Cover image for Village of a million spirits : a novel of the Treblinka uprising
Village of a million spirits : a novel of the Treblinka uprising
MacMillan, Ian, 1941-2008.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
South Royalton, Vt. : Steerforth Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
viii, 257 pages ; 23 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On August 2, 1943 prisoners of the Treblinka concentration camp, armed with stolen guns and grenades, attacked their guards, set fire to the "factory of death, " and fled into the neighboring forest. Of the six hundred prisoners who escaped in the desperate revolt, only forty survived. Village of a Million Spirits is a fictionalized account of one of the most extraordinary insurrections in history.

With breathtaking intensity Ian MacMillan narrates the Treblinka uprising in the voices of people both inside the camp and in the surrounding countryside, children and adults, victims and guards. For its staggering depiction of horror and for its sheer humanity, Village of a Million Spirits should be considered, like the novels of Levi, Wiesel, Kosinski, and Borowski, essential reading in Holocaust literature.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Set in the Treblinka concentration camp during the months leading up to the desperate uprising in 1943, this docunovel tells its story through the shifting viewpoints of prisoners, guards, and local people. The factual detail is sometimes overwhelming; however accurately the book is researched, it is hard to read whole chapters about what it was like in the gas chambers or how exactly the "dentists" extracted gold teeth from the mouths of corpses in the burial pits. What holds you is the personal experiences of the characters. MacMillan shows the corruption and courage of ordinary people in a wild universe, where massacre is mundane, survival is arbitrary, and you listen to Mozart after lunch while bodies burn. Yet some do retain their humanity, and at the end a local fisherman gives refuge to a survivor, who remembers everything. Approximately one million died at Treblinka. (Reviewed March 15, 1999)1883642841Hazel Rochman

Publisher's Weekly Review

It stands to reason that accounts of the Holocaust‘whether fiction or nonfiction‘will be wrenching evocations of brutality and unspeakable suffering. Nearly every book on the subject, no matter its literary merit, possesses a certain dignity and power. When a book like this one appears, however‘it's the third volume of a trilogy MacMillan began in Proud Monster and Orbit of Darkness‘it must be acknowledged as a new benchmark in Holocaust literature, distinguished by unflinching fidelity to truth, unsparing immediacy and literary resonance. MacMillan's achievement, in this account of the events that led to the (ultimately tragic) revolt of inmates at the Treblinka concentration camp in August 1943, is to convey the particularity of the near-unimaginable horrors through several leading characters, as well as the universality of such struggle through the documentation of the torture and death of at least one million souls. Reading it, one is enveloped in dread, horrified by details of slaughter, immersed in the emotions of its characters and compelled by the tension of observing captors and victims in a horrifying world. A series of highly charged, kaleidoscopic vignettes‘of bewildered Jewish arrivals herded directly into the gas chambers, of Jewish workers forced to categorize, transport and search through bodies, of Nazi and Ukrainian guards and residents of the nearby Polish village‘links the several main characters. The intensity of MacMillan's compressed prose humanizes the desperate lives he holds up to our gaze. This book's graphic descriptions‘the odor of putrifying bodies when boxcars are finally opened, "the subtle, glistening movement of worms" in folds of skin, the stench of the roasting pits where corpses are burned, the depravity of Nazis who smile as they execute‘is sometimes nearly unbearable. And yet not to read about it seems almost a crime. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The world of the Holocaust death camps comes to life in this fictionalized account of the uprising at Treblinka on August 2, 1943. The prisoners, armed with stolen guns and grenades, attacked their Nazi guards, set the "factory of death" on fire, and fled into the surrounding forests. Of 600 escapees, only 40 survived. In this intense account, MacMillan portrays the inhumanity of the death camps and what passes for hope. Prior to the revolt, Janusz Siedlecki, a 16-year-old Polish Jew who may be sick with typhoid, is told by the Jewish doctor organizing the revolt, "I want you to visualize somethingÄimagine that you are healthy. When you walk, imagine that you are strong and that your stomach is full." The characters of the victims and survivors are artfully presented. Recommended for all serious fiction collections.ÄMolly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One OUTSIDE THE PERIMETER FENCE, TREBLINKA AUGUST 2, 1943                     Only a year ago, she remembers, when they first heard the train whistles, she and Michal Balicki from the village were here on this bed of brown pine needles, looking out of the pine grove at the new camp only a few hundred meters away, and he explained to her that just beyond that fence inside those low buildings whose rooftops you could just barely see, they killed Jews every day and took all their money. Then he put his hand on her and said, the Jews from Russia sacrifice gentile children and drink their blood, did you know that?     And now Magda Nowak waits as she has come to wait every day for the past month, watching the air between her and the fence boil up from the ground. In the distance, the camp rises from a mirage, a horizontal strip of molten silver, wisps of smoke hanging in the air above it. Back then, a year ago, it was Michal with his hands on her, Michal with his hot anxious force, and then because her father ordered, it was Anatoly, with his uniform smelling of sulfur and she thought death, because he was in the camp with them every day, as much a prisoner as the Jews even though he came out every day leading the work crews, his rifle hanging from his shoulder. And now, in the intense heat, the dreaming daytime stillness of the woods, she waits, her fingers intertwined under her enormous belly inside which the pulsing, ticklish surges of the baby increase, causing a breathless electrical throbbing to worm up into her chest and down into her legs. Surely this week it will be born and Anatoly is in there, as much a prisoner as the Jews.     She thinks, death camp . Camp of death. In his awkward West Ukrainian accent Anatoly called it a factory. We make death -- that is our industry. She saw the trains from the woods, fifty, sixty cars each, every day, with the square-shouldered Germans sitting on top, their guns cradled in their arms. No one can do anything about it, the thousand or so workers, the guards like Anatoly, no one. When they caught Anatoly stealing they punished him by cutting off his finger. They are all slaves and the Germans are their masters, and they make death every day. When Anatoly could take making death no more he came out leading the men and then did not go back, and she tries to fix the time. June, two months ago. He had money, a gun, clothes, and he hid in the woods. He was supposed to meet her so that they could leave the country but never did. He was probably back in the camp, and she thinks, he is in there, under that guard tower somewhere wearing his uniform and smelling of sulfur and making death, standing there with his rifle and his weary sad-eyed look, his huge ears bright red in the sun. She smiles, thinking of his ears.     The heat settles on her in a somnolent, downward sweep, like dizziness, and she moves closer to the edge of the pines so as to get a better view of the camp. They are burning something there. Here the radiated heat from the unshaded ground a meter away presses against her like heat radiating from a stove. Usually there are workers out cutting wood, forked sticks Anatoly calls them, but today it must be too hot. Come out, Anatoly, she thinks, and see the birth of your child.     She should walk home. As her mother had arranged, the midwife is due to visit, to look at her. She imagines a nurse dressed in some sort of a medical uniform, a competent village woman who will show her how to have her baby. In the meantime she should help her mother in the kitchen, or her father out in the fields. They no longer want her. Her father's face became more and more sour as her belly grew and she could see what he wanted to say in his eyes. None of the guards would want a sow like you. Thousands of Jews come every day, all of them rich, and every day the guards come out with their pockets bulging with money looking for a little relaxation, and look at you. Other men sell their daughters for gold coins, jewels, and those girls are not so stupid as to get pregnant. They are not so stupid as to become infatuated with a dish-eared idiot like Anatoly, who cannot distinguish gold plate from gold, glass from diamond. Day by day as regular as a clock the trains come loaded with Jews, and each time he heard the whistle, his face slowly dropped -- yes, thousands upon thousands, and look at you. She hates her father because he just does not understand. She is seventeen, old enough to know what she wants. The baby is hers and she wants it, as does Anatoly, who told her they would go to the Ukraine and get away from the death. If only he would come out, if they would once again let him watch the work crews in the woods so he could leave. But the Germans are the ones to decide, and no one can do anything about what they decide. And if they decide that he cannot come out, then the baby will have no father and will be born deformed, or dead. She is sure of that.     The wisps of smoke are heavier, and she squints, feeling beads of sweat run down between her breasts. She looks down at her bare feet, pine needles stuck to them by sweat. They are swollen so that none of the veins are visible, and they hurt, as if the stretching skin cannot contain the pressure, the bones cannot bear the great weight.     She is about to turn to go across the kilometer of brush and rye fields to her house when a huge billow of black smoke mushrooms upward from the camp, and inside of it flashes a tongue of dark orange fire, and then she both hears and feels the dense whoosh of an explosion. Cracking sounds reach her -- gunfire, she thinks, and she is suddenly frightened. Something has happened in there. She turns, and feels a wrenching in her side, from moving too fast, and as she waits for the pain to recede, she realizes that it expands and begins twisting itself under her rib cage in a slow cramp that makes sweat bead on her forehead and arms. As the cramp drives itself downward she looks once again at the camp, and the billow of smoke has been replaced by a huge fire that shoots sparks into the hot air, and now another mushroom of smoke ruptures upward, and tongues of flame appear in other places. She remains immobilized by the cramp, which has now died out under her stomach, leaving her weak-kneed and shaky.     The sounds of gunfire reach her again, dreamlike in the dense, scorched air. Anatoly. What if he were hurt? But she must get home. She moves into the pines, and feels her legs wet. She looks down at her feet and realizes that she has wet herself, reaches down and touches the liquid on the inside of her leg. She rubs it between her thumb and fingers, her hands shaking. It is a clear, slippery liquid, not urine.     There is another explosion, then the faint sounds of people yelling, and the rapid pulse of a machine gun. Who could be doing that? Why would the camp be burning? She should not be here. As she tries to walk her legs do not obey her. They shake so badly that she can barely keep her balance. She must get home. She should not be seeing this.     She feels another cramp begin to expand high in her rib cage, like a pair of powerful hands inside her squeezing downward so that she finds it hard to breathe. More of that liquid runs down her legs. She laces her fingers under her belly, and turns to look back at the burning camp. Across the brush and dry grass she sees dark, wriggling specks, and as her eyes adjust to the distance, the forms of running men materialize rising from the silvery mirage, liquefied in the shimmering heat. Three, four of them, no, a dozen. More than a dozen. Then it appears to be sixty or seventy, a line of shapes enlarging in a molten undulation. They are not wearing uniforms. She stumbles into the pines, breathless with fright, her arms and legs numb. There, hanging onto the brittle branch of a pine tree, she feels the hands squeezing downward, so that she cannot move. The men coming are not soldiers -- they are Jews, and they have apparently broken out of the camp. What had the farmers and villagers called them? The evil ones, the devils, the blood drinkers? That is not possible -- no one leaves the camp unless the Germans let them leave. She holds on to the branch, trying to breathe, aware that those men have broken loose and are running toward her, the nightmare that so many of the people living here have dreaded since they first heard the train whistles. Chapter Two NEAR RADZYMIN, POLAND EARLY AUGUST 1942                     At the end of the lane through the rye is the slightly elevated rail bed, topped by a bright silver strip. As he walks toward it, the sound of his own steps on the parched, rocky dirt comes in whoosh ing thumps to his ears. He will not go back to the school because she yelled at him in class, you, Janusz Siedlecki, you are a dunce! And they laughed, their laughter a hollow echoing punctuated by bursts that sounded like a hammer on a pail.     Out by the track, up on the rail bed, he sees the land sweep away into the distant haze, the heat shimmering over the rye, with a line of trees on the horizon, gray translucent cones. He wets the end of his index finger and touches the track, and the wet spot vanishes in less than a second, the diminishing heat from his skin's contact on the searing metal buzzing like sluggish, fading electricity.     They laughed at him because he lived inside his head, all his life. His mother poured oil in his ears, they irrigated his ears with water, but it never worked. Then his father would become angry at him for being deaf and order him to his room, where he would remain alone with an old encyclopedia, with which he bored himself into exhaustion. He was always assumed to be partially deaf, but on those strange occasions when it vanished by some miracle -- after playing so hard that he became drenched with sweat, or perhaps after swimming -- he would experience two hours, sometimes half a day, of a bizarre auditory lucidity that would frighten him. The world was a constant gabbling of sounds, snappings, tinklings, far-off moans, vibrations of sound so mysterious that he could never identify their source, and he wondered if deafness was somehow preferable. Then he would recede once again into that world of a perpetual roaring paced by the whoosh ing sound of the beating of his own heart. When his parents were arrested he did what he thought his father would do: He used a bow saw to cut stove wood, which on weekends they had always sold by the wagonload in Warsaw, thirty kilometers to the south of their little town. He waited for his father to come back, to pick up where they had left off, but he never did.     There is a subtle vibration in the ground, perhaps a wagon coming, and he turns. There is no wagon. The lane through the rye vanishes into brush, beyond which is the village. To the left, up the track, a line of gray smoke advancing, billowed into the air above the track and then stilled, creating a fuzzy, curved snake that hangs in the air, fading in density as it recedes into the horizon.     He sees the dense black shape of the engine emerge in a slow, rocking advance from between trees, the black smoke shooting from the stack in a rapid pulse like an elevated heartbeat, and now he feels it in the air, a series of soft shocks on the skin of his face. The engine sweeps in a slight curve, and low on the side he can now see a pair of knees, and above them the barrel of a rifle. He backs up into the lane, then moves into the rye and lies down at the edge of it facing the tracks, feeling the rye stalks crackling in a dry brittle settling under his shirt, and the dusty tassels tickling his forearms.     He feels the engine in the hot ground, and parts the rye. The engine approaches at little more than the speed of a man walking, looming above him on the left, and the pulsing roar echoes in his ears. Then it passes, and the soldier sitting on the step appears to be asleep, his head to the side. As the first car passes, the scorched, salty odor of smoke from underneath the train flows down across his face, and he smells the grating, metallic friction of metal on metal, the rail bending downward as each wheel passes over it, and in the ground he feels the crunching of the gravel under the ties. He counts, four, five, six, and then stops, because the cars are moving too slowly for him to count. Some of the cars have little window holes crisscrossed by barbed wire, and on the lower frames of these windows he sees fingers, knuckles, and behind them in the darkness in some of the windows the brief glint of wire-rimmed glasses. A trainload of woodcutters and farmers.     His father had jumped at the sound of a German voice. Hearing is a weakness -- it makes the body react. Because the deaf cannot react to sound they achieve a kind of invisibility.     After a while it is as if he has watched the train for hours, although he knows it is only minutes. The rail bends, gravel crunches in the ground, the white fingers and knuckles pass. Finally four empty cars pass, the doors open so that they flash squares of pale sky, one after another, from the other side.     The train's last car passes, and rocks slowly down the track. He stands up, wipes the dirt from his trousers and shirt. The smells and sounds have given him a dull headache, and he feels groggy and weak, as if the train has hypnotized him. The heat hammers down on his head and shoulders, radiates out of the ground, and he places his hand on the top of his head. His hair is hot. Above him the fat gray snake remains suspended, and curves, hovering over the tracks sweeping away in the boiling haze. Copyright © 1999 Ian MacMillan. All rights reserved.