Regarding the number of victims, the concentration camp in Treblinka (SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka; German for a work unit) was the second (after Auschwitz-Birkenau) largest place where the Germans murdered Jewish population on a mass scale. Like Bełżec and Sobibór, the camp was organizationally subordinated to the structures of the "Reinhardt Operation", as a result of which nearly 1.5 million European Jews had been murdered from March 1942 to October 1943 in these three places of mass extermination.
Treblinka was without a doubt the most efficient place. During the 16 months in which the camp was in operation, hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered there, mostly from the General Government, but also from the Białystok district, Terezin ghetto and Czechoslovakia, Greece and Bulgaria. Due to the insufficient number of source materials it is difficult to establish the exact number of the victims. In professional literature it ranges between 700,000 and 900,000. All the victims were killed between 23 July 1942 and 19 August 1943 (dates of the first and last deportation).
The Beginning of the Camp and Its Location
The order to set up an extermination centre in Treblinka was probably issued personally by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler during his visit to Warsaw on 17 April 1942. The task was given directly to the Chief of the SS and Police in the Warsaw District, SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand. Construction of the camp began in May 1942.
It is worth mentioning that from as early as 1940 on, in Kosów Municipality, Sokołów County, in the north section of the Warsaw District there was a penal camp for Poles (“Treblinka I”), which was transformed into a labor camp a year later. The area in the immediate vicinity of "Treblinka I" was chosen for a place of mass extermination of Jewish men, women and children, and the camp that came into being was called "Treblinka II".
The Central Construction Agency Waffen-SS commissioned companies Schönbrunn and Schmidt & Müstermann with building the camp. Most of the construction work had been done by Jewish workers from the neighboring towns, especially Sokołów Podlaski, Węgrów and Stoczek, and also by Polish prisoners from Treblinka I. The whole project was personally supervised by the construction manager from the extermination camps in Bełżec and Sobibór SS-Obersturmfüfrer Richard Thomall. A doctor who previously took part in the realization of the "euthanasia program” appeared in Treblinka soon thereafter. It was Dr. Irmfried Eberl – the future camp commandant.
The camp was situated in an isolated place, 4 km from the Treblinka railway station on the Warsaw-Białystok rail line and only 1.5 km from the village of Wólka Okrąglik. The extermination centre spread across an area of approximately 20 hectares and it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence interwoven with oak branches, which were supposed to hide mass crimes from the outer world. Additionally, there were watch-towers near the fence in order to prevent the captives from escaping.
The crew of the newly established camp consisted of 30-40 SS-men, recruited mainly from the verified staff of the T4 operation, during which thousands of mentally challenged and the so-called terminally ill people from the Third Reich and Polish "incorporated areas" were murdered. A guard unit consisting of 90-120 watchmen, mainly Ukrainians, supported the members of the SS crew.
The First Stage of Murders
On 23 July 1942, the first transport came from the Warsaw ghetto, thus initiating regular deportations. In the first stage of the camp’s operation, the process of killing Jews did not function in a best way. The procedure of accepting new "deportees" was quite chaotic in the first few months. At that time there were numerous mass executions in which victims were often people from entire transports. Sometimes deportees were shot to death even on the Małkinia-Treblinka rail line, where trains would come from the north (deportations from Warsaw and the surroundings) and on the Siedlce-Treblinka line, where Jews were transported from the south (deportations from the Radom District). The reason for such events was mostly attempts to escape caused by the information, which the deported Jews heard and which regarded the true reason for their being shipped off. In consequence, there were corpses throughout the entire line, lying beside the rails for days. At that time, an additional gendarmerie unit from Sokołów was brought in to patrol the area in hunt for fugitives and kill them.
Even the killing in gas chambers did not go as it should at the beginning. It happened that the chambers did not work properly or did not keep up with putting to death a big number of people, so the new captives were often shot dead on the spot.
Initially, the camp had three gas chambers. Women and children were put to death first. They were forced to undress and driven directly to chambers. Killing using gas lasted 15 to 30 minutes. It would happen, though, that the engine which emitted gas did not work properly, and it caused longer suffering for the victims. After gassing was over, selected captives were forced to open the chamber door and carry the bodies to some pits that had been dug beforehand. At first, the bodies were carried on small flatcars. The Jewish captives had to push them at fast speed, using for this only the strength of their muscles, so the cars often derailed or fell down. Therefore, they stopped transporting corpses in this way and the Jews were forced to drag the bodies along the ground on leather straps. By the pits, the bodies were taken over by a gravedigger’s unit which buried corpses in the most space-saving fashion. There is not enough data on the size of the mass graves, but it can be estimated that their area was enough to bury 80,000-100,000 bodies at one time.
The actions of the first, overly ambitious commandant Eberl, who demanded deportation of more and more Jews to Treblinka with no regard for the limits of transportation, caused a total breakdown of the extermination process. As early as the end of August there were such bad conditions in the camp that even hardened professional murderers and T4 operation specialists were terrified. Consequently, it was impossible for the new captives not to know about the true reason for their transportation. At the sight of the murdered "displaced people" the Jews were panicky and attacked the watchmen as soon as they left train cars. Because the crew instantly suppressed the revolts, slaughters would take place on the ramp. The number of deaths of the deportees would go up before they entered the gas chamber and that was because of a long waiting time by the camp gate in closed railway wagons, often in extreme heat and without any water.
Eberl’s superiors did not care about the tragic fate of the Jews but about the fact that there were no delivery of gold and valuable objects from the camp. As a result of the concerns about the lack of transports with valuables from Treblinka despite constant deportations, the Chief of the SS and Police in the Lublin District, Odilo Globocnik, ordered an inspection of the camp. The then Sobibór camp commandant, Franz Stangl, along with inspector of the "Reinhardt Operation" camps, Christian Wirth, had the camp in Treblinka examined and decided to dismiss Eberl from his post as commandant and temporarily hold up transportations because of the chaos that came about in the camp. At that time they were planning to reorganize the camp. Franz Stangl, who had "experience" from the Sobibór camp, became the new commandant.
Rebuilding the Camp and the Second Stage of Murders
After Eberl was dismissed, Christian Wirth had stayed in Treblinka for a few weeks supervising the reconstruction of the camp. The area of the extermination centre was divided into three parts that were separated with high fences. In this way a living space was created for Jewish workers and the crew ("Wohnlager"), a section called "Auffanglager" which was intended for selection and strip rooms and, the so-called "Totenlager" – a place prepared for the extermination in gas chambers and burial of the bodies. Besides, by the railway line, near the entrance to the camp, a ramp was made, which over time started to look like a normal platform, so that the Jews did not have any suspicions upon leaving a train. A sorting plant, near the ramp, was built to look like a normal station hall: there was a clock, a ticket office and numerous signs and boards that were typical for any station. However, inside the building, there were two big collective rooms, where clothes and valuables of the victims were stored.
During the reorganization of the camp, a decision was made to make the extermination a more simple and automatic process. Trains with up to 60 cars, that is those able to carry approximately 5,000 to 6,000 people at the same time, would stop at the railway station in the village of Treblinka. Then, with the help of a small locomotive, which arrived every day from Małkinia, twenty cars were pulled each time into the camp, directly in front of the building of the alleged station hall. Train drivers who did not belong to the "SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka" were forbidden to enter the area of the camp, so they had to stop the locomotive in front of the gate. After they discharged the transport they would leave Treblinka with empty cars to bring in other "displaced people".
The unloading took place at the ramp. Armed Ukrainian watchmen and a small number of SS-men drove the frightened people out of the wagons. The deportees had to leave their luggage and quickly move to the "Umschlagplatz". It was the first selection; those who were ill, weak, or injured, and could not reach a gas chamber by themselves were sent along with little children and old men to the so-called lazar house, which in fact was an execution place.
The lazar house area was separated from the rest of the camp by a fence with interwoven branches for the purpose of hiding what happened there. Medical symbols were used to deceive the victims. The Jewish captives who had been working at the lazar house wore bands with the Red Cross sign. The same symbol was on the flag hanging over the entrance of a wooden shed, which was built directly over a seven-meter deep pit, where the bodies of the victims were dropped.
Executions at the lazar house were carried out on a day to day basis. Not only new captives and ill Jews were murdered in that way. Among them were also captives from work units, who, because of their poor health, were not able to work anymore or who, because of the offences they committed, put themselves at risk of harm from the camp crew and were condemned to death. There were instances especially in the first phase of the operation of the lazar house that not only single individuals were killed by shooting, but entire units as well.
The deportees who were able to walk after leaving the train were divided at the "Umschlagplatz" according to gender and then driven to a room to strip, men and women separately. Children and women went together. Before men were forced to undress, there was the last selection. Among the new captives, the SS-men looked for professionals who were needed in the camp at that moment and would choose young and strong Jews to work in gas chambers. The number of selected persons depended on the current needs; it happened that they chose several hundred people, sometimes a few, and sometimes no one.
Women and children had to undress at once. They were told to deposit their clothes, tie their shoes together and keep the order. They could temporarily keep their documents because the camp crew wanted to be sure that they were not hidden or lost. In the back part of the room there was a place where victims' money and jewelry were taken and naked women were searched for hidden valuable items. Afterwards, Jewish haircutters shaved them in a rush, because human hair was regarded as a valuable material in the industry.
After leaving the room where they stripped, the Jews were driven along a narrow passage, surrounded from both sides with barbed wire, the so-called "Schlauch". There were branches interwoven in the fence to shield the view on the outside. Along both sides of the "Schlauch" there were watchmen who would whip the victims to make them go even faster. This passage led to the "Totenlager" where the victims were murdered in permanent gas chambers.
Errors made during the first period of the camp’s operation convicted the organizers of the "Reinhardt Operation" that the three gas chambers that had already been in use were definitely not enough to carry out the planned extermination of the Jews. In the fall of 1942, a decision was made to build a second, much bigger extermination complex. There is not enough data about how many gas chambers were built there; some witnesses talk about ten of them, others insist on six. As we know from interrogations, the gas chambers in Treblinka and other extermination camps of the "Reinhardt Operation" were, like the euthanasia centers, made to look like bathhouses. Their showers were connected directly with a carbon monoxide emitting installation. Even upon the very entering the room the victims still did not realize the true purpose it served.
After the door of the gas chamber was closed, a murderous process would start. On command "Wasser" (water), the engine was started and exhaust gases got inside the rooms that were full of people. After approximately twenty minutes, the Ukrainians, who waited there, checked if everybody was dead and only if that was confirmed, was the Jewish unit ordered to clean the chamber. The captives, under the supervision of SS-Untersturmführer Gustaw Müntzberger, opened the back door and pulled out the bodies. During this hard and mentally exhausting procedure it would often turn out that the bodies were so entangled that they had to be poured with water to be carried out separately. After the gas chamber was emptied, other Jewish captives had to clean the room of blood, urine, feces and vomit to prevent panic among the next group that was to be murdered. The bodies that were carried outside were taken over by the next group of Jews working in the “Totenlager". Those would pull out victims' gold teeth and dentures. After this procedure was finished, a gravedigger's unit dropped the bodies to a pit and sprinkled them with lime.
Until the beginning of 1943, the victims were buried in mass graves. Over time, it became a serious problem. Because the pits were "only" five meters deep and were full, a bad unbearable smell would spread across the neighborhood and made the people living nearby aware of the true purpose of Treblinka II. The difficulties caused by the need to bury so many bodies led to attempts to burn the corpses, which was unsuccessful at first. However there was a change after Heinrich Himmler visited the camp in the spring of 1943. In Treblinka, the SS-Reichsführer initiated a method developed by the "Sonderkommando 1005", which used train rails as racks. Each time, five or six rails that were approximately 30 meters long were laid on concrete poles approximately 70 centimeters tall each. Under such a rack they started a fire and a body was laid on this construction. A crematorium created this way in the open made it possible to burn up to 3,000 bodies at once. The creation of this type of installation, as well as the first stages of burning bodies were supervised by SS-Unterführer Herbert Floß, who was known among the captives as "Ruthless" or "Karl-Marx" and who was an expert appointed especially for this task. After a test stage was finished, the responsibility for the proper functioning of the crematorium was shifted to the "Totenlager" director SS-Scharfführer Arthur Matthes or his deputy SS-Unterscharfführer Karl Plötzinger. The burning process was not only intended for the bodies of the people murdered "up to date", but for those from mass graves as well. The reason for this was to get rid of the traces of the committed crimes. Diggers were used during the exhumation to dig up bodies from the covered graves. With their hands, the captives from the gravedigger's unit had to gather decaying human remains and put them on the rack. When the bodies were already burnt, the ashes were sifted to separate bigger remains of bones, and then there was another attempt to incinerate them. Only after these "corrections" had been made, were the ashes mixed with sand and put again in graves.
Despite the fact that according to the camp authorities every Jew deported to Treblinka II was in advance condemnded to death, young and strong men had a slim chance of survival. All of the “Reinhardt Operation" camps were constructed in a way that almost the entire work related to taking transportations, plundering property and removing corpses was done by the Jewish captives, whereas the SS crew had mainly supervisory duties. Being sent to one of the units that operated in the camp was the only way to stay alive at least for a while.
During the first stage of murders that took place in Treblinka II, the captives were kept under strict discipline and were punished with tortures and death for the smallest of offences. The Jews working in the camp lived in permanent danger. Terror and numerous excesses of the SS-men and Ukrainian watchmen had a negative impact not only on the continuity of the mass extermination process, but also threatened the general safety in the camp. The Jews, knowing that they had nothing to lose, would often put up active resistance.
A decisive factor that led to the creation of regular work units was an attempt on the life of SS-man Max Biala, who was stabbed by Jew Meir Berliner during a selection. The wound was so serious that Biala died on the way to hospital. The assassinator and the rest of the Jews from his unit were obviously killed after that event. However, this attack led to a change in the way the camp crew thought. Regular units were established. They gave chosen captives at least a small chance of survival.
Appointed units worked in each of the three parts of the camp, carrying out commands under strict supervision. In case of unsatisfactory results of their work, the captives were always under threat of being led to the lazar house for execution.
Qualified craftsmen, the so-called Hofjuden were employed in a section that constituted a living space for the SS and Ukrainian watchmen. This group of prisoners was generally well-fed and rarely under direct threat of losing life. Something like that would only happen in case of robbery or an attempt to escape.
In the part of the camp where trains stopped (the so-called "ghetto") various units responsible for unloading new transports and sorting the victims' property were quartered. These captives were divided into different working groups, which varied by colors of their armbands. The purpose behind these designations was to avoid a situation where the newcomers would mingle with the units. The division into working groups was as follows:
- "Kommando Blau" - a unit wearing light blue bands - prisoners responsible for leading new deportees out of wagons, removing the bodies of those who died during transportation, cleaning wagons before they left and carrying deportees' property to the front of a sorting barrack.
- "Arbeitskommando Rot" - prisoners with red bands working at the "Umschlagplatz". They were responsible for making sure that the victims undressed quickly. They also had to sort deportees' clothes, select Jews unable to march and accompany them on their way for execution at the lazar house.
- "Lumpenkommando" - a unit wearing yellow bands - captives working in barracks at sorting clothes by their value and removing from them the stars of David, attached last names or forgotten documents.
- "Tarnungskommando" - prisoners working outside the camp, responsible for cutting branches and interweaving them in the camp's fence for the purpose of masking the area.
On a regular basis, 700 to 1,500 captives worked in the part of the camp called “ghetto”.
A group of 300 Jews, totally separated from the rest of the camp, was kept under strict supervision. These were prisoners who were forced to work hard directly in the "Totenlager". On Wirth's command they were forbidden to contact the rest of the camp and were isolated in a barrack surrounded by barbed wire that was situated behind the old gas chambers. These Jews were also divided into working groups used for particular tasks at removing bodies. There were also professionals among them, e.g. bricklayers or woodworkers, who, when necessary, were called to work in other parts of the camp, even though it was prohibited.
In all of the three parts of the camp there worked the so-called "Goldjuden", that is Jews responsible for money, gold and valuables that belonged to the robbed victims and for doing various tasks related to gathering and processing these things. While the "Goldjuden" from the first two parts of Treblinka II were responsible virtually only for gathering and sorting the murdered persons' property, the "Goldjuden" working in the immediate neighborhood to the gas chambers, who were called "the dentists", had to pull out victims' gold teeth and search body orifices to find valuable items.
A Rebellion in the Camp
Every day, the Jewish captives working in Treblinka II were harassed by the awareness of ubiquitous death, which could reach them any day. Weekdays in the camp, as well as in the concentration camps, were filled with hard work, appeals, punishments, victimization by the crew and labor service. However, the captives kept in mind that Treblinka was an extermination camp and everyone had to die sooner or later. Permanent danger caused various moods among the Jews who worked there. While some of them were ready to do anything to stay alive, others became apathetic and hopeless, which often ended with suicide.
In the first stage of the operation of the extermination centre, when the killing process had not yet been mastered, and the camp was not guarded properly, there were many escape attempts. The captives would hide in unloaded wagons or try to get outside the fence when the night came. Both ways of escaping were cut off after the reorganization of the camp, so the captives started to consider a possibility of an uprising.
The plan to put up active resistance was supposed to eliminate the watchmen and destroy the camp. Preparations were intensified in the summer of 1943, when the decreasing number of transportations unequivocally suggested that the end of the camp was getting closer, and so was the getting rid of the "inconvenient witnesses".
An organizational committee was formed under the head of Dr. Julian Chorążycki. Its members were from different parts of the camp. Connection with the "Totenlager" could take place thanks to Jankiel Wiernik, for whom, as a woodworker, it was possible to be in two other parts of the camp.
The plan to organize an uprising not only assumed an escape of as many people as possible but also killing the members of the camp crew and setting on fire the mass extermination machinery. After partly unsuccessful attempts to buy weapons from the Ukrainians, locksmith Eugeniusz Turowski managed to get a key to the armory. The rebels planned to provide their people with stolen weapons on 2 August 1943 and attack the crew members in small groups. The Ukrainian watchmen were supposed to be lured with gold and then murdered. The fixed day appeared to be the right one because on that day some of the guards went out on a trip to the nearby Bug River. Despite a good plan, the idea failed. One of the supervisors, Kurt Küttner, found out that one of the insurgents had gold and ordered an instant search among the captives, which provoked an untimely rebellion. The early beginning of the uprising surprised some of the conspirators, who did not have time to arm and kill the Ukrainians on the watch towers. Most of the captives were under fire from the crew, but they managed to set on fire most of the barracks and escape through the fence. Many of the rebels were killed when still in the camp area or during an instantly started chase. During the revolt there were 840 Jews in Treblinka II; 400 of them were able to escape. Seventy of them survived the war.
Despite the uprising and the partly destroyed machinery in the camp, the mass extermination process was quickly resumed. The then deputy of Franz Stangl SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz became the commandant of the camp. In times of his military command the gas chambers started operating again and already in the middle of August 7,600 more Jews from the Białystok ghetto were killed there. Only after this transportation did the deportations stop. With the help of the Jewish captives and those who were left of the camp crew, an action was directed by Franz to remove the traces. The buildings, watch towers and parts of the fence that were still there after the fire were destroyed and the mass graves, filled with human ashes, were covered up. A farm was built on the site of the camp. After the crew retreated, the farm was transferred to a Ukrainian watchman who moved there with his family.
On 17 November 1943, Franz carried out an execution of the last members of the Jewish unit. The captives were led in small groups to the edge of the woods where Franz with two other SS-men killed them by shooting in the back of the head. The Ukrainians burnt the bodies on a small rack, which had been made specifically for that purpose.
- Młynarczyk J. A., Treblinka. Ein Toteslager der "Aktion Reinhardt", [in:] B. Musiał, Aktion Reinhardt, Osnabrück (2004).
- Willenberg S., Treblinka. Lager. Revolte. Flucht. Warschauer Aufstand, Münster (2009).