Substantive concept and source selection: Agnieszka Haska
Development and editing: Anka Chylak
Cooperation: Ewa Teleżyńska-Sawicka, Paweł Sawicki
Translation: Ewa Czerwiakowska, Karolina Szymaniak, Jerzy Giebułtowski, Olga Drenda
In the summer of 1941, the Germans established a forced labour camp for Poles and Jews in a gravel pit near Treblinka village. In the spring of 1942, during preparations for Aktion Reinhardt (codename for the planned extermination of the Jewish population), Treblinka – alongside Bełżec and Sobibór – was selected as the location of the death camp. May 1942 saw the beginning of the construction of Vernichtungslager Treblinka II – the extermination site, opened next to the labour camp.
To the east of Warsaw, along the Western Bug, lie sands and swamps, and thick evergreen and deciduous forests. These places are gloomy and deserted; there are few villages. […] Here, on the branch line to Siedlce, stands the remote station of Treblinka. It is a little over sixty kilometres from Warsaw and not far from the junction station of Małkinia, where the lines from Warsaw, Białystok, Siedlce, and Łomża all meet… This miserable wilderness was the place chosen by some official, and approved by SS Reichsführer Himmler, for the construction of a vast executioner’s block – an executioner’s block such as the human race has never seen, from the time of primitive barbarism to our own cruel days. [Wasilij Grossman]
The cornerstone laid by Samuel Willenberg
The liquidation campaign in the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July 1942. According to German announcements, the Jews were to be „resettled to the East”. They were allowed to take only 15 kilograms of baggage. Every day, between 3000 and 8000 Jews were deported from the Umschlagplatz to Treblinka. And from there, their sorted shoes, clothes, spectacles, watches and valuables were shipped to the Reich every two weeks. The total number of people deported from Warsaw during the 46 days of the campaign is estimated at 250.000.
On 22 July 1942, at Treblinka station we received a telegram announcing shuttle trains carrying deportees from Warsaw to Treblinka. The trains were to consist of 60 roofed wagons. After unloading, the trains were to return to Warsaw. We were very surprised. We wondered who those deportees would be. Where would they live and what would they do? We associated that news with the mysterious buildings in the forest. The first transport with „deportees” left Małkinia on Thursday, 23 July 1942, in the morning. The rolling train could be heard from afar not only due to the rumbling of its wheels on the bridge on the River Bug, but also due to the numerous rifle and machinegun shots fired by the train’s escort. Like a vicious reptile, the train rolled onto the station. The carriages were loaded with Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. When the first wagons returned empty from the camp, we began to suspect that it was an extermination camp, a death camp. [Franciszek Ząbecki]
The symbolic gate to the camp
Jews from Warsaw and from other cities were usually brought to Treblinka in cattle trucks with barred windows. The journey to Treblinka would take as much as several days; the trains would stop on the way, to let pass German military transports. People were crammed into the cattle trucks, fainting from lack of air and water, and often died from exhaustion.
When they locked the carriages, the people began wailing: „Jews, we are in a trap.” But several other people and I refused to believe that. „They cannot intend to kill so many people. Perhaps the elderly and the children, but we, the young, are being deported to forced labour.” The wagons pulled out. The train is going. Where to? We do not know. Perhaps to forced labour in Russia? Several elderly people had lost all hope and as soon as the train pulled out they began saying Kaddish and appealing: „Jews, this is our end. Let us all say Kaddish!” [Jakub Krzepicki]
The Treblinka camp staff consisted of about 30 SS members — Germans and Austrians — and 80 – 100 Ukrainian guards. Next to the extermination site, in the forest on the left side, the administrative and living section was located: the headquarters, the buildings for the Germans with their living quarters, an infirmary, a barber, the Ukrainian guards’ barracks and a kitchen. In early 1943, the Germans also opened a mini-zoo, where they kept forest animals and peacocks. Near the zoo was the barrack in which the stolen valuables were sorted.
One could use the terms ‘masters’ or ‘slaves’ for every being who walks on two legs here in Treblinka. But such appellations are only useful as titles. Otherwise, thins in Treblinka are not all that simple. There are greater and lesser masters. There are half masters, commanders of hangmen, master hangmen and their assistants, and more or less living slaves. Gravediggers, greater and lesser. [Richard Glazar]
The SS-man knocks him out with the full weight of his body and starts kicking him. A beautiful dog is standing beside him. It is a St Bernard dog. And this noble dog, skilfully trained by its master, has become a ferocious beast here. It imitates its owner. The master is beating and kicking, the dog is worrying and biting. The prisoners inform me that this is the SS-man nicknamed „Doll”. He is one of the worst sadists.[Samuel Willenberg]
Tracks branch off
A number of people escaped from the transports to Treblinka by jumping out of the moving trains. Others managed to hide in the carriages that carried away the possessions of the killed Jews. The escapes were rarely successful. Moreover, the Germans soon began to execute other prisoners as punishment. Those who managed to escape often came to Warsaw, where they reported on the hell of Treblinka.
At about four o’clock in the afternoon, we learned that the carriages had arrived to carry away the rags. I already wished to flee, escape and try my luck as soon as possible. They order us to put the rags along the tracks and in a while a dozen new carriages arrive. I walked by all of them, looking for some space. There are four of us in the carriage. We sit and wait, worrying about when the train will depart. Perhaps, God forbid, as late as in the morning? 15 minutes later — a German inspection. Nothing happened and then somebody quickly ran under the carriage. Ukrainian and German voices were heard. Nothing happened. The train starts moving. We are on our way. We pass the first station two kilometres away. We jump out at a prearranged signal. It is one o’clock at night. The first feeling is of being liberated from Treblinka. Where now? I go left in the direction of Warsaw. [Jakub Krzepicki]
The map of the camp
The area of the Treblinka camp was 400 x 600 metres. It was divided into three zones: the administrative and living area (Wohnlager), the admission zone (Auffanglager) with the ramp, square, undressing barracks and “cash desk”, where the inmates left their belongings, and the death camp (Totenlager) with gas chambers, the pit where the corpses were buried (or later cremated) and barracks for the special commando delegates to work at the extermination site.
The entire camp covers an area of only about four by six hundred meters. It is enclosed by barbed wire up to a height of two and a half meters; a dense weave of green pine branches and wire from the fence. On the inside, the camp is divided into various areas and yards, each enclosed in the same way, so that is impossible to see from one part into the other. […] Everything is run by SS troops. They have young Ukrainian SS guards to help them – and us, about a thousand of us. Our number is replenished daily from the newly arrived transports. The first, larger part of the camp, the assembly area, is located between the arrival platform on the side and a sandy rampart on the other. Beyond the rampart, taking up little more than one quarter of the entire area, is the second part of the camp, the death camp. [Richard Glazar]
The first thing the Jews saw after the carriage doors opened was a loading platform, a high barbed wire fence interwoven with pine and fir branches, and a wooden barrack used for storing possessions. Later the barrack was painted to look like a railway station with signs, timetables and a clock. The newly arrived people were ordered to leave their baggage. Exhausted and inhumanly thirsty, they were from the very first moment rushed with shouting and beating, the people were escorted through the gate onto the square. There, a selection was conducted. The men went left and the women went right. Occasionally, several people from the transport were selected on the square to remain in the camp. The rest were rushed to the gas chambers.
The Jews not only queue to deposit their valuables at a cashier’s counter, but they even receive receipts. Some treat these receipts very seriously, paying attention that they list everything in detail so as not to lose anything ‘later’. It begins to dawn on them that the boards with inscriptions are scarecrows, tricks, which are to blind them. They see predominantly the heaps of clothes and shoes, which lie scattered about everywhere. Almost everybody who tries to describe their first impression of Treblinka mentions the pang they felt in their heart after arrival: “There is so much clothing, but where are the people?” The sense of smell brings a partial answer. [Rachela Auerbach]
There were approximately 800 prisoners selected to work in special Kommandos: some worked at the loading platform and the fictional railway station, some emptied all the possessions from the carrieges and the bodies, some cleaned and disinfected the carriages. Some others searched the murdered people’s clothing; some estimated the value, sorted and packed the belongings. Smaller Kommandos camouflaged the fence and disinfected the clothing or the cut off hair (?). Germans also organised a camp orchestra, which comprised outstanding Jewish musicians selected from the transports. Diseases, murderous beatings and executions meant that the prisoner rotation in Kommandos was very high.
On that day I was collecting the sorted coats and putting them on a new heap. I ran about the whole square along the barrack between the platform and the square on which lay thousands of open matt leather suitcases of various sizes. All those suitcases — large and small — had one thing in common: their locks had been pulled out and their owners had been suffocated with gas. When I stooped to pick it up I noticed a flash of a familiar colour. I leaned and extracted a small brown coat of my youngest sister, Tamara, along with a skirt that belonged to my older sister, Ita. I held that skirt and that coat with the green cuffs, which our mother had sewed on in the ghetto. From the loading platform I could hear the clatter of the carriages rolling in with new victims. And I could feel that I was about to start shouting, crying for vengeance, only that I did not know who to appeal to. [Samuel Willenberg]
Historians estimate the number of victims of Treblinka at 800.000 – 920.000 Jewish citizens of various countries. Large stones commemorate the murdered communities from abroad. Behind them stretches a giant cemetery with 17.000 stones. 216 of them carry inscriptions with names of cities and towns from which Polish Jews were transported here. The only stone which carries a full name commemorates Janusz Korczak (born Henryk Goldszmit), physician, pedagogue and writer, who died here on 5 or 6 of August 1942 with his close associate Stefania Wilczyńska, guardians and children from the orphanage he ran. Korczak and Wilczyńska’s way with the children to the Umschlagplatz and their death became a symbol of the extermination of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
The transports with the victims arrived here from all four directions, from east and west, from north and south. Transports from Polish towns and cities — Warsaw, Międzyrzec Podlaski, Częstochowa, Siedlce, Radom, Łomża, Białystok, Grodno and from a number of Belarussian towns, from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Bulgaria, and Bessarabia. The transports kept going to Treblinka over a period of thirteen months. Every transport consisted of 60 carriages, each one with the numbers 150 — 180 —200 written in chalk. Those numbers referred to the number of people inside. [Wasilij Grossman]
The Jews walked from the loading platform into the undressing barrack. The women additionally had their heads shaved. From the undressing barrack, the Jews were rushed down a narrow, winding, fenced passage to the gas chambers. The Germans called that passage der Schlauch, the hose, while the Jews who worked there referred to it as Himmelfahrtstraße, the road to heaven. Initially, there were three, later – ten gas chambers at Treblinka. The daily death toll was up to seventeen thousand. As many as in a little town. It took from two to three hours to kill all the Jews from a given transport from the moment of the opening of the carriages.
Most of these people are pushed into a middle hallway with the “shower rooms” on either side. The rest are beaten in by the SS and the Ukrainian guards. After the order is given: “Ivan, water!”, an Ukrainian guard starts the motor. Instead of water the showers spray exhaust gas. It takes about twenty minutes to yield Treblinka’s end product. Then slaves immediately reach for the naked, tightly packed, ashen and violet-coloured results. Some pull the corpses through the openings in the outer walls of the gas chambers, while specialists break gold teeth out of the mouths of the dead […] Other pile bodies into mass graves. Then the last steps in the process, “powdering” with lime and covering with sandy soil of Treblinka. [Richard Glazar]
Those unable to walk on their own — the old, the sick and the children — were escorted to the ‘hospital’, which the Germans called Lazarett. It was a wooden barrack fenced off from the rest of the camp, with the Red Cross flag above the entrance. But nobody was treated in that ‘hospital”’ Instead, the people were executed there with a shot in the back of their head. Their bodies were then thrown into a pit dug by the barrack. The Treblinka prisoners who were unable to work and those the Germans decided to punish with death for some reason were also murdered in the ‘hospital’. The corpses in the pit were then cremated.
A narrow, crooked valley, green walls covered with a pine-needle pelt rising high above your heads. A small building with a Red Cross insignia stands at the end of the alley. There are also red crosses on the armbands of some of the people working here. Finally – here you will find comfort with these compassionate Samaritans. Not until he’s inside does the limping old man from the transport catch sight of the corpses in a deep and the SS man with a rifle. [Richard Glazar]
Initially, the corpses of all the gassed people were thrown into pits. From November 1942, some bodies of those murdered at Treblinka were cremated. Corpses were moved by prisoners to the place where grates made of rails were installed and the bodies were sprayed with fuel and burned. In February 1943, heavy machinery was used to exhume bodies form the mass graves to burn them all and clear the crime evidences.
I have seen a lot in my lifetime, but even Lucifer himself could not create a sheerer hell. Can anybody imagine a grill with three thousand corpses of people who were alive just a moment ago? You can see their faces — they look as if they are going to leap up any moment and wake from deep slumber. But an order is given — this torch is lit and it burns with living fire. Though gripped by fear and grief, you stand there anyway, working without a word. The bandits stand by the ashes, laughing a devilish laugh. Warmed by the fire, they revel and party. The fire is gradually subsiding. The remaining ashes shall fertilise this silent land. [Jankiel Wiernik]
Edge of the camp
In early 1943, the camp prisoners began considering an escape and a revolt. The aim of the revolt was to give the prisoners an opportunity not only to take revenge, but also to escape in a large number. Several individuals established an underground organisational committee on Monday, 2 of August 1943. As no transports were arriving, some of the guards went on a trip to the River Bug. According to the plan, the prisoners were supposed to steal weapons from the arsenal and then attack the Germans and Ukrainians in small groups. When the shooting began, the prisoners set most of the barracks on fire and escaped into the forest. Many of 400 escapees were later captured and executed. No more than approximately seventy prisoners survived the war.
The whole of Treblinka was on fire. I ran with the others towards the exit. When we ran up to the fence we saw a horrible sight. Plenty of corpses lay scattered around. Killed prisoners amidst the anti-tank barriers. That whole time we were under machine gun fire from two directions from the watchtowers. I waited for a moment and then I quickly jumped over the barrier stepping on my friends’ corpses. Suddenly, I felt a tug in my leg and something like a blow with a stone. It occurred that I was shot in the leg. Limping, I ran up to the railway track. In the forest, we ran into a little girl from the nearby village. She looked at us like at monsters from another world. Suddenly, I started shouting like a madman: “The hell has burned down! The hell has burned down!” [Samuel Willenberg]
The last transport from the Białystok Ghetto arrived in the second half of August 1943 and consisted of 39 carriages. The camp was then liquidated and levelled to the ground. The Germans intended to cover all traces. The gas chambers and other buildings were pulled down and the graves were covered with dirt. The area of the former camp was ploughed and sowed over with lupines.
Soon after the war, efforts were launched to secure the camp area and commemorate its victims.
In 1964, a museum was opened at the site of the former death camp and a monument was uncovered (designed by Adam Haupt, Franciszek Duszeńko and Franciszek Starynkiewicz). The area of the pits with ashes from the burned bodies of the victims was covered with concrete and in the central point a monument was erected. A composition of granite slabs refers to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
Select point at map