Treblinka extermination camp

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Treblinka
extermination camp
Treblinka - Rail tracks.JPG
Symbolic concrete blocks mark the path of the former railway line at Treblinka.
Treblinka extermination camp is located in Poland
Treblinka extermination camp
Location of Treblinka in Poland
Coordinates 52°37′51.85″N 22°3′11.01″E / 52.6310694°N 22.0530583°E / 52.6310694; 22.0530583Coordinates: 52°37′51.85″N 22°3′11.01″E / 52.6310694°N 22.0530583°E / 52.6310694; 22.0530583
Known for Genocide during the Holocaust
Location Near Treblinka, General Government (German-occupied Poland)
Built by
Operated by SS-Totenkopfverbände
Original use Death
First built April 1942 – July 1942
Operational 22 July 1942 – October 1943[3]
Number of gas chambers 6
Inmates mainly Jews
Number of inmates est. 1,000 Sonderkommando
Killed est. 700,000 – 900,000
Liberated by Closed in 1943
Notable inmates
Notable books

Treblinka (pronounced [trɛˈblʲinka]) was an extermination camp[b] built by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.[2] It was located near the village of Treblinka in the modern-day Masovian Voivodeship north-east of Warsaw. The camp operated officially between 23 July 1942 and 19 October 1943 as part of Operation Reinhard, the most deadly phase of the Final Solution.[3] During this time, it is estimated that somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000[6][7] Jews died in its gas chambers, along with 2,000 Romani people.[8] More Jews died at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz.[9]

Managed by the German SS and the Eastern European Trawnikis (also known as Hiwi[c] guards), the camp consisted of two separate units: Treblinka I and the Treblinka II extermination camp (Vernichtungslager). The first was a forced-labour camp (Arbeitslager) whose prisoners worked in the gravel pit or irrigation area and in the forest, where they cut wood to fuel the crematoria. Between 1941 and 1944, more than half of its 20,000 inmates died from summary executions, hunger, disease and mistreatment.[11][12]

The second camp, Treblinka II, was designed purely for extermination. A small number of men who were not killed immediately upon arrival became its Jewish slave-labour units called Sonderkommandos,[13] forced to bury the victims' bodies in mass graves. These bodies were exhumed in 1943 and then cremated on massive open-air pyres along with the bodies of new victims.[14] Gassing operations at Treblinka II ended in October 1943 following a revolt by the Sonderkommandos in early August. Several ethnic German SS guards were killed and some 200 prisoners managed to cross to the other side of the fence,[15][16] although fewer than a hundred survived the subsequent chase.[17][18] The camp was dismantled ahead of the Soviet advance. A farmhouse for a watchman was built on the site in an attempt to hide the evidence of genocide.[19]

In postwar Poland, the government purchased a large amount of land that had formed part of the camp, and a tall stone memorial was built there between 1959 and 1962. Treblinka was declared a national monument of Jewish martyrology[d] during an official ceremony held in 1964 at the site of the former gas chambers.[20] Meanwhile, the first official German trial for war crimes committed at Treblinka was also held in 1964, with the former camp personnel first brought to justice at that time, some twenty years after the end of the war. The number of visitors coming to Treblinka from abroad began to increase significantly only after the end of communism in Poland in 1989. The new exhibition centre located at the camp opened in 2006. It was later expanded and made into a branch of the Siedlce Regional Museum.[21][22]

Background[edit]

Further information: The Holocaust in Poland
The Wannsee Conference, where the plans for Operation Reinhard and the Treblinka extermination camp were outlined, took place at this villa.

Following the invasion of Poland in 1939 most of the approximately 3.5 million Polish Jews were rounded up and put into newly established ghettos by Nazi Germany. The system was designed to isolate and separate the Jews from the outside world for the ease of economic exploitation with no other sources of livelihood.[23] The supply of food was inadequate, the living accommodations were cramped and unsanitary, and the Jews had no chance to earn their own keep, all of which led to an increased mortality rate.[24] The initial victories of the Wehrmacht[e] over the Soviet Union inspired plans for the German colonisation of occupied Poland, including all territory within the General Government. Consequently, at the 20 January 1942 Wannsee Conference, held near Berlin, new plans were outlined for the total genocide of the Jews, known as the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question".[25] The extermination program was codenamed Operation Reinhard[f] (German: Aktion Reinhard) to differentiate it from the Einsatzgruppen's killing spree in territories conquered by Nazi Germany, in which half a million Jews had already been killed.[27]

Treblinka was one of three secret extermination camps set up specifically for Operation Reinhard; the other two were Bełżec and Sobibór.[28] All three of them were equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers for the "processing" of entire transports of people. They were based on a pilot project of mobile killing conducted at the Chełmno extermination camp (German: Kulmhof) that began operating in late 1941 and used gas vans. Chełmno was not a part of Reinhard,[29] which was marked by the construction of stationary facilities for mass murder; rather, it was a testing ground for the establishment of faster methods of killing and incinerating people.[30] Treblinka was the third and the most "perfect" extermination camp of Operation Reinhard because it was built after Bełżec and Sobibór and incorporated lessons learned from their construction.[31] In addition to the Reinhard camps, mass killing facilities using Zyklon B were developed at the Majdanek concentration camp in March 1942[28] and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in September within the already existing Auschwitz I.[32]

The Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews from across the General Government during Aktion Reinhard was overseen in occupied Poland by SS-Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, who did so as the deputy of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in Berlin.[33] The Operation Reinhard camps reported directly to the Reich Main Security Office (German: Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA for short), which was also headed by Himmler. The staff of Operation Reinhard, most of whom had been involved in the Action T4 euthanasia programme,[34] used T4 as a basic framework for the construction of facilities.[35] All of the Jews who were killed in the Reinhard camps came from ghettos.[36]

Treblinka on the map of Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland (marked with black and white skulls)

Location of Treblinka[edit]

The two parallel camps of Treblinka were located 80 kilometres (50 mi) northeast of the Polish capital Warsaw,[37][38] near the MałkiniaSokołów Podlaski railway junction connecting major cities in central Poland with the Treblinka village railroad station. Before World War II, it was the site of a gravel mining enterprise essential to the production of concrete. During that time it was owned and operated by the Polish industrialist Marian Łopuszyński, who built a 6-kilometre (3.7 mi) railway track to the existing line.[39] When the Germans built Treblinka I, the quarry was already equipped with heavy machinery that could be used right away.[40] For them, Treblinka was conveniently located. It was well-connected but distant enough to provide isolation,[g][41] as it was situated halfway between some of the largest Jewish ghettos in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, including the ghetto in Warsaw and the ghetto in Białystok, the capital of the newly formed district of Bialystok (German: Bezirk Bialystok). The Warsaw Ghetto had about 500,000 Jewish inmates,[42] while the Białystok Ghetto had about 60,000.[43]

From the beginning Treblinka was split into two parallel camps, Treblinka I and Treblinka II. The German contractors who oversaw the construction of Treblinka I and Treblinka II were the Schoenbronn Company of Leipzig and the Warsaw branch of Schmidt–Munstermann.[1] Between 1942 and 1943 the extermination camp was further redeveloped with a crawler excavator. New gas chambers made of bricks and mortar and mass cremation pyres were also introduced during this time.[44] Additionally, the perimeter was enlarged to provide a buffer zone, thus making it impossible to approach the camp from the outside. The number of trains caused panic among the residents of nearby settlements.[14] They would likely have been killed if caught near the train tracks.[45]

Treblinka I[edit]

Founded officially on 15 November 1941,[h][47] Treblinka I was a forced-labour camp (Arbeitslager), initially for Poles and Jews captured in nearby locations. It replaced an ad-hoc company set up in June 1941 by Sturmbannführer Ernst Gramss. A new barracks and barbed wire fencing 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) tall were erected in the fall of 1941.[48] To obtain the workforce needed for Treblinka I, civilians were sent to the camp en masse for various real or imagined offences, sentenced to hard labour by the Gestapo office in Sokołów, which was headed by Gramms himself.[49] Even though the average length of a sentence was six months, many prisoners had their sentences extended indefinitely. Some 20,000 victims passed through Treblinka I over the course of its three-year existence. About half of them died there from exhaustion, hunger and disease.[49] Those who survived were released after serving their sentences; these were generally Poles from nearby villages.[50]

Official announcement of the founding of Treblinka I, the forced-labour camp

At any given time, Treblinka I had a workforce of 1,000–2,000 prisoners,[48] most of whom worked 12- to 14-hour shifts in the large quarry and later also supplied fuel for the open-air crematoria in Treblinka II by bringing in wood from the nearby forest.[51] There were German, Czech and French Jews among them, as well as Poles captured in łapankas,[i] farmers unable to deliver food contingents, hostages trapped by happenstance, and people who attempted to harbour Jews outside the Jewish ghettos or who performed restricted actions without permits. Beginning in July 1942 Jews and non-Jews were separated. Women largely worked in the sorting barracks, where they repaired and cleaned military clothing delivered by freight trains,[49] while most of the men worked at the gravel mine. There were no work uniforms, and inmates who lost their own shoes were forced to go barefoot or scavenge them from dead prisoners. Furthermore, water was rationed, and punishments were regularly delivered at roll-calls. From December 1943 the inmates were no longer carrying any specific sentences. The camp operated officially until 23 July 1944, when the imminent arrival of Soviet forces led to its abandonment.[49]

During its entire operation, Treblinka I's commandant was Sturmbannführer Theodor van Eupen.[48] He ran the camp with several SS men and almost 100 Hiwi guards. The quarry, spread over an area of 17 hectares (42 acres), supplied road construction material for German military use and was part of the strategic road-building programme in the attack on the Soviet Union. It was equipped with a crawler excavator for shared use by both Treblinka I and II. Eupen worked closely with the SS and German police commanders in Warsaw during the deportation of Jews in early 1943 and had prisoners brought to him from the Warsaw Ghetto for the necessary replacements. According to Franciszek Ząbecki, the local railway station master, Eupen often executed prisoners by "taking shots at them, as if they were partridges". A widely feared overseer was Untersturmführer Franz Schwarz, who would execute prisoners with a pickaxe or hammer.[53]

Treblinka II[edit]

Memorial at Treblinka II, with some 17,000 quarry stones symbolising gravestones.[22] Inscriptions indicate places of Holocaust train departures with at least 5,000 victims and selected ghettos from across Poland.

Treblinka II (officially the SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka) was divided into three parts: Camp 1 was the administrative compound where the guards lived, Camp 2 was the receiving area where incoming transports of prisoners were offloaded, and Camp 3 was the location of the gas chambers.[j] All three parts were built by two groups of German Jews expelled from Berlin and imprisoned at the Warsaw Ghetto (a total of 238 men from 17 to 35 years of age).[55] Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla, the head of construction, brought in the German Jews because they could speak German. Construction began on 10 April 1942,[55] when Bełżec and Sobibór were already in operation.[56] The entire death camp, which was either 17 hectares (42 acres)[55] or 13.5 hectares (33 acres) in size (sources vary),[57] was surrounded by two rows of barbed-wire fencing 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in) tall. This fence was later weaved with pine-tree branches to obstruct the view of the camp.[58] More Jews were brought in from the surrounding settlements to work on the new railway ramp within the Camp 2 receiving area, which was ready in June 1942.[55]

The first section of Treblinka II (Camp 1) was the Wohnlager administrative and residential compound; it had a telephone line. The main road within the camp was paved and named Seidel Straße[k] after Unterscharführer Kurt Seidel, the SS corporal who supervised its construction. A few side roads were lined with gravel. The main gate for road traffic was erected on the north side.[59] Barracks were built with supplies delivered from Warsaw, Sokołów Podlaski, and Kosów Lacki. There were kitchen, bakery, and dining rooms equipped with high-quality items taken from Jewish ghettos.[55] The Germans and Ukrainians each had their own sleeping quarters, though both were positioned at an angle for better control of all entrances. There were also two barracks behind an inner fence for the Jewish work commandos. SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz had the idea of setting up a small zoo in the centre next to his horse stables, with two caged foxes, two peacocks and a roe deer (brought in 1943).[59] Smaller rooms were built for laundry, tailor, and shoe repair shops, as well as for woodworking and medical aid. Closest to the SS quarters were the separate barracks for the Polish and Ukrainian server, cleaning and kitchen women.[59]

The 1944 aerial photo of Treblinka II after "cleanup". The new farmhouse and livestock building are visible to the lower left.[60] The photograph is overlaid with already-dismantled structures (marked in red/orange). On the left-hand side are the SS and Hiwi guards living quarters (1) with barracks defined by the surrounding walkways. At the bottom (2) are the railway ramp and unloading platform (centre), marked with the red arrow. The "road to heaven"[61] is marked with a dashed line. The undressing barracks for men and women, surrounded by a solid fence with no view of the outside, are marked with two rectangles. The location of the new, big gas chambers (3) is marked with a cross. The burial pits, dug with a crawler excavator, are in light yellow.

The next section of Treblinka II (Camp 2, also called the lower camp or Auffanglager), was the receiving area where the railway unloading ramp extended from the Treblinka line into the camp.[62][63] There was a platform surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. A new building, erected on the platform, was disguised as a railway station complete with a wooden clock and fake railroad terminal signage. SS-Scharführer Josef Hirtreiter worked the unloading ramp and was remembered for being especially cruel; he would grab children by their feet and smash their heads against boxcars.[64] Behind a second fence, about 100 metres (330 ft) from the track, there were two long barracks used for undressing, with a "cashier's booth" which collected money and jewelry for "safekeeping".[65] Jews who resisted were taken away or beaten to death by the guards. The area where the women and children were shorn of their hair was on the other side of the path from the men. All buildings in the lower camp, including the barber barracks, contained the piled up clothing and belongings of the prisoners.[65] Further to the right, there was a fake infirmary called "Lazaret", with the Red Cross sign on it. It was a small barracks surrounded by barbed wire where the sick, old, wounded and "difficult" prisoners were taken.[65] Directly behind the "Lazaret" building there was an open excavation pit seven metres (23 ft) deep. These prisoners were then led to the edge of the pit[66] and shot one at a time by Blockführer Willi Mentz, nicknamed "Frankenstein" by the inmates.[65] Mentz single-handedly executed thousands of Jews,[67] aided by his supervisor, August Miete, who was called the "Angel of Death" by the prisoners.[68] The same trench was also used to burn loads of identity papers deposited by new arrivals at the undressing area.[63][65]

The third and the most important section of Treblinka II (Camp 3, also called the upper camp) was the actual killing zone with gas chambers built in its centre.[69] It was completely screened from the railroad tracks by an earth bank built by a crawler excavator. This mound was elongated in shape, similar to a retaining wall, and it can be seen in a sketch produced during the 1967 trial of Treblinka II commandant Franz Stangl. On the other sides, the zone was camouflaged from new arrivals like the rest of the camp, using tree branches woven into barbed wire fences by the Tarnungskommando (the only work detail led out to collect them).[1][70] From the undressing barracks there was a fenced-off path leading through the forested area directly into the gas chambers.[69] It was cynically called die Himmelstraße ("the road to heaven")[61] or der Schlauch ("the tube") by the SS.[71] For the first eight months of the camp's operation, the excavator was used to dig huge burial ditches on both sides of the gas chambers; these ditches were approximately 50 metres (160 ft) long, 25 metres (82 ft) wide, and 10 metres (33 ft) deep.[1] In early 1943, they were replaced with cremation pyres that were up to 30 metres (98 ft) long, with rails laid across the pits on concrete blocks. The roughly 300 prisoners who operated the upper camp lived in separate barracks built behind the gas chambers.[72]

Killing process[edit]

Unlike other Nazi concentration camps across German-occupied Europe, in which prisoners were used as forced labour for the German war effort, death camps (Vernichtungslager) like Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibór had only one function: to kill those sent there. To prevent incoming victims from realising their fate, Treblinka II was disguised as a transit camp for deportations further east, complete with made-up train schedules, a fake train-station clock with hands painted on it, names of destinations,[73] a fake ticket window, and the stop sign "Ober Majdan",[74] a code word for Treblinka commonly used to deceive passengers departing from Western Europe. Majdan was an actual prewar landed estate 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) away from the camp.[75]

Polish Jews[edit]

Jews being loaded onto trains to Treblinka at the Warsaw Ghetto's Umschlagplatz, 1942
Further information: Grossaktion Warsaw (1942)

The mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July 1942 with the first shipment of 6,500 victims. The gas chambers became operational the following day. For the next two months, deportations from Warsaw continued on a daily basis via two pendulum trains carrying about 4,000 to 7,000 victims each. The first train came in the early morning and the second in the mid-afternoon.[76] All new arrivals were sent immediately to the undressing area by the Sonderkommando squad that managed the arrival platform, and from there to the gas chambers. According to German records, including the official report by SS Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, some 265,000 Jews were transported in freight trains from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka during the period from 22 July to 12 September 1942 (months before the subsequent Warsaw Ghetto Uprising).[77][78]

Hundreds of prisoners died from exhaustion, suffocation and thirst while in transit to the camp in the overcrowded boxcars.[79] From September 1942 on, both Polish and foreign Jews were greeted with a brief verbal announcement. An earlier signboard with directions was removed because it was clearly insufficient.[47] The deportees were told that they had arrived at a transit point on the way to Ukraine and needed to shower and have their clothes disinfected before receiving work uniforms and new orders.[66]

Foreign Jews and Romani people[edit]

Treblinka received transports of almost 20,000 foreign Jews between October 1942 and March 1943, including 8,000 from the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia via Theresienstadt as well as over 11,000 from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace, Macedonia and Pirot pursuant to an agreement with the Nazi-allied Bulgarian government.[47] They had train tickets and arrived predominantly in passenger cars with considerable luggage, travel foods and drinks, all of which were taken by the SS to the food storage barracks. The provisions included such items as smoked mutton, specialty breads, wine, cheese, fruit, tea, coffee and candy.[5] Unlike Polish Jews arriving in Holocaust trains from nearby ghettos in cities like Warsaw, Radom and those of Bezirk Bialystok, the foreign Jews received a warm welcome upon arrival from an SS man (either Otto Stadie or Willy Mätzig).[47][80] In any case, their ultimate fate was to die like the others.[66] While Treblinka dealt mainly with Polish Jews, Auschwitz-Birkenau "processed" Jews from virtually every other country in Europe, Bełżec handled the Jews from Austria and the Sudetenland, and Sobibór was the final destination for Jews from France and the Netherlands.[81] The rate of arriving transports slowed down only in winter.[82]

The decoupled locomotive went back to the Małkinia layover for the next load, while the victims were pulled from the carriages onto the platform by Kommando Blau, one of the Jewish work-details forced to assist the Germans at the camp.[66] They were led through the gate amidst the chaos and constant screaming and yelling.[80] They were separated by gender behind the gate; women were pushed into the undressing barracks and barber on the left, while men were sent to the right. They were ordered to tie their shoes together and strip. Some kept their own towels.[5] The Jews who resisted were taken to the "Lazaret", also called the "Red Cross infirmary", and shot right behind it. Women had their hair cut off, meaning that it took longer to prepare them for the gas chambers than men.[63] This hair was used in the manufacture of socks for U-boat crews and hair-felt footwear for the Deutsche Reichsbahn.[l][86]

While most of those killed at Treblinka were Jews, approximately 2,000 Romani people died there as well. Like the Jews, the Romani were first rounded up and sent to the ghettos; at a conference on 30 January 1940 it was decided that all 30,000 Romani living in Nazi Germany proper were to be deported to former Polish territory. Most of these were sent to already established Jewish ghettos in the General Government, such as those in Warsaw or Łódź. As with the Jews, most Romani who went to Treblinka died in the gas chambers, although some were shot. However, while the majority of the Jews living in ghettos were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór, or Treblinka to be executed, most of the Romani living in these same ghettos were simply shot on the spot. There are no known Romani escapees or survivors from Treblinka.[8]

Gas chambers[edit]

Telegram to Berlin from the deputy commander of Aktion Reinhard, Hermann Höfle, 15 January 1943 listing the number of arrivals in the extermination camps, 1942 total. Camp Treblinka (T): 713,555 Jews

The newly arrived Jews were beaten incessantly with whips after undressing to drive them towards the gas chambers; hesitant men were treated particularly brutally. Rudolf Höss, the commandant at Auschwitz, contrasted the practice at Treblinka of lying to the victims about the showers with his own camp's practice of telling them they had to go through a "delousing" process.[87] According to the postwar testimony of some SS officers, men were always gassed first, while women and children waited outside the gas chambers for their turn. During this time, the women and children could hear the sounds of suffering from inside the gas chambers, and they became aware of the fate that awaited them, which caused panic, distress, and even involuntary defecation.[82] According to Stangl, a train transport of about 3,000 people could be "processed" in a matter of three hours. In a single 14-hour workday, 12,000 to 15,000 people would be killed.[88] After the new gas chambers were built, the duration of the killing process was reduced to an hour and a half.[73]

The gassing area was entirely closed off with tall wood fencing made of vertical boards. Originally, it consisted of three interconnected barracks 8 metres (26 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) wide that were disguised as showers. They had double walls insulated by earth packed down in between. The interior walls and ceilings were lined with roofing paper. The floors were covered with tin-plated sheet metal, the same material used for the roof. Solid wooden doors were insulated with swaths of rubber and bolted from the outside by heavy cross-bars.[69] The victims were gassed with the fumes generated by a Soviet tank engine which had been removed from a Red Army tank captured during Operation Barbarossa. According to SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs, it was a 200 horsepower, water cooled V-8 gasoline engine; Fuchs was responsible for installing it.[89][90] It had been brought in by the SS at the time of the camp's construction and was also used to generate electricity.[69] The engine was erected in a separate shack with its exhaust pipe put just below the ground. The exhaust tubing opened into all three gas chambers.[69] The fumes could be seen seeping out. After about 20 minutes the bodies were removed by dozens of Sonderkommandos, placed onto carts and wheeled away. The system was imperfect and required a lot of effort;[90] trains that arrived later in the day had to wait on layover tracks overnight at Treblinka, Małkinia, or Wólka Okrąglik.[91]

Deportation of 10,000 Polish Jews to Treblinka during the liquidation of the ghetto in Siedlce beginning 23 August 1942.[92]

Between August and September 1942, a big new building with a concrete foundation was built out of bricks and mortar under the guidance of Action T4 euthanasia expert Erwin Lambert. It contained 8–10 gas chambers, each of which was 8 metres by 4 metres (26 ft by 13 ft), and it had a corridor in the centre. Stangl supervised its construction and brought in building materials from the nearby village of Małkinia by dismantling factory stock.[69] During this time victims continued to arrive daily and were led totally naked past the building site to the original gas chambers.[31] The new gas chambers became operational after five weeks of construction in early autumn 1942, equipped with two fume-producing engines instead of one.[72] The metal doors, which had been taken from Soviet military bunkers around Białystok, had portholes through which it was possible to examine the dead before removing them.[63][72] Stangl said that the old death chambers were capable of killing 3,000 people in three hours.[88] The new ones had the highest possible "output" of any gas chambers in the three Reinhard death camps and could kill up to 22,000[93] or 25,000[94] people every day, a fact which Globocnik once boasted to Kurt Gerstein, a fellow SS officer from Disinfection Services.[95] However, the new gas chambers were seldom used to their full capacity; 12,000–15,000 victims remained the daily average.[93]

The killing process at Treblinka differed significantly from the method used at Auschwitz and Majdanek, where the poisonous gas Zyklon B (crystallised hydrogen cyanide) was utilised. At Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, the victims died from suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning. After visiting Treblinka on a guided tour, Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss concluded that gassing with engine exhaust was inferior to the Zyklon B used at his extermination camp.[96] The few prisoners who worked in the Sonderkommandos and survived later testified that victims frequently let out a final gasp of air from their lungs when they were extracted from the gas chambers.[66] The chambers became silent after twelve minutes[97] and were closed for twenty minutes or less.[98] According to Jankiel Wiernik, who survived the 1943 prisoner uprising and escaped, even after the suffocation had ended and the doors of the gas chambers had been opened, the bodies of victims did not lie on the ground. Instead, they were standing and kneeling due to the severe overcrowding, with dead mothers embracing the lifeless bodies of their children.[99] Some victims gave signs of life during the disposal of the corpses, but the guards routinely refused to react.[98]

Cremation pits[edit]

Stone memorial resembling one of the original cremation pit where the bodies were burned. It is a flat grave marker constructed of crushed and cemented black basalt symbolising burnt charcoal. The actual human ashes were mixed with sand and spread over 22,000 square metres (237,000 square feet).[12]

The Germans became fully aware of the political danger associated with the mass burial of corpses only in 1943, when the Polish victims of the Soviet Katyn massacre were discovered near Smolensk in Russia and reported to Berlin. Those 22,000 officers' bodies were well preserved underground, attesting to the Soviet mass murder. By April, Nazi propaganda began to draw the attention of the international community to this war crime using newsfilm.[100] To prove their claim, the Germans brought in the Katyn Commission (a group of twelve forensic experts from a variety of European countries)[101] to examine the bodies in detail and report its findings; it concluded that the Soviets were responsible.[102] The Germans attempted to use the commission's results to drive a wedge between the Allies.[103] The secret orders to exhume the corpses already buried at Treblinka and burn them instead came directly from the Nazi leadership, quite possibly from Heinrich Himmler himself. Himmler was very concerned about covering up Nazi crimes, and it is known that the cremations began shortly after his visit to the camp in late February or early March 1943.[104]

Within Treblinka II, there were at least two large cremation pits constructed to incinerate dead bodies. The pits were used to cremate the new corpses along with the old corpses, which had to be dug up since they had been buried with a crawler excavator during the first six months of the camp's operation. They utilised rails as grates per the instructions of Herbert Floß, the camp's cremation expert. The bodies were placed on grates over wood, splashed with petrol, and burned in one massive blaze. It was a harrowing sight, according to Jankiel Wiernik, with the bellies of pregnant women exploding from boiling amniotic sac fluid.[105] He wrote that "the heat radiating from the pits was maddening."[5] The bodies would burn for five hours, and the pyres operated 24 hours a day. Once the system had been perfected, the bodies of some 10,000–12,000 victims could be incinerated there at the same time.[5][105]

The open-air burn pits were located east of the new gas chambers and refuelled from 4 a.m.[106] (or after 5 a.m. depending on work-load) to 6 p.m. in roughly 5-hour intervals.[107] The current camp memorial includes a flat grave marker resembling one of them. It is constructed from melted basalt and has a concrete foundation. It is a symbolic grave,[108] as the Nazis spread the actual human ashes, mixed with sand, over 22,000 square metres (237,000 square feet).[12]

Organisation of the camp[edit]

The camp was operated by 20–25 SS overseers (Germans and Austrians) and 80–120 Wachmänner ("watchmen") guards who had been trained at a special SS facility in the Trawniki concentration camp near Lublin, Poland; all Wachmänner guards were trained at Trawniki. While the guards were mainly ethnic German Volksdeutsche[m] from the east and native Ukrainians,[109][110] there were also some Russians, Tatars, Moldovans, Latvians, and Central Asians, all of whom had served in the Red Army. They were enlisted by Karl Streibel, the commander of the Trawniki camp, from the prisoner-of-war (POW) camps for the Soviet soldiers captured after the outbreak of war with the USSR.[111][10][n][112] The degree to which their recruitment was voluntary remains disputed; while conditions in the Soviet POW camps were dreadful, some Soviet POWs chose to collaborate with the Germans even before cold, hunger, and disease began devastating the POW camps in mid-September 1941.[113]

Sketch plan of Treblinka II produced during Stangl's 1967 trial in Germany. Missing from it are the swaths of land around cremation pits with burial trenches dug by a crawler excavator (see aerial photo).

The work at Treblinka was carried out under threat of death by Jewish prisoners organised into specialised Sonderkommando squads or work-details. At the Camp 2 Auffanglager receiving area each squad had a different color triangle.[107] The triangles made it impossible for new arrivals to try to blend in with members of the work-details. The blue unit (Kommando Blau) managed the railroad ramp and unlocked the freight cars. They met the new arrivals, carried out people who were already dead, removed bundles, and cleaned the boxcar floors. The red unit (Kommando Rot), which was the largest squad, unpacked and sorted the belongings of victims after they had been "processed". The red unit delivered these belongings to the storage barracks, which were managed by the yellow unit (Kommando Gelb), who separated the high-quality items from the low-quality clothing, removed the Star of David from all outer garments, and extracted any money sewn into the linings.[114] The yellow unit was followed by the Desinfektionskommando, who disinfected these belongings, including sacks of hair from "processed" women. The Goldjuden unit ("money Jews") collected and counted banknotes and evaluated the worth of gold and jewelry.[70]

A different group of about 300 men, called the Totenjuden ("Jews of death"), lived and worked in Camp 3 across from the gas chambers. During the first six months they took the corpses away for burial after any gold teeth had been extracted. However, once cremation began in early 1943 they took the corpses to the pits, refuelled the pyres, crushed the remaining bones with mallets, and collected the ashes for disposal.[40] Each trainload of "deportees" brought to Treblinka consisted of an average of sixty heavily guarded railcars. They were divided into three sets of twenty at the layover yard. Each set was processed within the first two hours of backing onto the ramp, and was then made ready by the Sonderkommandos to be exchanged for the next set of twenty cars.[115]

Keeping order[edit]

Members of all work units were continuously beaten by the guards and often shot or hanged at the gallows. Only the strongest men were selected from new arrivals daily to obtain the necessary replacements.[116] There were also other work details which had no contact with the transports: the Holzfällerkommando ("woodcutter unit") cut and chopped firewood, and the Tarnungskommando ("disguise unit") camouflaged the essential structures of the camp. Another work detail was responsible for cleaning the common areas of Treblinka. The Camp 1 Wohnlager residential compound contained barracks for about 700 Sonderkommandos which, when combined with the 300 Totenjuden living across from the gas chambers, brought their grand total to roughly one thousand at any given time.[117]

Showing up to work bloodied and bruised would lead to execution. If a prisoner beaten on the face sustained black eyes, open wounds and severe swelling, he would be called clepsydra (Greek for "water clock") by the other prisoners and most likely shot that same evening at roll call or the next day if the bruised cheeks first began to swell up then.[118] Many Sonderkommando prisoners hanged themselves at night, incapable of coping with the horrors. Suicides in the Totenjuden barracks, wrote Wiernik, occurred at the rate of 15 to 20 per day.[5] The work crews – usually unable to eat or sleep from fear and anxiety – were almost entirely replaced every few days; members of the old work-detail were sent to their deaths except for those most resilient to stress.[73]

Treblinka prisoner uprising[edit]

Burning Treblinka II perimeter during the prisoner uprising, 2 August 1943. Barracks were set ablaze, including a tank of petrol which exploded and spread flames on the surrounding structures. A clandestine photograph taken by eyewitness Franciszek Ząbecki.

In early 1943 an underground Jewish resistance organisation was formed at Treblinka with the goal of seizing control of the camp and escaping to freedom.[119] The planned revolt was preceded by a long period of secret preparations. The clandestine unit was first organised by a former Jewish captain of the Polish Army, Dr. Julian Chorążycki,[o] who was described by fellow plotter Samuel Rajzman as a noble man essential to the action.[120] His organising committee included Zelomir Bloch (leadership),[12] Rudolf Masaryk, Marceli Galewski, Samuel Rajzman,[98] Dr. Irena Lewkowska (Irka,[121] from sick bay for the Hiwis),[11] Leon Haberman, Hershl (Henry) Sperling from Częstochowa, and several others.[122] Chorążycki (who treated the German patients)[121] committed suicide by poison on 19 April 1943 when faced with imminent capture[98] so that the Germans would not discover the plot through torture.[123] The next leader was another former Polish Army officer, Dr. Berek Lajcher,[p] who arrived on 1 May. Born in Częstochowa but practising medicine in Wyszków, he had been expelled by the Nazis to Wegrów in 1939.[124]

The initial date of the revolt was set for 15 June 1943 but had to be postponed because of a change in circumstances caused by an explosion.[125] A Ghetto fighter detonated a grenade in the undressing area, throwing the SS and guards into a panic.[126] The fighter with the grenade arrived in one of the early May trains carrying captured rebels from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,[127] which had erupted on 19 April 1943. After the explosion, Treblinka received only about 7,000 Jews from the capital for fear of similar incidents.[128] The remaining 42,000 Warsaw Jews were deported to Majdanek instead.[77] Meanwhile, the burning of unearthed corpses continued at full speed until the end of July.[37] The Treblinka II conspirators became increasingly concerned about their own fate once the amount of work for them to do began to decline.[16] With fewer and fewer transports arriving, they realised that "they were next in line for the gas chambers."[129]

Day of the revolt and survivors[edit]

The uprising was launched on the hot summer day of 2 August 1943 (Monday, a regular day of rest from gassing), when a group of Germans and some forty Ukrainians drove off to the Bug River for a swim.[61] First, the door to the arsenal near the train tracks was silently unlocked with a key that had been duplicated earlier,[98] and some 20–25 rifles, 20 hand grenades and a dozen pistols were stolen and delivered in a cart to the gravel work-detail. At 3:45 p.m. some 700 Jews launched an insurgency that lasted for 30 minutes.[16] They set some buildings ablaze, including a tank of petrol which exploded and spread flames on the surrounding structures. A group of armed Jews attacked the main gate while others attempted to climb over the fence. However, the machine-gun fire from about 25 Germans and around 60 Ukrainian Trawnikis resulted in near-total slaughter. Lajcher was killed in the revolt along with most of the insurgents. Only about 200 Jews[15][16] succeeded in crossing over to the other side.[q] Half of them were killed after a chase in cars and on horses.[98] Additionally, because the Jews failed to cut the phone wires, Stangl was able to call in hundreds of German reinforcements,[129] which arrived from four different towns and set up roadblocks along the way.[16] Some of those who managed to survive were transported across the river by the partisans of the Armia Krajowa (Polish: Home Army) hiding in the surrounding forest,[17] while others who ran 30 kilometers (19 miles) like Sperling were helped and fed by Polish villagers.[61] Of those who managed to break through only around 70 are known to have survived until the end of the war,[18] including future authors of published Treblinka memoirs: Jankiel Wiernik, Chil Rajchman, Samuel Willenberg, and Richard Glazar.[119]

Survivor Samuel Willenberg presenting his drawings of Treblinka II in the Museum of Fight and Martyrdom at the site of the camp. On the right, the "Lazaret" killing station.

Among the Jewish prisoners who escaped after setting fire to the camp, there were two 19-year-olds, Samuel Willenberg and Kalman Taigman, who had both arrived in 1942 and had been forced to work there under pain of death. They were the only remaining Jewish survivors of Treblinka II until Taigman died, around 27 July 2012.[r] Taigman stated of his experience, "It was hell, absolutely hell. A normal man cannot imagine how a living person could have lived through it – killers, natural-born killers, who without a trace of remorse just murdered every little thing."[131] Willenberg and Taigman emigrated to Israel after the war and devoted their last few years to retelling the story of Treblinka.[s][131][134] Escapees Hershl Sperling and Richard Glazar both suffered from survivor guilt syndrome and eventually committed suicide.[61]

Camp after the uprising[edit]

In spite of the revolt, Treblinka II continued to function and remained a top priority for the SS for another year. Stangl met in Lublin with the head of Operation Reinhard Odilo Globocnik and inspector Christian Wirth and decided not to draft a report, indicating that no native Germans had died putting down the revolt.[135] While Stangl wanted to rebuild the camp, Globocnik told him that it would be closed down shortly and that he would be transferred to Trieste to help fight the partisans there. The Nazi high command may have felt that Stangl, Globocnik, Wirth and other Reinhard personnel "knew too much for their own good" and wanted to dispose of them by sending them to the front.[136] Additionally, with almost all of the Jews from German-established ghettos on Polish soil killed, there would have been little point in rebuilding the facility.[137] Auschwitz had enough capacity to fulfill the Nazis' remaining exterminating needs, making Treblinka redundant.[138]

The camp's new commandant Kurt Franz, formerly its deputy commandant, took over in mid or late August. During his postwar testimonies, he recalled: "After the uprising in August 1943 I ran the camp single-handedly for a month; however, during that period no gassings were undertaken."[38] Facts prove otherwise. Despite the extensive damage to the camp, the gas chambers were left intact and the killing of Polish Jews continued, albeit at a reduced speed with only ten boxcars rolled onto the ramp at one time, while the others had to wait.[139] The last two rail transports of Jews were brought to the camp for gassing from the Białystok Ghetto on 18 and 19 August 1943.[140] They consisted of 78 cars (37 the first day and 39 the second), according to communiqué published by the Office of Information of the Armia Krajowa, which were based on observation of Holocaust trains passing through the village of Treblinka.[139][141] The 39 cars that came to Treblinka on 19 August 1943 were carrying at least 7,600 survivors of the Białystok Ghetto Uprising.[135]

On 19 October 1943, Operation Reinhard was terminated by a letter from Odilo Globocnik. The following day, a large group of Jewish Arbeitskommandos who had worked on dismantling the camp structures over the past several weeks were loaded onto the train and transported via Siedlce and Chełm to Sobibór for gassing on 20 October 1943.[73] Franz followed Globocnik and Stangl to Trieste in November. Cleanup operations continued over the winter. As part of these operations, Jews from the surviving work detail dismantled the gas chambers brick-by-brick and used them to erect a farmhouse on the site of the camp's former bakery. Globocnik confirmed its purpose as a secret guard post for a Nazi-Ukrainian agent to remain behind the scenes in a letter he sent to Himmler from Trieste on 5 January 1944.[139] A Hiwi guard named Oswald Strebel was given permission to bring his family from Ukraine for "reasons of surveillance", wrote Globocnik; Strebel had worked as a guard at Treblinka II.[141] The Ukrainian Volksdeutscher was instructed to tell visitors that he had been farming there for decades, but the local Poles were well aware of the existence of the camp.[142]

Operational command of Treblinka II[edit]

Irmfried Eberl[edit]

Irmfried Eberl, the first commandant of Treblinka II, removed because of his alleged incompetence in running the camp

SS-Obersturmführer Irmfried Eberl was appointed the camp's first commandant on 11 July 1942. He was a psychiatrist from Bernburg Euthanasia Centre and the only physician-in-chief to command an extermination camp during World War II.[79] According to some, his poor organisational skills soon caused the operation of Treblinka to turn disastrous; others point out that the number of transports that were coming in reflected the Nazi high command's wildly unrealistic expectations of Treblinka's ability to "process" these prisoners.[143] The early gassing machinery frequently broke down due to overuse, forcing the SS to shoot Jews assembled for suffocation. The workers did not have enough time to bury them, and the mass graves were overflowing.[47] According to the testimony of his colleague Unterscharführer Hans Hingst, Eberl's ego and thirst for power grossly exceeded his grasp: "So many transports arrived that the disembarkation and gassing of the people could no longer be handled."[79][143] On incoming Holocaust trains to Treblinka, many of the soon-to-be-murdered Jews locked inside correctly guessed what would happen to them.[144] The putrid odor of decaying human remains could be smelled up to 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) away. It was evident that large-scale killings were happening on site.[14]

Oskar Berger, a Jewish eyewitness who escaped during the 1943 uprising, told of the camp's state when he arrived there in August 1942:

When we were unloaded, we noticed a paralyzing view – all over the place there were hundreds of human bodies. Piles of packages, clothes, suitcases, everything in a mess. German and Ukrainian SS-men stood at the corners of the barracks and were shooting blindly into the crowd.[144]

Commandant Irmfried Eberl was relieved of his duties after Odilo Globocnik made a surprise visit to Treblinka on 26 August 1942 along with Christian Wirth and Wirth's adjutant from Bełżec, Josef Oberhauser; Eberl was dismissed on the spot.[145] Among the reasons for dismissal were: incompetently disposing of the tens of thousands of dead bodies, using inefficient methods of killing, and not properly concealing the mass murder. Eberl was reportedly transferred to Berlin, closer to operational headquarters in Hitler's Chancellery,[146] where the main architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, had just embarked on stepping up the pace of the program.[14][147] Globocnik assigned Christian Wirth to remain in Treblinka for a while to help clean up the camp.[146] On 28 August 1942, Globocnik temporarily suspended deportations. He chose Franz Stangl, who had previously been the commandant of the Sobibór extermination camp, to assume command of the camp as Eberl's successor. Stangl had a reputation as a competent administrator with a good understanding of the project's objectives, and therefore Globocnik trusted that Stangl would be capable of resuming control.[146]

Franz Stangl[edit]

Franz Stangl, the second and longest-serving commandant of Treblinka II

Stangl arrived at Treblinka in late August 1942. He replaced Eberl on 1 September. Years later, he described what he first saw when he came on the scene, in his 1971 interview with Gitta Sereny:[148]

The road ran alongside the railway. When we were about fifteen, twenty minutes' drive from Treblinka, we began to see corpses by the line, first just two or three, then more, and as we drove into Treblinka station, there were what looked like hundreds of them – just lying there – they'd obviously been there for days, in the heat. In the station was a train full of Jews, some dead, some still alive ... that too, looked as if it had been there for days.[148]

Stangl reorganised the camp, and the transports of Warsaw and Radom Jews began to arrive again on 3 September 1942.[47] According to Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad, Stangl wanted the camp to look attractive to him, so he ordered the paths paved in the Wohnlager administrative compound. Flowers were planted along Seidel Straße as well as near the SS living quarters.[149] He further concealed the appearance of Treblinka by requesting that all arriving prisoners be greeted by the SS with a verbal announcement translated by the working Jews.[146] The deportees were told that they were at a transit point on the way to Ukraine.[66] Some of their questions were answered by Germans wearing lab coats as tools for deception.[150] At times Stangl carried a whip and wore a white uniform, so he was nicknamed the "White Death" by prisoners. Although he was directly responsible for the camp's operations, Stangl limited his contact with Jewish prisoners as much as possible, at least according to his own testimony. He claimed that he rarely interfered with unusually cruel acts perpetrated by his subordinate officers at the camp.[151] He grew accustomed to the killings and perceived prisoners not as humans but merely as "cargo" that had to be destroyed, he said.[149]

Treblinka song[edit]

According to postwar testimonies, when transports were temporarily halted, then-deputy commandant Kurt Franz wrote lyrics to a song meant to celebrate the Treblinka extermination camp. In reality, prisoner Walter Hirsch wrote them for him.[152] The melody came from something Franz remembered from Buchenwald. The music was happy, in the key of D major, as though the deaths at the camp were a joyful process. The song was taught to the newly arriving Jews assigned to work in the Sonderkommando.[152] They were forced to memorise it by nightfall of their first day at the camp. Survivor Samuel Willenberg remembered the song beginning: "With firm steps we march ..."[82] The lyrics recalled by Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel are quoted below:

Kurt Franz, deputy commandant under Eberl and Stangl and later the last commandant of Treblinka II

Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous, at the world. The squads march to work. All that matters to us now is Treblinka. It is our destiny. That's why we've become one with Treblinka in no time at all. We know only the word of our Commander. We know only obedience and duty. We want to serve, to go on serving until little luck ends it all. Hurray![t][154]

A music ensemble was formed, under duress, by Artur Gold, a popular Jewish prewar composer from Warsaw. He arranged the theme to the Treblinka song for the 10-piece orchestra which he himself conducted. Gold arrived in Treblinka in 1942 and played music in the SS mess hall at the Wohnlager on German orders. He died during the uprising.[155]

Kurt Franz[edit]

After the Treblinka revolt in August 1943 and termination of Operation Reinhard in October 1943, Stangl went with Globocnik to Trieste in northern Italy where SS reinforcements were needed.[156] The third and last Treblinka II commandant was Kurt Franz, nicknamed "Lalka" (Polish: the doll) by the prisoners because he had "an innocent face".[157] According to survivor Hershl Sperling, as deputy commandant Franz would beat prisoners to death for minor infractions or have his dog Barry tear them to pieces.[158] He managed Treblinka II until November 1943. The subsequent cleanup of the Treblinka II perimeter was completed by prisoners of nearby Treblinka I Arbeitslager in the following months. Franz's deputy was Hauptscharführer Fritz Küttner, who maintained a network of Sonderkommando informers and did the hands-on killings.[159]

Kurt Franz maintained a photo album against very specific orders never to take photographs inside Treblinka. He named it "Schöne Zeiten" (The Good Times). His album is a rare source of images illustrating the mechanised grave digging, brickworks in Małkinia and the Treblinka zoo, among others. However, Franz was careful not to photograph the gas chambers.[159]

The Treblinka I gravel mine under the command of Theodor van Eupen functioned at full capacity until July 1944, with fresh new victims sent to him by Kreishauptmann Ernst Gramss from Sokołów.[160] The mass shootings continued into 1944.[139] With Soviet troops closing in, the last 300 to 700 Sonderkommandos disposing of the incriminating evidence were executed by Trawnikis in late July 1944, long after the camp's official closure.[161][37] A short time later the new home was set on fire by its new occupant who also fled to avoid capture.[139]

Arrival of the Soviets[edit]

In late July 1944 Soviet forces began to approach from the east. The departing Germans who already destroyed most direct evidence of genocidal intent burned to the ground surrounding villages including 761 buildings in Poniatowo, Prostyń, and Grądy. Many families were killed.[162] The fields of grain that once fed the SS were scorched.[163] On 19 August 1944 the church in Prostyń and its bell tower were blown up as the last German defence centre against the Red Army in the area.[164] By the time Soviets entered Treblinka on 16 August, the extermination zone had been levelled, plowed over, and planted with lupins.[37][38] What remained, wrote visiting Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman, were small bits of bone in the soil, human teeth, scraps of paper and fabric, broken dishes, jars, shaving brushes, rusted pots and pans, cups of all sizes, mangled shoes, and lumps of human hair everywhere.[165] The road leading to the camp was pitch black. Until summer 1944 human ashes (up to 20 carts every day) had been regularly strewn by the remaining prisoners along the road for 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) in the direction of Treblinka I.[166] When the war ended, destitute and starving locals started walking up the so-called Black Road (as they began to call it) in search of manmade nuggets shaped from melted gold in order to buy bread.[167]

Early attempts at preservation[edit]

The new Soviet-installed government failed to preserve evidence of the crime. The scene was not legally protected at the conclusion of World War II. In September 1947 some 30 students from the local school, led by their teacher Feliks Szturo and priest Józef Ruciński, collected larger bones and skull fragments into farmers' wicker baskets and buried them in a single mound.[168] That same year the first remembrance committee named Komitet Uczczenia Ofiar Treblinki (KUOT; Committee to Remember the Victims of Treblinka) formed in Warsaw, and launched a design competition for the memorial.[169]

Treblinka memorial (2005)

Stalinist officials allocated no funding for the design competition nor for the memorial itself, and the committee disbanded in 1948; by then many survivors had left the country. However, in 1949 the town of Sokołów Podlaski took it upon itself to protect the camp with a new fence and a proper gate. A work crew with no archaeological experience was sent in to beautify the grounds. In 1958, after the end of Stalinism in Poland, the Warsaw provincial council declared Treblinka to be a place of martyrology.[d] Over the next four years, some 127 hectares (318 acres) that had formed part of the camp were purchased from 192 farmers in the villages of Prostyń, Grądy, Wólka Okrąglik and Nowa Maliszewa.[171]

Construction of the memorial[edit]

The construction of a monument 8 metres (26 ft) tall designed by sculptor Franciszek Duszeńko was inaugurated on 21 April 1958 with the laying of the cornerstone at the site of the former gas chambers. The sculpture represents the trend toward large avant-garde forms introduced in the 1960s throughout Europe, with a granite tower cracked down the middle and capped by a mushroom-like block carved with abstract reliefs and Jewish symbols.[172] Treblinka was declared a national monument of martyrology on 10 May 1964 during an official ceremony attended by 30,000 people.[u][20] The monument was unveiled by Zenon Kliszko, the Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, in the presence of survivors of the Treblinka uprising from Israel, France, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The nearby building of the camp's custodian (built in 1960)[v] was turned into an exhibition house following the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989 and the retirement of the custodian; it opened in 2006. It was later expanded and made into a branch of the Siedlce Regional Museum.[21][22]

Death count[edit]

The Holocaust "Güterwagen" boxcar holding an average of 100 victims, occupied Poland

While there are many estimates of the total number of people killed at Treblinka, most scholarly estimates range from 700,000 to 900,000,[6][7] meaning that more Jews died at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp besides Auschwitz.[9] The Treblinka museum in Poland states that at least 800,000 people died at Treblinka;[7] Yad Vashem, which is Israel's Holocaust museum, puts the number killed at 870,000; and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives a range of 870,000 to 925,000.[37]

To estimate the death count, historians rely on two main sources of information: the daily records of transports to the camp kept by Polish railway master Franciszek Ząbecki and the demographic information regarding the number of people deported from each ghetto to Treblinka.[7] Recently, a third source of information has become available: the Höfle Telegram, which was an encrypted message sent from Operation Reinhard deputy commander Hermann Höfle to Berlin on 31 December 1942, detailing the number of Jews deported to each Operation Reinhard death camp up to that point. Discovered in 2001 among recently declassified documents in Britain, it shows that by the official count 713,555 Jews were sent to Treblinka in 1942.[174]

First estimates[edit]

The first estimate of the number of people killed at Treblinka came from Vasily Grossman, a Soviet war reporter who visited Treblinka in July 1944 as the Soviet forces marched eastward across Poland. He published an article titled "The Hell Called Treblinka", which appeared in the November 1944 issue of Znayma, a monthly Russian literary magazine.[175] In the article he claimed that 3,000,000 people had been killed at Treblinka, a widely unrealistic number. Either he was not aware that the short station platform at Treblinka II greatly reduced the number of cars that could be unloaded at one time,[176] or he was adhering to the Soviet trend of exaggerating Nazi crimes for propaganda purposes.[7] It was not until 1947 that the Polish historian Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz published the first reasonable estimate of the death count: 780,000,[7][177] based on the already proven record of 156 transports with an average of 5,000 prisoners each.[178]

Court exhibits and affidavits[edit]

Timeline of deportations to Treblinka during Grossaktion Warsaw, July 1942 to September 1942 (graph)

The Treblinka trials of the 1960s took place in Düsseldorf and produced the two official West German estimates. During the 1965 trial of Kurt Franz, the Court of Assize in Düsseldorf concluded that at least 700,000 people were killed at Treblinka, following a report by Dr. Helmut Krausnick, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich.[179] During Franz Stangl's trial in 1969 that same court reassessed that number to be at least 900,000 after new evidence was revealed in a report by Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler.[180][7]

A chief witness for the prosecution at Düsseldorf in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1970 trials was Franciszek Ząbecki employed by the Deutsche Reichsbahn as a traffic controller at Treblinka village from 22 May 1941.[181] In 1977 he published his book Old and New Memories,[182] in which he used his own records to estimate that at least 1,200,000 people died at Treblinka.[180][183] His estimate may be much higher than those of other historians because it was based on the known maximum capacity of a trainset during the Grossaktion Warsaw of 1942 rather than its yearly average.[184] The original German waybills in his possession did not have the number of prisoners listed.[185] Ząbecki, a Polish member of railway staff before the war, was one of the few non-German witnesses to see most transports that came into the camp; he was present at the Treblinka station when the first Holocaust train arrived from Warsaw.[183] Ząbecki was a member of the Armia Krajowa (Polish: Home Army), which formed most of the Polish resistance movement in World War II, and kept a daily record of the extermination transports. He also took a clandestine photo of the burning Treblinka II perimeter during the prisoner uprising in August 1943. Ząbecki witnessed the last set of five enclosed freight cars carrying Sonderkommandos to the Sobibór gas chambers on 20 October 1943.[186] In 2013, his son Piotr Ząbecki wrote an article about him for Życie Siedleckie that revised that number to 1,297,000.[187]

Over a decade later, in his 1987 book Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad stated that at least 763,000 people were killed at Treblinka between July 1942 and April 1943.[188] A considerable number of other estimates followed: see table (below).

Höfle Telegram[edit]

In 2001, a decrypted copy of the Höfle Telegram was discovered among recently declassified documents in Britain, and it has proven very useful in estimating the death count. The telegram was sent from Operation Reinhard's deputy commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, to Berlin on 31 December 1942, and it states that by the official count 713,555 Jews were sent to Treblinka in 1942.[174] The actual number of people who died there was probably higher, as shown through the Armia Krajowa communiqués.[w][139] On the basis of the telegram and additional undated German evidence for 1943 listing 67,308 persons deported, historian Jacek Andrzej Młynarczyk observed that by the official count, 780,863 victims were brought by Deutsche Reichsbahn to Treblinka, regardless of the true number.[190]

Table of estimates[edit]

Estimate Source Notes Year Work[7]
Majority estimates (700,000 to 900,000)[6][7]
at least 700,000 Dr. Helmut Krausnick first West German estimate; used during trial of Kurt Franz 1965 [191]
at least 700,000 Adalbert Rückerl Director of the Central Authority for Investigation into Nazi Crime in Ludwigsburg[192] N/A
at least 700,000 Joseph Billig French historian 1973
700,000-800,000 Czesław Madajczyk Polish historian 1970
700,000-900,000 Robin O’Neil from Belzec: Stepping Stone to Genocide; Hitler’s answer to the Jewish Question, published by JewishGen Yizkor Books Project 2008 [191]
713,555 Höfle Telegram discovered in 2001; official Nazi estimate through the end of 1942 1942 [174]
at least 750,000 Michael Berenbaum from his encyclopedia entry on Treblinka 2012 Encyclopedia Britannica[9]
at least 750,000 Raul Hilberg Israeli Holocaust historian 1985 The Destruction of European Jews
780,000 Zdzisław Łukaszkiewicz Polish historian responsible for the first estimate of the death count based on 156 transports with 5,000 prisoners each, published in his monograph Obóz zagłady w Treblince 1947
780,863 Jacek Andrzej Młynarczyk cited by Timothy Snyder; combines Hölfe Telegram with undated German evidence from 1943 2004 [193]
at least 800,000 Treblinka camp museum uses Franciszek Ząbecki’s evidence and evidence from the ghettos N/A
850,000 Yitzhak Arad Israeli historian who estimates 763,000 deaths between July 1942 and April 1943 alone[188] 1983 Treblinka, Hell and Revolt[194]
at least 850,000 Martin Gilbert British historian of Jewish background 1993
870,000 Yad Vashem Israel's Holocaust museum N/A [195]
870,000 to 925,000 United States Holocaust Museum from "Treblinka: Chronology" article; excludes the deaths from forced labour in Treblinka I N/A [47]
876,000 Simon Wiesenthal Center 738,000 Jews from the General Government; 107,000 from Bialystok; 29,000 Jews from elsewhere in Europe; and 2,000 Gypsies N/A [196]
at least 900,000 Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler second West German estimate; used during trial of Franz Stangl 1970
912,000 Manfred Burba German historian 2000
Minority estimates (1,200,000 to 3,000,000)      
at least 1,200,000 Franciszek Ząbecki Polish eyewitness who saw most transports into the camp 1977 Old and New Memories
1,297,000 Piotr Ząbecki revision of Franciszek Ząbecki’s estimate by his son Piotr 2013 "He was a humble man"[187]
1,582,000 Ryszard Czarkowski Polish historian 1989
3,000,000 Vasily Grossman widely unrealistic estimate from a Soviet reporter 1946 The Hell of Treblinka
  • Note that the information in the rows with an empty last column comes from Dam im imię na wieki, page 114.[7]

Treblinka trials[edit]

Further information: Treblinka trials
Famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, pictured here in 1999, was responsible for hunting down Franz Stangl in Brazil.

The first official trial for war crimes committed at Treblinka was held in Düsseldorf between 12 October 1964 and 24 August 1965, preceded by the 1951 trial of SS-Scharführer Josef Hirtreiter, which was triggered by charges of war crimes unrelated to his service at the camp.[x][198] The trial opened twenty years after the war ended because the United States and the Soviet Union had lost interest in prosecuting German war crimes with the onset of the Cold War.[199] Additionally, many of the more than 90,000 Nazi war criminals recorded in German files were serving in positions of prominence under West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer.[200][201] Not until 1964 and 1965 were eleven former SS camp personnel brought to trial by West Germany,[202] including commandant Kurt Franz. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, along with Artur Matthes (Totenlager) and Willi Mentz and August Miete (both from Lazaret). Gustav Münzberger (Gas Chambers) received 12 years, Franz Suchomel (Gold and Money) 7 years, Otto Stadie (Operation) 6 years, Erwin Lambert (Gas Chambers) 4 years, and Albert Rum (Totenlager) 3 years. Otto Horn (Corpse Detail) was acquitted and set free.[203][204]

The second commandant of Treblinka II, Franz Stangl, managed to escape with his wife and children from Austria to Brazil in 1951. Stangl found work at a Volkswagen factory in São Paulo.[205] His role in the mass murder of Jews was known to the Austrian authorities, but Austria did not issue a warrant for his arrest until 1961, likely because of indifference or pro-Nazi sentiment.[200] Stangl was registered under his real name at the Austrian consulate in Brazil.[205] It took another six years before the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal tracked him down and triggered his arrest. After his extradition from Brazil to West Germany Stangl was tried for the deaths of around 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: "My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty." Found guilty on 22 October 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of heart failure in prison in Düsseldorf on 28 June 1971.[204]

Material gain[edit]

The stealing of cash and valuables, collected from the victims of gassing, was conducted by the higher-ranking SS men on an enormous scale. Notably, it was a common practice among the concentration camps' top echelon everywhere; two Majdanek concentration camp commandants, Koch and Florstedt, were tried and executed by the SS for the same offense in April 1945.[206] When the top-ranking officers went home, they would sometimes request a private locomotive from Klinzman and Emmerich[y] at the Treblinka station just to transport their personal "gifts" to Małkinia for a connecting train. Then, they would drive out of the camp in cars without any incriminating evidence on their person and would later arrive at Małkinia to transfer the goods.[207][z]

The overall amount of material gain by Nazi Germany is unknown except for the period between 22 August and 21 September 1942, when there were 243 wagons of goods sent and recorded.[207] Globocnik delivered a written tally to Reinhard headquarters on 15 December 1943 with the SS profit of RM 178,745,960.59, including 2,909.68 kilograms of gold (6,415 lb), 18,733.69 kilograms of silver (41,300 lb), 1,514 kilograms of platinum all melted into bars (3,338 lb), and 249,771.50 American dollars,[207] on top of 130 diamond solitaires, 2,511.87 carats of brilliants, 13,458.62 carats of diamonds, and 114 kilograms of pearls (251 lb). The amount of loot stolen by Globocnik himself is unknown, although Suchomel admitted in court that he filled a box with one million Reichsmarks for him.[169]

Archaeological studies[edit]

One of the tiles found during the archeological dig, providing the first physical evidence for the existence of the gas chambers at Treblinka.

Neither the Jewish religious leaders in Poland nor the authorities allowed archaeological excavations at the camp out of respect for the dead. Approval for a limited archaeological study was issued for the first time in 2010 to a British team from Staffordshire University using non-invasive technology and Lidar remote sensing. The soil resistance was analyzed at the site with ground-penetrating radar.[208] Features that appeared to be structural were found, two of which were thought to be the remains of the gas chambers, and therefore the study was allowed to continue.[209]

The archaeological team performing the search discovered three new mass graves. The remains have been reinterred out of respect for the victims. At the second dig they unearthed the first physical evidence of the gas chambers. The findings consisted of yellow tiles stamped with a Star of David for the Jewish-style bathhouse, and the building foundations with a wall. The Star was a logo of the ceramics factory founded by Jan Dziewulski and brothers Józef and Władysław Lange (DL since 1886) nationalised under communism after the war.[210][211] As explained by forensic archeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls, the importance of the new evidence is paramount because the second gas chambers built at Treblinka were housed in the only brick building in the entire camp; thus, it provides the first physical evidence for their existence.[212] The new discoveries became a subject of the 2014 documentary by the Smithsonian Channel.[213] More forensic work has been planned.[214]

March of the Living[edit]

Treblinka museum receives most visitors per day during the annual March of the Living educational program which brings young people from around the world to Poland, to explore the remnants of the Holocaust. The visitors for whom the primary destination is the March at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, visit Treblinka in the preceding days. In 2009 some 300 Israeli students attended the ceremony led by Eli Shaish from the Ministry of Education.[215] In total some 4,000 international students visited.[216] In 2013 the number of students who came, ahead of the Auschwitz commemorations, was 3,571. In 2014 some 1.5 thousand foreign students came at that same time.[217]

Operation Reinhard leadership and Treblinka commandants[edit]

For a more comprehensive list, see List of individuals responsible for Treblinka extermination camp.
Name Rank Function and Notes Citation
Operation Reinhard leadership      
  Odilo Globocnik SS-Hauptsturmführer and SS-Polizeiführer at the time (Captain and SS Police Chief) head of Operation Reinhard [133][218]
  Hermann Höfle SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) coordinator of Operation Reinhard [219]
  Christian Wirth SS-Hauptsturmführer at the time (Captain) inspector for Operation Reinhard [220]
  Richard Thomalla SS-Obersturmführer at the time (First Lieutenant) head of death camp construction during Operation Reinhard [133][220]
  Erwin Lambert SS-Unterscharführer (Corporal) head of gas chamber construction during Operation Reinhard (large gas chambers) [204][221]
Treblinka commandants      
 Theodor van Eupen SS-Sturmbannführer (Major), Commandant of Treblinka I Arbeitslager, 15 November 1941 – July 1944 (cleanup) head of the forced-labour camp [222]
  Irmfried Eberl SS-Obersturmführer (First Lieutenant), Commandant of Treblinka II, 11 July 1942 – 26 August 1942 transferred to Berlin due to incompetence [133]
  Franz Stangl SS-Obersturmführer (First Lieutenant), 2nd Commandant of Treblinka II, 1 September 1942 – August 1943 transferred to Treblinka from Sobibor extermination camp [133]
  Kurt Franz SS-Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant), last Commandant of Treblinka II, August (gassing) – November 1943 promoted from deputy commandant in August 1943 following camp prisoner revolt [133][204]
Deputy commandants      
  Karl Pötzinger SS-Oberscharführer (Staff Sergeant), Deputy commandant of Treblinka II head of cremation [1]
  Heinrich Matthes SS-Scharführer (Sergeant), Deputy commandant chief of the extermination area [204][223][224]

Footnotes[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Yitzhak Arad gives his name as Jacob Wiernik.[4]
  2. ^ While the term "Treblinka" can refer to either the forced-labour camp (Treblinka I) or the extermination camp (Treblinka II), the vast majority of the time it refers to the extermination camp.
  3. ^ Hiwi is an a German abbreviation for Hilfswilligen ("those willing to help"). The term was used to describe the collaborationist auxiliary police enlisted directly from Soviet POW camps who served at the major extermination camps.[10]
  4. ^ a b "Place of martyrology" is a calque borrowed from the popular Polish phrase "Miejsce Martyrologii Żydów", which was introduced by the Act of Parliament (Sejm) on 2 July 1947 in Warsaw.[170]
  5. ^ Wehrmacht is German for "Defence Force". It was the name of the armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1945.
  6. ^ The operation was named in honor of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's predecessor as head of the Reich Main Security Office. Heydrich was shot by members of the Czech resistance near Prague on 27 May 1942 and died a few days later.[26]
  7. ^ All three Reinhard camps (Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka) were built in rural forest complexes of the General Government in order to hide their existence, keep prying eyes away, and complete the illusion that they were transit points for deportations to the east.
  8. ^ Theodor Van Eupen was promoted to the position of commandant of Treblinka I in summer 1941, indicating that it began operating at that time.[46]
  9. ^ Lapanka is Polish for "roundup" and in this situation refers to the widespread German practice of capturing non-German civilians ambushed at random.[52]
  10. ^ The order was reversed by Yankel (Jankiel) Wiernik in his book A Year in Treblinka (1945); he named the receiving area of Treblinka II Camp 1, and the gassing zone (where he worked) Camp 2.[54]
  11. ^ The ß, called Eszett or scharfes s ("sharp s") in German, is a letter in the German alphabet which is roughly equivalent to ss.
  12. ^ The Deutsche Reichsbahn, also known as the German Reich Railway[83] or the German Imperial Railway,[84][85] was the name of the German national railway created from the railways of the individual states of the German Empire following the end of World War I.
  13. ^ In Nazi thinking, the Volksdeutsche were those who were "German in terms of people or folk".
  14. ^ See list of known Hiwi guards.
  15. ^ Improperly, Chorazyski.
  16. ^ He was remembered differently by survivors as either Dr. Lecher [sic],[98] or Dr. Leichert.[119]
  17. ^ Two hundred is the number accepted by Polish historians and the Treblinka camp museum; the Holocaust Encyclopedia lists three hundred instead.[47]
  18. ^ With Taigman's death c. 27 July 2012,[130] Willenberg then became the only living survivor.[18]
  19. ^ There was also a revolt at Sobibór two months later,[132] and at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 7 October 1944.[133]
  20. ^ Here are Suchomel's lyrics in German: "Wir kennen nur das Wort des Kommandanten / und nur Gehorsamkeit und Pflicht / Wir wollen weiter, weiter leisten / bis daß das kleine Glück uns einmal winkt. Hurrah!"[153]
  21. ^ Translation from Polish: The official unveiling of the monument took place on 10 May 1964. At this time, the name of the Mausoleum of the Fight and Martyrdom was introduced. The event was attended by 30,000 people. ... Original: "Oficjalne odsłonięcie pomnika odbyło się 10 maja 1964 r. Przyjęto wtedy nazwę tego miejsca – 'Mauzoleum Walki i Męczeństwa w Treblince'. W wydarzeniu tym uczestniczyło ok. 30 tys. osób. ... Odsłonięcia dokonał wicemarszałek Sejmu PRL – Zenon Kliszko. Wśród zebranych byli więźniowie Treblinki II: Jankiel Wiernik z Izraela, Richard Glazar z Czechosłowacji, Berl Duszkiewicz z Francji i Zenon Gołaszewski z Polski."[20]
  22. ^ The custodian and the first director of the Treblinka camp museum was Tadeusz Kiryluk, who was originally from Wólka Okrąglik.[173]
  23. ^ The Armia Krajowa communiqués were published by the Polish Underground State through the Biuletyn Informacyjny newspaper (BI) on behalf of the exiled Polish government in London. It was the most widely read Underground publication in occupied Poland.[189]
  24. ^ The Treblinka trials were preceded by the 1951 Frankfurt am Main trial of SS-Scharführer Josef Hirtreiter, who was charged with complicity in the gassing of patients at the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre. Further investigation revealed that he had supervised the undressing of prisoners at Treblinka and personally murdered many children (see also: The Hirtreiter trial).[197]
  25. ^ Rudolf Emmerich and Willi Klinzman were the two native German railwaymen posted at the Treblinka station after the gas chambers went into operation. Their express role was to direct the movement of the Holocaust trains to the death camp.[115]
  26. ^ See Ząbecki's court testimonies at Düsseldorf.[204]

Citations[edit]

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