SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka II

“Along the Tłuszcz-Warsaw route,

from the station Warschau-Ost

you travel along the rails

and go straight on...”

[Władysław Szlengel, Mała stacja Treblinki]
Location of the camp

The Treblinka II death camp was built in the spring of 1942 in the area of Sokołów-Węgrów, in the Warsaw District of the General Government. It was established near the local railway track and railway station, on the border of the Warsaw District and the Białystok District (Bezirk Białystok), and in the vicinity of several large centres of the Jewish population. It was the third camp in the territory of the General Government to be established as part of the so-called Operation Reinhard, aimed at the extermination of the Jewish population from the areas of Europe occupied by Germans. According to German plans of the SS-Sonderkommando (official name; German: “SS special commando”), Treblinka was to be inaccessible to third parties, just like the two camps established earlier: Bełżec and Sobibór. It was therefore opened in the depths of the local forest, far from any larger urban and rural settlements (the nearest village – Wólka Okrąglik – was ca. 2 km away), between the villages of Maliszewo, Poniatowo and Wólka Okrąglik, near the Treblinka penal labour camp (later called Treblinka I or Treblinka A – based on the date of its creation)[1.1] and in the vicinity of the open-pit gravel mine, with a railway track built before 1939 connecting the “gravel pit” with the Treblinka railway station (hence the name of the camps) along the Sokołów Podlaski-Małkinia route. The proximity of the railway track and station, as in the case of Bełżec and Sobibór, was to facilitate quick transport of victims.

The first transport arrived at the camp on 23 July 1942. It consisted of prisoners of the Warsaw Ghetto, displaced as part of the “Great Campaign of Resettlement to the East.” The camp operated until November 1943. Its last prisoners were sent to Sobibór in two transports: on 20 October and 4 November 1943, and the last handful of those ordered to cover up the traces of the genocide were shot in the surrounding forest on 17 November. Their bodies were burnt by Kurt Franz, deputy camp commandant. During the nearly fifteen-month period of its operation, the camp claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews. According to academic sources, the minimum number of victims varies from 700,000 to 900,000. It is estimated that ca. 70 former prisoners of Treblinka lived to see the end of the war. The Treblinka II camp is considered one of the largest Jewish extermination sites in Europe.

The construction and topography of the camp

“On 22 July 1942, we received a telegram at the Treblinka station, announcing that shuttle trains with displaced persons would run from Warsaw to Treblinka. The trains were to consist of 60 covered cars. After unloading, the trains were to be directed to Warsaw. We were quite surprised. We had no idea who the displaced persons were. Where would they live and what would they do? We associated the news with the mysterious construction works taking place in the forest[1.2].”

The construction of the camp began on 1 June and was completed on 11 July 1942. Prisoners from Treblinka I and residents of the surrounding ghettos: Kosowo Lackie, Sokołów Podlaski, Węgrów, and Stoczek Węgrowski, were used as slave labour during construction works. After the completion of the camp, some of them returned to their previous places of residence, while others were murdered in Treblinka II while the construction was still underway. Building materials were imported from Warsaw, Kosowo Lackie, and Sokołów Podlaski. The construction was supervised (like the Sobibór camp) by SS-Obertsturmfűhrer Richard Thomalla from the Central Construction Board of the SS and the Police in Lublin. The camp was built according to the same blueprint as the one used in Bełżec and Sobibór. The area of Treblinka II occupied an area of ca. 17 ha in the shape of an uneven quadrilateral[1.3].

The camp was surrounded with a double barbed-wire fence ca. 2.5 m high, disguised with tree branches. The main gate was located on the northern side of the camp and was connected with the train station by Kurt Seidel Strasse. Treblinka II was divided into two parts: camp no. 1 (lower) and camp no. 2 (upper). An unloading ramp was located in camp no. 1, its length allowing for unloading ca. 20 train cars (with 80–120 people each). Each transport consisted of ca. 60 cars, i.e. a total of ca. 5,000–6,000 people. Sometimes the trains were held in the field for around a dozen hours before they entered the camp. In September 1942, a mock-up railway station was built, with a clock and the name of the station: “Treblinka–Obermajdan.” In camp no. 1 there was a square for receiving transports, the so-called Umschlagplatz, where women and children were separated from men. There was also a barrack for women, a sorting yard, and a warehouse for storing the belongings of the victims. An assembly square was located nearby. Camp no. 1 also housed residential areas with barracks, separate for SS-men and for Wachmänner, as well as buildings holding a kitchen, a laundry, a bakery, and workshops (carpentry, shoemaking), a doctor's office, the camp commandant’s apartment and a sorting room for valuables doubling as living quarters for Jews called Goldjuden; a horse stable and a jail for Wachmänner, as well as a mini ZOO. In the so-called “ghetto” area of camp no. 1, there were also barracks for Jewish commandos and a latrine. The so-called “lazaret” was situated near the fence surrounding camp no. 2 – it was a hut imitating a hospital, with a Red Cross flag placed next to it. Ill and weak people, unable to walk to the gas chambers on their own, were brought to the hut and killed on the spot – they were shot in the back of their heads at the edge of a pit.

After being stripped naked and having their heads shaved by the barber commando, Jews (separated into groups of men and women with children) walked from camp no. 1 along the corridor called the Himmelsfahrtstrasse (“the Ascension Road”) by the camp staff – and referred to as “the road to nowhere” or “the road to heaven” by the prisoners. The corridor led to gas chambers imitating shower baths, adorned with the Star of David above the door. Initially three chambers operated at the camp; seven more were added after the camp was revamped in the autumn of 1942. An engine room was located in the same building; it held two diesel engines producing exhaust fumes supplied to the chambers by tubes covered up with shower strainers. In the first phase of the camp's existence, ca. 480–750 people at a time could fit inside the chambers. Over 6,000 people were brought in a single transport, and up to four transports a day were received at the camp. The bodies of gassed people were dragged out of the chambers through the back door which could only be opened from the outside.

The area of camp no. 2, also known as the toytlager (Yiddish: “death camp”), also encompassed death pits, replaced with cremation pyres in February 1943. This section also included living quarters of the burial commando, responsible for removing corpses from the chambers and transporting them to mass graves in narrow-gauge trains.

Camp staff. SS-men and Wachmänner

The first commandant of the camp was medical doctor Irmfried Eberl, replaced in September by Franz Stangl (the commandant of Sobibór). The camp was supervised by ca. 30–40 German SS officers (including: Franz Suchomel, Deputy Commandant Kurt Franz, known as “Lalka” [“Doll”], Gustaw Münzberger – responsible for the proper operation of gas installation in the chambers), all of whom wore grey Waffen-SS uniforms on a daily basis. The entire staff was recruited from among the experienced personnel of the T4 euthanasia programme, responsible for the murder of mentally and terminally ill patients from the Third Reich and the Polish “incorporated territories.” They were assisted by ca. 90–120 guards (Wachmänner) – the so-called Trawniki-Männer (German: “people from Trawniki”).

Camp victims

“We were not yet entirely aware of what was happening, but it was hell. And the staunch was horrific”[1.4].

The victims of Treblinka II were mostly Jewish citizens of the Second Polish Republic, but also Jews from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (Theresienstadt), Slovakia, Bulgaria, Greece and Macedonia, Austria and Germany. Many Roma and Sinti people from Poland and Germany were also killed in the camp.

People brought to the camp were killed in gas chambers with the use of carbon monoxide. At first, their bodies were buried in mass graves. In the spring of 1943, following Heinrich Himmler’s visit to the camp and upon his initiative, the bodies started to be burnt. Apart from ordinary people, anonymous victims whose names were known only to a close circle of their friends and relatives, some of the victims of Treblinka were prominent figures, for example Artur Gold, “the nightingale” of the Warsaw Ghetto (he composed the music for the Treblinka Anthem), Ilia Schreibman – pre-war Polish champion in swimming, Warsaw-based boxer from the Maccabi Club – Lewkowicz, Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmidt), an educator and teacher who was killed with his pupils. Among the many boulders forming part of the monument-mausoleum commemorating the camp, unveiled on 1 June 1978, only one bears an inscription – it is dedicated to Korczak and the children from his orphanage.

In the initial stages of the camp’s existence, until mid-September 1942, several people managed to escape. Abraham Krzepicki returned to the Warsaw Ghetto, and Eddie Weinstein (primo voto Jehuda Jakob Wajnsztajn) went back to Łosice. After the war, the latter wrote: “I was there for 17 days, and each day seemed longer than a century”[1.5]. Both men, as well as other escapees, spread awareness of the existence of the “death factory.”

Camp prisoners

“I asked one of the workers what was going on. He said that whoever you talk to today is bound to be gone come tomorrow.”[1.6]

The only Jews who were not led to gas chambers immediately after the arrival of transports were small groups of people fit for work. In total, ca. 1,000 prisoners were held in the camp (camp no. 1 and no. 2) at the same time. They were assigned to work in several commandos. Each commando working in camp no. 1 was marked with triangles of different colours, hence their names: the “blue” or “railway” commando (40–50 persons) was responsible for emptying the train cars and escorting people and their luggage to Umschlagplatz; the “red” or “transport” commando (40 people) escorted the victims to the yard for underssing and escorted the sick and the weak to the “lazaret”; the “barber” commando (10–20 professional barbers) shaved women’s hair off; the “golden” commando (Goldjuden; ca. 20 people) searched the luggage and carried out personal searches on undressed women in order to find valuables; the “yellow” or “rags” commando (80–120 people) segregated clothes and removed stains and the Stars of David; the “forest” commando (25 people) was responsible for cutting down trees in the forest for fuel; the “camouflage” commando brought branches from the forest and wove them into the fence inside and outside the camp; the sheissmeister made sure that everyone using the latrine did not stay inside longer than 3 minutes; and the so-called court Jews (Hofjuden) – craftsmen and tailors who worked in the section of the camp housing living quarters of the German staff. Ca. 300 prisoners worked and lived in camp no. 2, that is the Totenlager – the site of extermination. Among these was a “hose brigade” responsible for cleaning the corridor leading to the gas chambers; commandos tasked with removing, searching, hiding, and disposing of corpses from the chambers; commandos responsible for transporting corpses; dentists, gravediggers, as well as an “ash brigade” (after corpses started to be cremated in February 1943). There was a 10-person orchestra in camp no. 1, headed by Artur Gold. Two musicians worked in camp no. 2, one of them being Jerzy Rajgrodzki. The prisoners of camp no. 1 were supervised by engineer Alfred Marceli Galewski (when he was ill, his tasks were performed by Rakowski); in camp no. 2, the position of the supervisor was held by Blau, a Jews from Vienna. The work of each of the commandos was supervised by a kapo – a Jewish commander[1.7].

A typical day in the camp began at 5 AM. After eating breakfast consisting of stale bread and coffee or bread soup, the prisoners went to work, which lasted until about 6 PM. Lunch was served at 12–1 PM. As described by Richard Glazar, the food served at lunch varied: “The thickness of the soup depended on what arrived in the latest transport”[1.8]. As the working day ended, an assembly was held. The prisoners were counted, selections were carried out, and punishments were imposed. For supper, prisoners received coffee and bread, sometimes with a bit of margarine or marmalade.

Information outside. Social awareness

“When we arrived, my wife and child were immediately taken to the gas chamber. We had been loaded into train cars and nobody knew what was going to happen. We all thought that we were taken to work”[refr:| Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy, ed. N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. 178: The account of Szymon Goldberg, who was transported to Treblinka II from Częstochowa on 5 September 1942.]].

Despite disguising the area of the camp and keeping the true purpose of the site in secret, the first news about Treblinka II and the fate of Jews deported from Warsaw and other cities as part of the “Great Resettlement Action” reached the Warsaw Ghetto in August 1942, less than a month after the genocide machine was put into action, with the arrival of the first fugitives from the camp. The stories of the escapees were difficult to stomach for the residents of ghettos, and the first people to describe their experience were regarded as madmen who had made it all up. When people were waiting for hours on the railway siding, on their way to death, they wanted to believe that Treblinka was only a transit stop “on the way to the East.” The common understanding of the world did not allow people to fully comprehend the news about the murder of all those deported. They found it difficult to believe that Germans – such a cultured nation – would be capable of exterminating people on a mass scale. Besides, many Jews still held on to the belief that they were useful to Germans as a free labour force.

The underground committee of the Bund sent one of its activists, Zalman (Zygmunt) Fridrich, to follow subsequent transports. In Sokołów Podlaski, Fridrich leaned the truth about Treblinka. The issue of the Bund’s underground magazine Ojf der wach (Yiddish: “On Guard”) published on 20 September 1942 featured the following article: Warsaw Jews are being murdered in Treblinka. Nonetheless, people still refused to believe the information provided by the press.

For more information see: [Link to the article on the Virtual Shtetl] „Droga na Wschód”… SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka II.

Underground activities of prisoners and rebellion in the camp

“The chances of saving anyone’s life were scarce. The plan was to completely destroy the camp” [1.9].

After the reorganisation of the camp in the autumn of 1942, it became much more difficult to make an escape. Moreover, much fewer transports arrived to the site since the spring of 1943 than before mid-December 1942. Prisoners of the camp realised they would share the fate of the murdered once they stopped being useful to the SS. As a result, underground resistance groups were formed in both camp no. 1 and no. 2.

Samuel Rajzman recalled that right after his arrival (he was deported to the camp on 22 September 1942), Alfred Galewski let him know that he was creating a resistance movement to retaliate against Germans[1.10]. The “Organising Committee” was established in camp no. 1 at the beginning of 1943, on the initiative and under the command of Dr. Julian Chorążycki. An underground group also existed in camp no. 2.

The following persons belonged to the underground group in camp no. 1: Mojżesz (kapo in the joinery), Samuel Wilenberg, Alfred Galewski (the leader of the Committee after the death of Chorążycki). The command of the Committee included: Zelo Bloch (head of the sorting group; from the Czech Republic), Zev Kurland (kapo in the Lazaret), Leon Haberman (an artist from Warsaw), Sadowicz (an agronomist from Warsaw), Heinrich Kleinmann (Czech official), Richard Glazar, Mosze Lublink (Lubling).

The following persons belonged to the underground group in camp no. 2: Szymon Goldberg (initially also in camp no. 1), Jankiel Wiernik, Adolf (from Łódź) and Zelo Bloch (a Czech).

Both groups knew about each other’s existence thanks to the prisoners who first belonged to the underground group in camp no. 1 (e.g. Szymon Goldberg), and then were moved to camp no. 2.

News on the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was another stimulus for the rebellion. Arrangements and plans, as well as decisions on the division of roles were made at night in “friendly” bunks, so that no “suspect” person would learn about the plans and denounce them to the kapo or Wachmann. Initially, the uprising (which is how the prisoners referred to the rebellion in the camp) was planned for 15 June. The plan was to set all buildings on fire, destroy the gas chambers and kill the camp personnel. Preparations for the uprising gained momentum in the summer of 1943, when the number of transports decreased. Forest commandos overseen by Wachmänner sought to obtain weapons from the local population, which had earlier supplied bread to the camp prisoners. Unfortunately, these attempts proved to be futile and a decision was made to seize the weapons stored inside the camp. While repairing the door lock in the armoury, the locksmiths managed to get a key imprint and make a copy of it. As a result, the rebels managed to smuggle a box of hand grenades out of the armoury before the rebellion. Unfortunately, the grenades did not have fuses – these were obtained later on.

“It was supposed to begin at 4, but it started at 2, and instead of a whistle, there was a shot, because a certain “Kuba” from Warsaw [...] turned out to be a traitor. He and the gendarme “Kiwe” [i.e. Hauptscharführer Küttner] were killed just as Kuba was telling him about the rebellion”[1.11].

The rebellion broke out on Monday, 2 August 1943. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a group of SS-men and Wachmänner went down to the Bug river for a swim. Stangl was also outside the camp. It was planned for the uprising to start at 4 PM with the sound of a whistle from camp no. 1, when a train with workers was coming back to Treblinka I. It was assumed that these prisoners would join the uprising, hence increasing the chances of success. The rebellion broke out at 2 PM, after a shot heard in camp no. 1.

The prisoners managed to set fire to some of the barracks and the armoury. The camp personnel were to be killed with spades or axes, while their weapons were to be taken away to fight the others. “The whole camp was in flames, smoke was everywhere. The fire consumed the entire camp, except the gas chambers” [1.12]. Some of the auxiliary personnel were killed, but more prisoners were killed by Wachmänner, who shot at them from the watchtowers. The prisoners decided to take advantage of the chaos, confusion, and the element of surprise – they cut the fence and started to run. Only a few had guns. They ran in various directions.

In total, out of ca. 850 prisoners who were present in the camp at the time, ca. 350–400 died during the rebellion, including their leader, Galewski. A group of ca. 350–400 escaped from the camp, out of whom 100 managed to hide from the pursuit of Wachmänner and SS-men. Ca. 70 prisoners of Treblinka II survived the war. Thanks to their accounts and written memoirs, it was possible to commemorate the deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims of the camp.

The camp after the rebellion. Covering the traces and liquidation

According to Franz Stangl, 105 prisoners remained at the camp after the rebellion[1.13]. There were many people who decided not to escape, as they saw no chance of survival. They saw their age and physical condition as an obstacle and feared the consequences of their lack of knowledge of Polish topography and Polish language, necessary to blend in with the “Aryans.” In the last weeks of the camp’s operation – until November 1943 – shortages of workforce were compensated with Jewish prisoners from Treblinka I. Ca. 7,600 Jews from the ghetto in Białystok were brought to the camp in August of the same year. For safety reasons, 10 train cars at a time were brought to the siding, as opposed to the usual 20.

The camp was being gradually liquidated and all stolen things were taken away. Part of the staff headed by Franz Stangl was sent to Trieste at the end or in mid-August 1943. The staff was now headed by Kurt Franz. The remaining part of the personnel, consisting of several SS-men, a group of Wachmänner and prisoners (the so-called Restkomando) under the command of Kurt Franz, was supposed to cover the traces of the existence of SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka and then leave the area. All remaining buildings were demolished. Some materials left behind after the demolition of the fence and other equipment, including internal combustion engines and dredgers, shovel loaders, along with the stolen property of the Jews murdered in the camp, were sent to various destinations, mostly in the Lublin District. In total, ca. 100 freight wagons with different equipment left the camp from mid-September until the end of the camp's existence.

The camp ceased to exist on 17 November 1943. On that day, Kurt Franz shot and cremated the bodies of the last 25–30 prisoners, while the last Wachmänner and SS-men left for Lublin. A farm was established at the site place of the camp, which continued to be the residence of the former auxiliary guards – the so-called Wachmänner.

After the war. Commemoration

After the arrival of the Red Army in the summer of 1944, the “guards” of the crime scene escaped from Treblinka II and disappeared into thin air. From that moment on, the post-camp area resembled no man's land and was easily accessible to people from the outside. In the first years after the war, the area of the former camps of Treblinka I and Treblinka II was dug up in the search for valuables. It was not until the end of the 1950s that the area was cleaned up and a monument designed by Adam Haupt and Franciszek Duszeńko (in the area of Treblinka II) and Franciszek Strynkiewicz (in the area of Treblinka I) was built. The ceremonial unveiling took place on 10 May 1964.

 

Dr Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat

Selected bibliography:

  • Co wiemy o Treblince? Stan badań, ed. E. Kopówka, Siedlce 2013.
  • Lahnstaed S., Czas zabijania. Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka i Akcja Reinhardt, Warsaw 2018.
  • Maranda M., Nazistowskie obozy zagłady. Opis i próba analizy zjawiska, Warsaw 2002.
  • Młynarczyk J.A., „Treblinka – obóz śmierci „akcji Reinhardt”,” [in] Konferencje IPN. Akcja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie, Warsaw 2004, pp. 217
  • Rusiniak M., Obóz zagłady Treblinka II w pamięci społecznej (1943–1989), Warsaw 2008.

 

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Footnotes
  • [1.1] The penal labour camp Arbeistlager Treblinka existed from the summer of 1941 until 23 July 1944. Its commander was SS-Hauptsturmführer Theo van Eupen. The prisoners of the camp were mainly Poles – inhabitants of the Sokołów-Węgrów District sent to the camp for even the pettiest crimes against the German authorities. Nonetheless, some Jews were also held in Treblinka I. In July 1942, the camp also started to house Jewish professionals and craftsmen selected from transports brought to Treblinka II. For more information about Treblinka I, see e.g. Obóz pracy Treblinka I. Metodyka integracji danych wieloźródłowych, S. Różycki, M. Michalski, E. Kopówka, Warsaw–Treblinka 2017.
  • [1.2] F. Ząbecki, Wspomnienia dawne i nowe, Warsaw 1977, pp. 38-39.
  • [1.3] Description of the camp based on the account of the escapees, e.g.: Abraham Jakub Krzepicki, Człowiek uciekł z Treblinek… Rozmowy z powracającym, eds. B. Engelking, A. Skibińska, Warsaw 2017; Jechiel Rajchman, Ocalałem z Treblinki. Wspomnienia z lat 1942–1943, afterword by E. Koźmińska-Frejlak, Warsaw 2011; Jankiel Wiernik, Rok w Treblince, Warsaw 1944 (reprint Warsaw 2003).
  • [1.4] Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy, ed. N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. 183. The account of Samuel Rajzman, transported from Warsaw on 22 September 1942.
  • [1.5] Eddie Weinstein, 17 dni w Treblince, Łosice 2012, p. 50.
  • [1.6] Wiernik J., Rok w Treblince, Warsaw 1944 (reprint: Warsaw 2003), p. (3) 14.
  • [1.7] For more information on the division of prisoners into commandos, see e.g. Samuel Willenberg, Bund w Treblince, afterword and footnotes by A. Żbikowski, Warsaw 2004.
  • [1.8] Glazar R., Stacja Treblinka, Warsaw 2011, p. 30.
  • [1.9] Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy, ed. N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. 188: The account of Samuel Rajzman.
  • [1.10] Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy, ed. N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. 183: The account of Samuel Rajzman. The preparations for the rebellion and its course are described in the memoirs by Samuel Willenberg, Bund w Treblince, afterword and footnotes by A. Żbikowski, Warsaw 2004.
  • [1.11] Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy, ed. N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. 181: The account of Szymon Goldberg.
  • [1.12] Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy, ed. N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, p. 189: The account of Samuel Rajzman.
  • [1.13] Sereny G., W stronę ciemności. Rozmowy z komendantem Treblinki, Warsaw 2002, pp. 216-217.