Treblinka extermination camp
Treblinka was an extermination camp operated by the Nazis as part of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of Jews and others. It was operated from July 1942 until October 1943. The current estimates tell that around 850 000 people were killed there. Among those who perished was Lidia Zamenhof, daughter of the initiator of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof.
Treblinka was one of three camps of Operation Reinhard. The other two were Belzec and Sobibór. Chelmno extermination camp was originally built as a pilot project for the development of the other three camps. Operation Reinhard was created by Adolf Hitler (leader of Nazi Germany) and Heinrich Himmler (high official in Nazi government and commander of the security troops--Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS). Unlike other concentration camps, Operation Reinhard camps reported directly to Hitler's office (the Reich Chancellery Office) in Berlin. Hitler kept the control of the program close to him but delegated the work to Himmler. Operation Reinhard used the euthanasia program (T-4) for site selection, construction and trained personnel ().
The Einsatzgruppen were mobile SS units whose sole purpose was to murder Jews and commissars in territories conquered by the German army. It became evident, however, that they could not handle millions of Jews, especially those in the large ghettos of Warsaw and Lemberg. So Treblinka was especially designed for the rapid elimination of Jews in ghettos. Both Treblinka and Sobibor were to be ready to operate on August 1st, 1942 (). But Treblinka was ready on July 24, 1942, when the shipping of Jews began: "According to the SS Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop report, a total of approximately 310,000 Jews were transported in freight trains from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka during the period from July 22, 1942 to October 3, 1942" ().
The camp of Treblinka was located 100 km northeast of the Polish capital Warsaw (), 500 m from the Malkinia-Koskow highway, 2.5 km from the Treblinka railroad station (). The camp was organized in two subdivisions: Treblinka I and Treblinka II. Treblinka I was split in two parts. The first part was the administrative section. There were barracks for the SS troops, the Ukrainian guards, the camp commander's barrack, a bakery, a storage and barracks for the 1,000 prisoners who were used to operate the camp. A road left this part of the camp and rejoined the highway. The other part of Treblinka I was the receiving area. The railroad extended from the Treblinka station into the camp. There were two barracks near the tracks that where used to store the belongings of prisoners. One was disguised to look like a railroad station. There were two other buildings about 100 m from the track. They too contained the clothing and belongings of the prisoners. One was used as an undressing room for the women, who received haircuts there as well. There was a cashier's office which collected money and jewelry for "safekeeping". There was also an infirmary, where the sick, old, wounded and already dead were taken. It was a small barrack painted white with a red cross on it. There, the prisoners were led to the edge of a ditch where bodies were continuously burning. They had to strip naked and then sit in the edge of the pit before they were shot in the back of the head. Then they fell in the ditch and burned ().
Treblinka II was on a small hill. From camp one there was an uphill path lined with barbed wire fences--the funnel--which led directly into the gas chambers building. Behind this building there was a large pit, one meter wide by twenty meters long, inside of which burned furnaces. Rails were laid across the pit and the bodies of gassed victims were placed on the rails to burn. There was also a barrack for the 500 prisoners who operated camp II ().
From his interview with SS Unterscharfuehrer Franz Suchomel, Claude Lanzmann in  tells us of the beginning days of Treblinka in August of 1942.
- "Suchomel: [when I arrived,] Treblinka was operating at full capacity.
- Lanzmann: Full capacity?
- Suchomel: Full capacity! The Warsaw ghetto was being emptied then. Three trains arrived in two days, each with three, four, five thousand people aboard, all from Warsaw.... So three trains arrived, and since the offensive against Stalingrad was in full swing, the trainloads of Jews were left on a station siding. What's more, the cars were French, made of steel. So that while five thousand Jews arrived in Treblinka, three thousand were dead in the cars. They had slashed their wrists, or just died. The ones we unloaded were half dead and half mad. In the other trains from Kielce and elsewhere, at least half were dead. We stacked them [on the ramp]. Thousands of people piled one on top of another on the ramp. Stacked like wood. In addition, other Jews, still alive, waited there for two days: the small gas chambers could no longer handle the load. They functioned day and night in that period" (p.53).
At the very beginning, people were buried in mass graves or piled up in camp two because the workers did not have time to bury them. The stench from the decomposing bodies could be smelled up to ten kilometers away (p.54). The Jews waiting in the train wagons knew what would happen and thousands committed suicide in the trains. In September 1942, new gas chambers were built. They could handle three thousand people in two hours (p.61).
The work was performed by special squads (Sonderkommandos) of Jewish prisoners. The blue squad was responsible for unloading the train, carrying the luggage and cleaning the wagons. The red squad had the task of undressing the passengers and taking their clothes to the storage areas. The Goldjuden--Jews of gold--were in charge of handling the money, gold, stocks, and jewelry. They subjected the prisoners to an intimate search just before the gas chambers. Another, the dentist, would open the mouths of the dead and pull out gold teeth with a pair of pliers. Then there were the Totenjuden, the Jews of death, who lived in Treblinka II. They carried the dead from the gas chamber to the furnace and sifted through the ashes of the dead, ground up recognizable parts, and buried the ashes in pits. They never left camp two. There also were the court Jews, who took care of the upkeep of the camp. There was the camouflage commando, which went every day into the forest and gathered branches to camouflage the camp and the "funnel" by weaving branches in the barbed wires (Steiner 92-95). The work squads prisoners were continuously whipped and beaten by the guards and were often killed. New workers were selected from the daily arrivals and pressed into the commandos.
There was a bruise rule; if a prisoner has been bruised on the face, he would be shot that evening at roll call, or the next morning if the bruise had not shown yet. Many prisoners, in utter despair at the horrible deaths of their families and unwilling to go on living, committed suicide by hanging themselves in the sleeping barracks with their belts (Steiner 84). Normally, the 1500 men work crews were almost entirely replaced every three to five days ().
So the train passengers were savagely pulled from the train, separated by sex, and ordered to strip naked. In winter, the temperature often dropped to 25°F. The Germans chose who would go to the "infirmary". The technique was to rush the whole process while beating everyone so nobody would have the chance to resist. The guards would first whip the men and force them to run uphill through the thirteen feet wide funnel all the way to the gas chambers. The men were locked in and asphyxiated with carbon monoxide from two captured Soviet tank engines. Making them run also raised their heartbeat, which made the process go faster (Lanzmann). It took thirty to forty minutes, then the "Jews of death" unloaded the dead and cleaned the chambers. Then the women were rushed in, and everyone was crammed as much as possible. The children that were "thrown into the chambers hit the ceiling and then, disfigured, sometimes with broken heads, fell on the heads of the prisoners." ().
When the gassing was in progress, begun with a "Ivan, water!" by one of the guards, the prisoners screamed and pounded on the walls. There was a little hole so the Germans could see if the prisoners were dead yet (). While the men were being gassed, the women were waiting naked in the funnel. They could hear their fathers, husbands, and sons dying. They experienced the "death panic", which caused them to "empty" involuntarily, because of the fear of imminent death . The ground in the funnel was covered with piles of excrement afterwards ().
When the doors were opened, "the disfigured, bitten prisoners, with torn-off and ears lay on top of each other in the most varied posture." The bodies were then carried to the furnace to be burned. Sometimes, the people were not dead and began to revive in the fresh air, especially pregnant women. They were shot by the guards and burned like the others. Some 800-1000 bodies were burned at the same time. They would burn for five hours. The incinerator was operated twenty-four hours a day ().
The killing centers had no other function. They were not part of the war effort, so the prisoners were just killed as soon as possible (). But the prisoners, Jewish mostly, would believe anything in the face of such a monstrosity. So everything was eventually set up to make them feel better. The Germans had the camp decorated into a train station, complete with train schedules, posters of faraway lands and a real-looking clock (in reality, a prisoner would move the hands to the approximate time before each convoy arrived). The Germans did not do this in order to make things more humane for the prisoners, but rather to have less work. The prisoners, as soon as they realized where they were, went mad and began to run around in horror, screamed horribly and tried to escape or commit suicide by jumping onto the barbed wires. This caused a lot of work for the Germans. After the camp had been camouflaged as a station, the people did not suspect that their death was imminent ().
In August of 1943, the prisoners of the work commandos rebelled. They seized small arms, sprayed kerosene on all the buildings and set them ablaze. In the confusion, many Germans were killed but many more prisoners perished. Of 1500 prisoners, only 12 survived the revolt. The camp ceased operation. Camp commander Kurt Franz recalled during his testimonies: "After the uprising in August 1943 I ran the camp single-handedly for a month; however, during that period no gassings were undertaken. It was during that period that the original camp was leveled off and lupins were planted." ( p. 247)
After a revolt at Sobibor around the same time, it was decided to shut down the death camps. "Operation Reinhard" commander Globocnik wrote Himmler: 'I have on Oct. 19, 1943, completed Action Reinhard and closed all the camps' " ( p.40).
In 1965, after a report by Dr. Helmut Krausnick, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, the Court of Assize in Dusseldorf concluded that the minimum number of people killed in Treblinka was 700,000. In 1969, the same court, after new evidence revealed in a report by expert Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler, reassessed that number to 900,000. According to the German and Ukrainian guards who were stationed in Treblinka, the figure ranges from 1,000,000 to 1,400,000 (). It is exceedingly difficult to correctly assess the actual number of those killed, as many witnesses were later killed during the war (which ended two years after the camp's closure, on May 8, 1945). Many records were lost or destroyed, especially regarding railroad transports, which were heavily bombed by Allied warplanes. Less than one hundred Treblinka survivors were found at the end of the war ().
In Israel on April 25, 1988 John Demjanuk was sentenced to death for war crimes committed in the camp. He was accused of being a notorious guard known as "Ivan the Terrible" by survivors, then later acquitted in 1993.
- Court of Assizes in Düsseldorf, Germany. Excerpts From Judgments (Urteilsbegründung). AZ-LG Düsseldorf: II 931638, 1965. Online. (ftp://ftp1.us.nizkor.org/pub/camps/aktion.reinhard/treblinka/german.court)
- Arad, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987.
- Klee, E., Dressen, W., Riess, V. The Good Old Days. New York: The Free Press, 1988.
- Lanzmann, Claude, Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust. New York: Pantheon Books. 1985.
- The Nizkor Project. The Killing Centers. 1995. Online. Available: (ftp://ftp1.us.nizkor.org/pub/camps/aktion.reinhard/treblinka/killing.cntr)
- Rückerl, Adalbert, hrsq. NS-Prozesse. Karlsruhe, Germany: Verlag C F Muller, 1972.
- "Treblinka." Encyclopedia Americana. Ed. unknown.
- United States Department of Justice. Excerpts from Interrogation of Defendant Pavel Vladimirovitch Lelenko. Original source: Directorate of Counterintelligence of the 2nd Belorussian Front, USSR. 1978. Acquired by US in 1994. Available online: http://www.nizkor.com/ftp.cgi/people/ftp.py?people//l/leleko.pavel.v/leleko.001, http://www.nizkor.com/ftp.cgi/people/ftp.py?people//l/leleko.pavel.v/leleko.002)
- Originally based on writing by Christopher Mahan as a Pierce College English 101 assignment: http://www.christophermahan.com/writ/treblinka.html
- Sereny, Gitta Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, 1983
- Vassily Grossman's article The Treblinka Hell (1944) was disseminated at the Nuremberg Trials as a document for the prosecution. (The original in Russian: Треблинский ад)
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