A Holocaust memoir in the form of a musical.
A living witness.
Historical connections to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
And hundreds of previously unknown primary sources left behind by survivors of Treblinka.
These are just a few of the important finds of my recent research in Jerusalem made possible by the George L. Mosse Program in History. From July 2019 to March 2020, I had the opportunity to live and research in Israel as a George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellow to the Hebrew University. Though what was to be a yearlong stay in Jerusalem ended at nine months due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this opportunity still greatly enhanced my dissertation project: “Against that Darkness: Perseverance, Resistance, and Revolt at Treblinka.” This research adds to our understanding of life inside this camp by exploring inmate relationships—or social networks—and how prisoners leveraged these bonds to gain some measure of control over lethally restricted camp geography. Examining the geography of the camp through the lens of social networks, my work further delivers new analyses of gender and masculinity in life and resistance at the camp while working to recover the long-overlooked experiences of women at Treblinka.
I applied to the Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellowship in order to support research for this project at the Hebrew University, Yad Vashem, and other archival collections in Israel. My time in Jerusalem began with an Ulpan language course in Modern Hebrew at the Mount Scopus Campus. This intensive two-month course took me from a complete beginner in the language to the equivalent of one academic year of instruction. I found this work both demanding and fulfilling and I was happy to continue my Hebrew study in a course designed specifically for researchers thereafter. This second, less-intense class was an ideal fit for my schedule as I transitioned to full time research during my third month in Israel.
On conclusion of my Ulpan course, my daily commute shifted from Mount Scopus to Mount Herzl as I began research in the Yad Vashem Archive. As a historian focused on resistance at Treblinka, however, I made sure to visit the museum for the first time on 2 August 2019—the seventy-sixth anniversary of the prisoner revolt at the camp—while my language course was still ongoing. In this first trip I toured the museum and accompanying monuments. Always interested in how Holocaust museums cover Treblinka, I found that Yad Vashem—similar to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—does not devote a great deal of space to teaching about what went on at this extermination camp or the prisoner revolt of 2 August 1943. A small display in the permanent exhibition mentions the uprising in a single sentence while a large area devoted to Jewish resistance to the Holocaust does not include the prisoners of Treblinka.
I hope my own work will help to bring greater attention not only to the final armed revolt at the camp, but also to many other preceding acts of resistance that foiled Nazi intentions, saved lives, and led into the later possibility of violent uprising. The first step to doing any work that seeks to accomplish these tasks is finding the necessary primary sources to revise our current understandings of Treblinka history. Museum displays at the former site of Treblinka, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Yad Vashem all estimate that only some seventy people survived this camp. Because the Nazi SS destroyed all other primary documentation of what transpired at Treblinka, identifying unacknowledged witness-survivors and finding the sources they left behind could not be more important. I used the vast majority of my time on the Mosse Exchange Fellowship investigating the Treblinka evidence held by institutions in Israel.
From September 2019-March 2020, I spent most business days at Yad Vashem working on testimonies, documents, films, and oral interviews created by survivors or featuring their statements. I was able to gather over 100 new sources for my work and identify many additional survivors of the camp. In December 2019, I was invited to present a paper at the “Witnessing the Witness” conference held by the Hebrew University Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Building on my archival work at Yad Vashem and other collections available from Jerusalem, my paper “Recovering Witnesses: Locating Testimonies, Acknowledging Survivors, and Expanding Historical Research” reported my progress to that date and sought to show interested scholars that a wealth of under-utilized or previously unknown materials exists for the study of Treblinka. I am happy to note that this work will eventually appear as a chapter in an edited volume now in preparation by the Vidal Sassoon Center.
Among the most fascinating finds of my time at Yad Vashem is the memoir of Moyshe Klaynman. Writing immediately after his escape in the revolt, Klaynman recorded his memories of the camp in the form of a four-act musical play. This stunning work features five songs, character dialogue, and set direction. It should go almost without saying that no other survivor of Treblinka recorded their experiences in such a way. I was so taken by this source that I enlisted the help of my colleague Matthew M. Greene from the UW-Madison Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic to co-author a short translation and analysis of a section from Klaynman’s writing. Our piece is now pending publication with In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.
Work in other collections either available at Yad Vashem or through access agreements with the Hebrew University also greatly improved my work on Treblinka and led to startling finds and exciting opportunities for my future work as a historian. Both of these institutions enjoy full access to Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. Between them, these collections hold oral interviews given by over 60,000 Holocaust survivors. In the Fortunoff Archive, I located the testimony of the late Ben Lerman, a survivor of a short stay at Treblinka who lived out his life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tracking down leads on his powerful story, I eventually found that his daughter is a Badger, having graduated the UW-Madison in 1982. Of all the things I might have expected to find in the course of Holocaust research in Jerusalem, connections to our campus was the furthest from my mind as I set off for Israel.
Taking further advantage of the collections I could access at Mount Scopus or Mount Herzl, I viewed the testimony of Treblinka escapee Leon Rytz held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Shoah Foundation. When I looked further into the postwar life of Mr. Rytz and media coverage of his experiences, I was able to get in contact with an Israeli reporter who had recently interviewed him at his home in Sweden. After the passing of Samuel Willenberg in 2016, many international news outlets reported that the last survivor of Treblinka was gone. Mr. Rytz, however, is alive and well and I am honored to be in conversation with him through the help of his son and my Mosse Program colleague Svea Larson who translated my first correspondence into Swedish. His perspective on resistance at Treblinka and his memories of those he met there is already adding new dimensions to my dissertation.
Throughout this research and the pivotal access to collections provided by the Mosse Exchange, I worked on producing applications for the next year of my path to the PhD. As I analyzed sources from the Fortunoff Archive I wrote an application for the Dori Laub Fellowship supported by Yale University, the home of this collection. I also completed applications for fellowships at USC and the USHMM. I am beyond excited to report that during the 2020-2021 academic year I will hold the Dori Laub Fellowship and the Fred and Maria Devinki Memorial Fellowship at the USHMM’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies in addition to the Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellowship at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Studies. These opportunities could hardly be more important for my project, my future chances for academic employment, and my general growth as a scholar. I am certain I could not have achieved these successes without the opportunities provided by the George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellowship to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Back in Madison—with a great deal of assistance from Mosse Program Director, Skye Doney—I am using the last months of my Mosse Exchange support to conclude my work on sources gathered from archives in Germany and prepare for the year ahead. Though the 2019-2020 academic year witnessed challenges and upheavals no one expected as I departed Madison last July, I feel that I was able to make the most of my time in Israel and return home not only with greater research sources in hand, but also with fond memories of new friends and amazing sights and experiences in Jerusalem. I thank the Mosse Program and its supporters for the chance to live and work in the Holy City and I feel certain that I will be back soon.
Chad S.A. Gibbs is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He completed an MA in history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and his BA in history at the University of Wyoming. His dissertation project, “Against that Darkness: Perseverance, Resistance, and Revolt at Treblinka,” adds to our understanding of life inside this camp by exploring inmate relationships—or social networks—and how prisoners leveraged these bonds to gain some measure of control over lethally restricted camp geography. Maintaining emphases on networks and space throughout, Chad’s work further delivers analysis of gender and masculinity in life and resistance at the camp while working to recover the long-overlooked experiences of women at Treblinka. In the 2020-2021 academic year, Chad will hold fellowships at the USC Shoah Foundation and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.