‘Sunday, August 9 [1942] [...] We learned that they murder 99% of the dislodged people.’

[Archiwum Ringelbluma. Konspiracyjne Archiwum Getta Warszawy (Ringelblum Archive, Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto), vol.: 23: Dzienniki z getta warszawskiego (Diaries from the Warsaw ghetto), part 1: Dziennik Abrahama Lewina (Abraham Lewin’s Diary), edited by K. Person, Z. Trębacz, M. Trębacz, Warsaw 2015, page 116; more: Dziennik Abrahama Lewina]

In the spring of 1942 in the vicinity of Treblinka I penal camp, Germans started the construction of another camp – SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka II. It was built by prisoners of Treblinka I and Jews from nearby ghettos (Sokołów Podlaski, Stoczek Węgrowski, Węgrów, Kosów Lacki). After the completion of construction works, some of them returned to their previous residence. As it turned out, under the camouflage name of the ‘special commando’ was the Reinhardt Action death camp, which started to operate on July 23, 1942. The Germans brought trainloads of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, and then also from other towns. It is estimated that more than 800 thousand people of Jewish origin were killed in the gas chambers of Treblinka. The camp was liquidated in November 1943, when its last prisoners were deported in two transports: on October 20 and November 4, 1943 to Sobibór, and the last handful of them who were used to wipe out any traces of the crime – were, on November 17, shot in the forest by Kurt Franz – Deputy Commander of the camp.

The location of the camp in the depths of the forest, far from any dwellings, attracted interest among the builders and the locals from the very beginning. About what Treblinka really was behind the fence of a barbed wire woven with pine twigs, the world was never to learn.

‘Various rumours arose about the new camp: that a new labour camp was being built, or a concentration camp, or a mysterious military facility, or a secret military installation, or even a control centre for a new weapon, or maybe Pawiak (Warsaw jail) subsidiary unit. There were also rumours that the Bug river was to be deepened and regulated, and the works will be done by the Jews.’

[Franciszek Ząbecki, Wspomnienia dawne i nowe (Old and New Memories), Warsaw 1977, page 38].

Even more interest and perhaps some fear was caused by the first trains coming into the forest one after another and the empty wagons returning. Each of the transports consisted of about 60 overcrowded freight wagons. The railwaymen very quickly understood that the displaced persons were being brought to the death camp. It became clear that the camp could not accommodate such a large number of people. At first, people did not know how this was done. Frequency of trains, as well as their waiting for entry into the forest, made the local inhabitants comprehend the truth about Treblinka II. Besides, the hot summer caused the odour of decomposing bodies spreading over the area. The local inhabitants obtained information about the way of murdering through contacts with guardsmen – the so-called wachmen who came to the village and while drinking vodka were telling what was going on in the camp with the deportees.

The article will only outline the issue of awareness about Treblinka II among the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto.

When the first transports from the Warsaw Ghetto set off ‘to the East’, some of the ghetto inhabitants had information about the extermination camp in Bełżec, which existed since March 17, 1942. Unfortunately, we cannot answer the question as to how many people outside the Judenrat in the Warsaw ghetto and members of the underground ‘Oneg Shabbat’ organisation led by Emanuel Ringleblum or underground political organizations, knew the truth about Bełżec, and we do not know whether the Judenrat employees were aware of what the notice of departure ‘to the East’ really meant. Many see the suicide of Adam Czerniaków – president of the Judenrat – as a proof of his knowledge of the real destination.

Initially it was believed that everyone was leaving for an unspecified ‘East’. ‘The Umschlag workers recorded only the numbers of departing trains and stated that they were repeating every few days. After this it was stated that they were going in the direction of Małkinia (Treblinka) [...]. Because with the passage of time not only the locomotives’ numbers were recognised but also the same wagons – and they were often returning the very the next day – this extremely short trip to the far east brought the darkest fears among those selected for transport. At the end of the first week of August we had no illusions about the fate of the departed. Destination – Treblinka – was discovered past the middle of August. And yet thousands upon thousands of people went to death without any resistance’ [Stefan Ernest, O wojnie wielkich Niemiec z Żydami Warszawy (About the war of Great Germany against Warsaw Jews). 1939–1943, introduction, editing and annotations by M. Młodkowska, Warsaw 2003, pages 209-210].

The first information revealing the truth about Treblinka reached the Warsaw Ghetto with the arrival of the first escapees from the camp, in early August 1942. Abraham Lewin, one of the members of the ‘Oneg Shabbat’ group, made his first note on Treblinka in his dairy on August 6, 1942: ‘P[opo]wer saw the orders for trains and saw the number of people transported to Treblinka.’ [Dziennik Abrahama Lewina (Abraham Lewin's Diary), page 114]. The entries from the following days only confirm that Lewin knew what Treblinka was. On August 11, 1942, in the shed where he worked appeared an escapee from Treblinka – Salbe, who described the camp, or rather the killing place where the Germans ‘[...] hurl them [the deportees] to the huge barracks. For five minutes you can hear horrifying screams, then silence’ [Abraham Lewin’s Diary, page 118].

Many people are still wondering how wide was the spread of information delivered by the fugitives from the camp and what reactions it brought about? Another question that preoccupies researchers concerns the moods among those taken away from the ghettos? Were they aware where they were going? Did they believe till the end in the German assurances regarding the ‘deportation action to the East’?

Anxiety about the fate of the ghetto inhabitants deported to ‘the East’ and the very rapid reappearance of the same rakes of freight wagons resulted in Bund Underground Central Committee sending an emissary, Zalman Frydrych alias Zygmunt, behind one of the transports. He was to find out the train route and the destination. With the help of Polish railwaymen, he came to Sokołów Podlaski, where he learned from the locals the truth about Treblinka. His findings were published on September 20, 1942 in the underground Bund newsletter, published in the Warsaw Ghetto under the title ‘Ojf der Wach’ (Yiddish – On watch), in the article: ‘The Jews of Warsaw are murdered in Treblinka’. Marek Edelman in ‘Getto walczy’ (Ghetto fights)commented on the reaction to the article among the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto: ‘But even now Jews are stubbornly rejecting the facts. They close their eyes before the hard truth, they clog their ears, they «push it away with their hands and their feet»’

Representatives of the Judenrat also tried to gain information about the fate of the deported and to confirm the information obtained from the first escapees from the camp. At the beginning of August they contacted the ghetto in Sokołów Podlaski, where, due to a short distance from the camp (about 30 km), the truth was already known and was transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto.

At the end of August, Dawid Nowodworski returned to the ghetto. He had been taken to the camp on August 17. After a few days he managed to escape. Initially, he stayed in Stoczek Węgrowski, from where he sent a postcard to the Warsaw Ghetto with information about Treblinka. On August 28, in front of the members of ‘Oneg Shabbat’ he gave a report on his experiences and the true purpose of the camp. These testimonies became the basis of information provided by ‘Oneg Shabbat’ to the Government Delegation for Poland, which, along with the Command of the Home Army of the Warsaw District, was interested in the fate of the Warsaw Jews and tried to find out the truth about Treblinka and disseminate it. As from August 1942, the ‘Informacja Bieżąca’ (Current Information) newsletter published information on transports to Treblinka, as well as data on the location of the camp and the methods of murdering Jews there.

In December 1942, the poet Władysław Szlengel wrote a poem entitled ‘The little station Treblinka’ where he provided information about the camp and about killing by gas.

We cannot imagine the reactions and feelings of ‘travellers’ on their way to Treblinka. Thanks to the memoirs and other narratives, we know that they depended on their knowledge of the destination. Another atmosphere was in the wagons at the beginning of the Great Action in the summer of 1942, and another at the end of the year, when information about the camp in various ways reached the ghetto. ‘[…] in the late autumn and early spring people going to Treblinka were generally aware of their fate, as can be attested to by their behaviour: tearing to bits things and money and throwing them away through the windows in wagons, and throwing away valuables so that they would not get into the hands of the Germans’ [Jerzy Królikowski, Budowałem most kolejowy w pobliżu Treblinki (I was building a railway bridge near Treblinka), ‘Biuletyn ŻIH’ 1964, no 49, page 50].

The behaviour and general condition of the Jews were influenced by the conditions of travel: heat, fug, constant thirst for water, caused fatigue and apathy. For many of the ‘travellers’, the proverbial last resort were, among other things, SS-men's speeches on the work ‘in the East’, in which many wanted to believe. Compared to the behaviour of the wachmen, who furtively entered the trains for robbery, they played the role of the so-called good executioners. People who were packed like herrings in a barrel could not think of anything else, but to satisfy their basic needs, such as getting fresh air or getting some water at a stop. The awareness of Treblinka increased with the approach to the camp. Most learned the truth only at the time of death.

Jankiel Wiernik, deported on August 23, 1942, who spent a year in the camp and managed to escape during the rebellion on August 2, 1943, also returned to the Warsaw ghetto. In his memoirs he described, among other things, the departure to the camp:

‘On order we move. Horror. Naked reality appeared to our eyes. Wagons. Empty wagons. Beautiful, hot summer’s day. It seems that the sun rebels against this lawlessness. What are they blamed for, our wives, children and mothers? Why? The sun is hiding behind the clouds. It is beautiful, radiant, bright. I do not want to look at our anguish and humiliation. Order to enter the wagons. They pack 80 people per wagon. The return route is closed. […] The train went from one spare track to the other. Knowing well this railway junction, I realized we were in one place. […] Inside the wagon it is getting fuggier, hard to breathe. It is hopeless, sad and terrible. My eyes were filled with all of them and everything, but still I could not grasp the enormity of misfortune. [...] At 4:00 pm the train moved on, a few minutes later we got to the Treblinka camp. It was only then that we cast off the veil covering our eyes’

[Jankiel Wiernik, Rok w Treblince / A Year in Treblinka, (reprint) Warsaw 2003, pages 12-13].

Another escapee from Treblinka, who was taken from the ghetto on August 25, 1942, also described the conditions of the trip and the general ignorance of travellers: ‘The wagon I was in was crowded with people. There was a terrible fug, increasing with every moment. As the train moved, a wave of deep gloom swept over the wagon. The thought of approaching death had overcome everyone and aroused a sense of horror. From all the sides of the wagon the words of Kaddish prayer for the death were heard. After two hours the train stopped. It stayed the whole night. [...] We knew nothing about the direction in which the train was going. After a few hours of travelling, an SS man entered the wagon. He kindly and convincingly assured us that we were going to the village of Treblinka for a stop, and after segregation we will go further to the workplace. He called for obedience and diligence. At the end of the speech he declared that we were close to the destination. The German left the wagon. The mood improved. Tired and thirsty we expected the end of the journey. Finally. The train stopped’ [Relacje dwóch zbiegów z Treblinki II (The reports of two fugitives from Treblinka II), ‘Biuletyn ŻIH’ 1961, no 40, page 79].

Abraham Krzepicki, also deported on August 25, spent 18 days in the camp. His account is an example of a state of denial as to what awaited the ‘travellers’ at the destination. ‘The police closed the wagons. At that moment I understood that for me the world was coming to an end [...] When the wagons were shut, the mourning began: »Jews, we are in a snare«. But I and a few others did not want to believe it: »It cannot be that so many people are to be killed. Maybe the old ones and the children... But we, the young ones, will go to work«. The wagons moved. We are going. Where? We do not know. Maybe to Russia for work? Several elderly people lost all hope, and as soon as the train started, they began to recite Kaddish and called: »Jews, that's our end! Let us all recite Kaddish!«’ [Abraham Krzepicki, Treblinka, ‘Biuletyn ZIH’ 1962, no 43-44, pages 86-87; more: Abraham Krzepicki]. He emphasized ‘Who had not experience it, will not believe it’ [Abraham Krzepicki, page 87]. It was easy to believe in the words of the German who entered the wagon and promised the travellers that their suffering would soon end, that they will get water and be sent to work. ‘The Jews rejoiced and clapped their hands. They wondered what kind of work they would do. [...] The mood in the wagon improved’ [Abraham Krzepicki, page 88].

People on the way to the camp, watching the world through windows and through the cracks in the wagon still did not believe or did not want to believe in Treblinka's true purpose. ‘We were surprised to see so much clothing there. Where did it all come from? We guessed that in Majdan near Lublin and in other camps they gave paper clothes to Jews, and their garments were collected in this very place. Here they are sorted and sent to Germany for processing. There were those who claimed that a special shed was also set up in Warsaw at 52 Nowolipki Street (Hoffmann's Shed), where the used clothes are remodelled. Near Treblinka, Jews were seen led to work by a Ukrainian. This happy message also reached everyone. Let them know that here they are taking Jews to work’ [Abraham Krzepicki, pp. 88-89]. After leaving the train and coming to the square in the camp: ‘The first thing that caught our eye was a huge mountain of rags, but what happened to the people?! All of the nightmares about Lublin, Koło, Turek resurrected in our minds. We said to ourselves: »Jews, it looks bad! This is probably the end!«’ [Abraham Krzepicki, page 89].

J. Rajgrodzki taken from Warsaw on 10th or 11th of September 1942, in a same way as many of his companions did not believe in the truth about Treblinka. ‘We did not know and did not believe that we were going to extermination. The fact that we took our sheets and clothes and I even took the violin.... […] The trip lasted the whole night. We got out. We were separated... I was so stunned by what was happening that I became totally indifferent’ [J. Rajgrodzki, Jedenaście miesięcy w obozie zagłady w Treblince (Eleven months in the Treblinka extermination camp), ‘Biuletyn ŻIH’ 1958, no 25, page 101].

On the other hand, Samuel Rajzman, taken from Warsaw on September 22, 1942, reminisces somewhat differently the moods at the beginning of the journey: ‘[...] I did not think for a moment that we were going to be killed. I only imagined that we were going to have a hard time. Some people in the wagon already knew that there was a death camp in Treblinka, they started to make me aware’ [Samuel Rajzman, Mój pobyt w Treblince (My stay in Treblinka), [in:] Dokumenty i materiały z czasów okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce (Documents and materials from the times of German occupation in Poland), vol. 1: Obozy (Camps), edited by N. Blumental, Łódź 1946, page 182].

***

The extermination camp in Treblinka, next to the camp in Bełżec, was one of the best-known extermination camps in occupied Poland. Knowledge of them was probably limited to small circles connected with the Polish underground movements. It is difficult to say whether this information was available to Polish society outside the area around the camp and the District of Warsaw. Information about Treblinka was disseminated among the Jewish community through the newsletters published in the ghetto. The number of duplicates of these publications does not allow us to determine the number of recipients and whether they believed in their truthfulness. There have been cases when knowledge of Treblinka led to the resistance against the SS men during the dislodgement, which ended in death in the ghetto.

Dr. Martyna Rusiniak-Karwat

The article written on the basis of:

  • M. Rusiniak-Karwat, Co wiedzieli i o czym myśleli Żydzi, jadąc do obozu zagłady Treblinka II (What the Jews on the way to Treblinka II extermination camp knew and what they were thinking about), [in:] Co wiemy o Treblince? Stan badań (What do we know about Treblinka? The current state of research), edited by Edward Kopówka, Siedlce 2013, pages 101-118.
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