbershtayn, to whom the author had left them.

Mirska, Klara

Łódź, November 13, 1947

Gibbs, Chad, and Matthew Greene. “Briv funem arkhiv: A Memoir in Four Acts: Moyshe Klaynman and Survival at Treblinka.” In geveb, May 2020:
Gibbs, Chad, and Matthew Greene. “Briv funem arkhiv: A Memoir in Four Acts: Moyshe Klaynman and Survival at Treblinka.” In geveb (May 2020): Accessed Nov 26, 2021.


Chad Gibbs

Chad S.A. Gibbs is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently a George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellow to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. In the 2020-2021 academic year, Chad will hold the Fred and Maria Devinki Memorial Fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Matthew Greene

Matthew M. Greene is a PhD candidate in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic+ at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work focuses on literature of migration written in Czech, German, and Yiddish.