Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling

ERSHL SPERLING kept a kitchen well-stocked with cans. Whenever a guest opened a cupboard door at the family home at 63 Castlehill Drive in Glasgow, they were greeted by towers of tinned food stretching from the shelf lip to the back wall.

• Hershl Sperling. Picture: Complimentary

As a man who had known starvation, he placed what little faith he had in preserved goods. Hershl would greet Mark, the young friend of his two sons, with a wink and eyes full of mischief and madness before adding: "Boychick. How are you today?"

If the same question had been posed to Hershl Sperling on Tuesday, 26 September, 1989, the answer would not be good. At the age of 62, Sperling had had enough. Four days before the widower had exchanged life in the house in the city's south side for the Old Caledonian Rail Bridge that straddles the River Clyde in the city centre and days spent with down and outs. His diet was now whisky, Valium and Amaltriptolene, an antidepressant.

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While Strathclyde Police searched for him and his sons worried for his safety, Sperling was lying atop iron girders, deep in the belly of the bridge. At some point, he threw himself from the bridge into the River Clyde and slipped under the surface.

When George Parsonage of the Glasgow Humane Society – which has patrolled the waters since 1790, retrieving the bodies of the stricken – found Hershl Sperling, he pulled up his sleeve and saw the inked numbers on his forearm and a series of distinctive letters on his bicep. Almost 20 years later, Parsonage recalled the grim retrieval and, with a tear in his eye, said he had always wondered "who?" and "why?".

IT HAS taken three years of diligent research, but the answers to these questions are now to be found in a new book written by the "boychick" who once sat at Sperling's kitchen table. I meet Mark Smith at a coffee shop in Glasgow's city centre, a bright and happy antidote to the dark places his journey took him to. The deputy business editor of The Herald newspaper, he was best friends with Sperling's youngest son, Sam. When, in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Sam told him that his father had written a memoir, published in Yiddish, Smith decided to use it as the basis for a book exploring not only Sperling's life but why, after surviving so much, he had chosen to end it.

"It was a Holocaust detective story," said Smith, who is now 49. "I was looking for the clues to why he killed himself."

The title of the book is the biggest clue, Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling. Among survivors of the Holocaust, there is a hierarchy of suffering. Hershl, who also passed through Auschwitz and Dachau, would often say: "Auschwitz was nothing, it was a 'walk in the park'." A statement that Smith found hard to comprehend at the time, but now understands. "Auschwitz was primarily a work camp, while Treblinka was for extermination."

Hershl Sperling's story reads as a litany of horrors. A bright boy with a facility for languages, he was raised in the Polish town of Klobuck, 100 miles north of Krakow. Following the German blitzkrieg, he and his family were herded into the Jewish ghetto in Czestochowa.

In September 1942, the deportation of Jews to the death camps began. Sperling had managed to hide in a bunker with some elderly Jews and at night he would creep out to nearby fields in an attempt to find food, but towards the end of the deportations their bunker was discovered. In his memoir he writes: "We are taken to Pszemiszlaver Street, where the last deportees are just being taken away. They are destined for the furnace in Treblinka. Everyone has to take off their shoes, tie them together and hang them over their shoulders. Then begins, silent and barefoot, the march to annihilation. At the exit of the factory yard a box has been placed. Under threat of punishment by death, everybody has to throw all their valuables into it. Hardly anyone does it. As they are marched on, however, their fear grows. They have second thoughts about it, and from all sides valuables, foreign currency, money and so on are dropped by the wayside. The route of the death-march is littered with Jewish possessions.

"When we arrive at the train, the SS shove 80 to 100 people into each of the wagons. The disinfectant calcium chloride is scattered liberally into every wagon. The doors are pushed shut, locked and sealed. Ukrainian and Lithuanian SS stand guard at the steps of each wagon. We are shut in like cattle, tightly crammed together. Some women faint and others vomit. The natural functions also have to be performed in the wagon, and on top of everything else we are tormented by a dreadful thirst."

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At Treblinka, literally at the door of the gas chamber, he was pulled back by a guard and watched as his mother and father, younger sister and all his relatives walked in to their deaths. As Smith explains: "Who knows why he was chosen? Luck? The fact he was young and strong and spoke German, perhaps?" Instead he was forced to work as one of the Treblinka Sonderkommandos – those Jews whose job it was to clean out the gas chambers, pile up the bodies, then burn them.

Historians estimate that more than 800,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka; Sperling was one of only 70 who survived, after they staged an armed rebellion and managed to escape. Unfortunately Sperling was captured days later. He managed to convince the German officers that he was not Jewish, but a Polish political prisoner and it was as such that he was later sent to Auschwitz where he stared into the eyes of Dr Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death", whose experiments shocked the world. Like a prisoner on a hellish carousel, Sperling passed through a range of camps before winding up in Dachau, from which he also escaped.

"He managed to escape, broke into a German's house, demanded food, gorged himself in their kitchen and collapsed. He then woke up in an American hospital set up in Dachau which had been liberated."

MARK SMITH has been fiercely honest in the writing of this book. There is no "happily ever after". Although Sperling returned home to Poland, he fled again, fearing for his life because of the anti-Semitism which remained ingrained in the psyche of his countrymen. Although he met and married a fellow survivor, and raised a family among Glasgow's Jewish community, the tension of those formative years never left him.

Smith writes: "Everything in the household was a crisis. You couldn't go to the doctor because that meant death. Everyone was constantly on edge and that has an effect on the children. His two sons, without whom I could not have written this book, neither of them have children and that is deliberate." Smith travelled across Europe and visited America and Canada in an effort to piece together the final story.

Asked what this experience has taught him, he says: "I think it is to fear the beast within. We don't know what we are capable off. At Treblinka there was only one psychopath among the staff and guards, the rest were ordinary people just doing a job. The commandant would go home and play with his kids at the end of each day."

In answer to the question of why Hershl Sperling, who had clung on so long and tenaciously to life, finally decided to let go, Smith writes: "I know my friend's father tumbled from that bridge at least partly because the terrors of Treblinka had pervaded his very being and he could never be cured. I suspect he also knew the world could not be cured either."

Mark Smith talk about Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of Hershl Sperling (The History Press, 20) tonight at 7:30pm at Waterstone's, 83 George Street, Edinburgh.