Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Treblinka Extermination Camp

After Auschwitz-Birkenau, where approximately 1 million Jews were killed during World War II, Treblinka extermination camp came in a murderous second. An estimated 925,000 Jews were killed there. 
Treblinka is located 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, Poland. It was originally a gravel mine, then converted to a forced labor camp in September 1941 known as Treblinka I.  It usually had about 1,000 to 2,000 prisoners at a time who worked at a quarry and later harvested wood for use at Treblinka II when it was established. It existed for three years and about 10,000 of the 20,000 inmates that were there died of exhaustion, hunger and disease.
Map of Treblinka I, the gravel pit and the execution site for Treblinka I prisoners. 
The gravel quarry today.
Remnants of Treblinka I
Foundation of a building at Treblinka I.
Memorial at the execution site.
Memorial at the execution site.
Treblinka II was the third of three extermination camps established after Hitler decided on the Final Solution (extermination) for the Jews (the other two were Belzec and Sobibor). It was 42 acres and surrounded by two barbed wire fences 8 feet tall, with pine tree branches interwoven in between the wire to obstruct the view in and out. It was divided into three parts. Camp 1 was an administrative compound.
Map of Treblinka II. The administration compound is at the bottom. 
Camp 2 was a receiving area where trains brought in prisoners to unload. A building there was disguised as a railway station, complete with a fake ticket window, fake rail schedules and fake destination signs. About 100 yards from the track, behind a fence, were two barracks used for undressing and a cashier's booth to collect money and jewelry. The women's barracks was on the left and the men's on the right. To the right was a sorting square where all of the baggage of the victims was collected and sorted. It was near a fake infirmary with a Red Cross sign on it, called the Lazaret. Sick, old, wounded and "difficult" prisoners were taken there. Behind it was a 23 foot deep pit. Victims taken to the Lazaret were led to the edge of the pit and shot one at a time in the head by Willi Mentz, named "Frankenstein" by the prisoners. Frankenstein killed thousands of victims single-handedly. The victims fell into the pit and their bodies were burned.
A closer look at Camp 2 and Camp 3.
This diorama from the Visitors Center shows portions of Camp 2 (foreground) and Camp 3 (background). The women's and men's barracks are to the left and the fake train station is to the right. 
The sorting square where belongings are grouped into like items, two buildings to the front right that stored sorted belonings, and the Lazaret to the back right. 
From a different angle.
Camp 3 was where the gas chambers were located. It was screened from the railway track by an earthen bank built by a mechanical digger. A forested path, called the "path to heaven," or "the tube," led from the undressing barracks to the gas chambers. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau where Zyklon B gas (hydrogen cyanide) was used, the engine of a Red Army tank pumped exhaust fumes by pipes into each of the initial three gas chambers. Later, in September 1942, a larger building was built with 8 to 10 gas chambers supplied by exhaust from two Red Army tanks. The people were killed in about 20 minutes. The men were gassed first and women and children second. They initially could kill 12,000 to 15,000 people in a 14 hour workday, and when the new gas chambers were built, increased it to 22,000 to 25,000 people in a day.
Camp 3 from the back. The gas chambers in the white building top right. 
For the first six months of Treblinka the bodies were buried. However, in April 1943, the Nazis discovered the graves of 10,000 Polish officers killed by the Russians in 1940 in the Katyn massacre. The bodies were still well preserved. Concerned about their own crimes being discovered, the Nazis issued orders to exhume the corpses buried at their death camps and to burn them. At Treblinka, large cremation pits were dug at Camp 3 and railroad rails were laid out as grates on a cement foundation. Bodies, both newly gassed and those exhumed, were laid out on the grates, splashed with gasoline and burned. It took five hours to burn the flesh of a body and the remaining bones were crushed with a mallet. 10,000 to 12,000 bodies could be burned at one time. The pyres operated 24 hours a day.

On August 2, 1943, 700 Jewish prisoners had an uprising, setting fires and blowing up a gasoline tank. About 200 escaped, about half of those were killed within a day or so, and about 70 survived to the end of the war, including Samuel Willenberg, the author of the book I cite below. Rather than rebuild, the Nazis decided to close the camp as most of the Jews in the Polish ghettos had been killed. On August 18 and 19, 1943, the last transports of Jews came into Treblinka, 76 train cars from the Bialystok ghetto.

A majority of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were sent there: 265,000 from July 22 to September 12, 1942 by two shuttle trains daily, each with about 60 cars, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each carrying from 4,000 to 7,000 victims.

In Surviving Treblinka, by Samuel Willenberg, who was one of an estimated 40 to 70 people to survive Treblinka, an introduction by Wladyslaw T. Bartoszewski shares a composite of statements made by the SS to Jewish victims (as set forth in The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi): "However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world would not believe him. There will perhaps be suspicions, discussions, research by historians, but there will be no certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you. And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believe: they will say that they are exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you. We will be the ones to dictate the history of the [labor, concentration and death camps]."

The Nazis did everything they could to cover up evidence of the extermination camp. They had Jewish workers dismantle the gas chamber, brick-by-brick, and used them to erect a farmhouse. The extermination area was leveled, ploughed over and planted with lupins.

Most of the extermination camp at Treblinka was obliterated. However, the memorial at Treblinka is simple, beautiful and powerful.

Rectangular stones, representing train tracks, show where the trains came in.

A flat area next to the train tracks represents the platform. 
From the tracks and platform you can look back and see the beginning of Camp 3.
These stones indicate countries from where Jews were brought into the camp. 
A 26 foot tall granite memorial, designed to represent a tombstone, was placed on the site of the gas chambers. It is carved with abstract reliefs and Jewish symbols. 

A menorah on the back side of the monument. 
17,000 quarried stones symbolizing grave stones, are placed in the areas where mass burials took place. Some of the stones, about 130, have inscriptions of places where at least 5,000 victims were brought to Treblinka by train.
A stone representing the victims of Warsaw. 

A stone representing Czestochowa, a city we visited. 

There is also a flat marker resembling one of the incineration pits where the bodies were burned. The marker has melted basalt, symbolizing burnt charcoal, on a concrete foundation. The actual human ashes at the time were mixed with sand and spread out over 5.4 acres. 
Representing the incineration pit. 

Instead of flowers, Jews put stones on graves. Here in the incineration pit stones have been placed on the basalt, some of them with Hebrew inscriptions (or at least what I assume is Hebrew). This article talks about why Jews put stones on graves rather than flowers. 
Treblinka is a solemn place. A beautiful and haunting memorial where an unimaginable number of people were murdered. In many respects I liked it more than Auschwitz-Birkenau. Fewer people visiting, more abstract, and a more concentrated area. 

1 comment:

  1. The contrast between the beautiful forest and grasses and the macabre stone cemetery was almost overwhelming. I thought the lack of crowds made our experience especially poignant. The place, without living people, felt haunted.