More humans were killed at Treblinka in 1942
than at any other place in the history of mankind!
The immense sadness, the heightened emotions of absolute disgust, anger towards a long dead enemy and war itself, and the raw hurt along with tears, all came flooding out during my visit to Treblinka.
Such a reaction could have been expected at our recent visit to Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.1 million poor souls were exterminated.
Was it the distraction of keeping up with the tour guide that kept me from my own thoughts at Auschwitz? Did that pent up emotion finally have a release when left to my to reflections regarding the enormity of Treblinka’s war crimes? I know not. What I do know, however, is that this place exudes grief and compels deep emotions.
So Where is Treblinka?
Treblinka is in Poland, located just over 100 kilometres, or one and a half hours drive north-east from Warsaw. There are tours to Treblinka from Warsaw if you don’t have your own transport.
What Was At Treblinka?
Two Camps were set up by the Germans in Treblinka; a Penal (forced) Labour Camp (Treblinka I) and an Extermination Camp (Treblinka II).
The labour camp was constructed in the summer of 1941 and covered 17 hectares. Initially Poles, mainly from Warsaw district, then later Jews as well, were incarcerated there.
The extermination camp was built in the middle of 1942, about 2km from the existing labour camp. The camp area of 15.85 hectares was surrounded by double rows of barbed wire.
Why Was Treblinka Selected?
Treblinka was designated to be a key part of the “Reinhard Action” a codename for the planned extermination of Jews from German occupied Europe. The chosen location needed to be remote, to keep what was happening there a secret from the world, and well connected to the railway networks, which would bring victims there from all parts of Europe.
To the east of Warsaw, along the Western Bug River, lie sands, swamps and thick evergreen and deciduous forests. These places are gloomy and deserted. In 1942 there were few villages. The remote station of Treblinka lies on the branch rail line to Siedlce. It is not far from the junction station of Malkinia, where the lines from Warsaw, Bialystock, Diedlce and Lomza all meet.
Treblinka I labour camp had already been in operation, which facilitated building a new larger camp close by.
Treblinka met the criteria for a mass extermination camp location and was approved by SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler himself
What Happened There?
The despicable mass extermination of between 800,000 – 920,000 Jews took place at Treblinka during World War II.
It is important to distinguish between the Labour Camp at Treblinka I and the Extermination Camp at Treblinka II to understand what happened.
At the labour camp, between 1,000 and 2,000 prisoners worked long hours with starvation rations, minimal hygiene, frequent beatings and torture. The prisoners worked in the adjacent gravel pit, at the railway station in Malkinia, and at the irrigation area in the valley of the Bug River.
Approximately 20,000 prisoners were incarcerated at Treblinka I during its operation, of which almost half died from the poor conditions or were shot. A walking track from the camp led to an area, known as the Execution Site, where prisoners were routinely taken, shot, and buried. Most of what we know about this camp comes from inmates who managed to escape, usually by feigning death, before sneaking into the forest in the dark. Some accounts of these survivors is written on plaques dotted along the track to the execution site.
The camp was liquidated at the end of July 1944 and the buildings demolished. Just the foundations remain today. Some of the mass graves have been exhumed but the majority of bodies lie unknown but not forgotten, forever blanketed by the sandy Treblinka soils.
For more information about the archaeological projects click here.
The extermination camp at Treblinka was built in the middle of 1942, near the existing labour camp. Its specific purpose was to kill and dispose of Jews as quickly as possible.
The staff consisted of 30-40 Germans and Austrians. They were supported by 100-120 guards of Ukrainian origin. The first transportation of prisoners arrived on 23 July 1942 and comprised around 6,500 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. Fresh trains arrived virtually daily from that point as can be seen in this timeline of events from Treblinka.
Although initially focussed on processing Polish Jews, Treblinka also received Jews from Germany, Austria and other parts of occupied Europe. Arriving at Treblinka required a journey of multiple days for some. Crammed into rail wagons or cattle trucks, many of the dead were pulled from carriages having suffered from asphyxiation, dehydration, exhaustion, or crushing.
The poor souls who survived the excruciating journey were separated into male and female lines, required to strip, and the females had their head shaved. They were then forced to walk into the gas chambers. Once secured inside, the exhaust from large diesel engines was piped into the chamber, resulting in a slow, horrific, death spanning an inhumane 20 minutes.
In the early months the dead were simply buried in mass graves. However, as the tide of the war turned against the Germans, their fear of discovery, and the resulting consequences grew, so they began cremating the bodies. Horrifyingly, the guards dug up the buried corpses to burn them in order to conceal their heinous crimes.
By the end of the first year of operation, after almost all of Poland’s Jews* had been exterminated, the camp began processing Roma and Sinti people (gypsies) as well as over 135,000 Jews from across Europe.
*The American Jewish Yearbook placed the total Jewish population of Europe at about 9.5 million in 1933. This number represented more than 60 percent of the world’s Jewish population, which was estimated at 15.3 million. Most European Jews resided in eastern Europe, with about 3.3 million Jews living in Poland. Before the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Europe had a dynamic and highly developed Jewish culture. In little more than a decade, most of Europe would be conquered, occupied, or annexed by Nazi Germany and most European Jews—two out of every three—would be dead.
According to historians, it is estimated that between 800,000 – 920,000 Jewish people from Poland, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Germany and the Soviet Union were exterminated at Treblinka.
Franz Stangl, commander of the camp, would boast that he could ‘process’ an entire train between his breakfast at 7am and lunch at midday – killing an average of 6,000 Jews. Once new gas chambers had been installed, 12,000 people could be exterminated in single a day!
Treblinka was the third extermination camp of Operation Reinhard to be built, following Bełżec and Sobibór, and incorporated lessons learned from their construction and operation.
Treblinka II was operational until November 1943. The camp was then shut and completely demolished by the Nazis. The graves were covered with earth and the whole area of the former camp ploughed and sown with lupins.
Why Did This Occur?
The mass extermination of Jewish people was driven by the ardent antisemitism (anti-Jewish) sentiments of Adolf Hilter, the German Führer (leader). Hitler blamed the Jews for everything that was wrong with the world; a weak Germany, communism, capitalism… you name it, he said the Jews were behind it. Furthermore, Hitler believed that Jews and the ‘Slavic’ races, such as Poles and Russians, were inferior to the German (or Aryan) race and their extinction was necessary for the long term dominance, by the superior Germanic races. Hitler was supported by the Nazi Party, the government, the military, and thousands of ordinary civilians, who all played their part in the Holocaust.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, he did everything he could to make life for Jews in Germany difficult. Increasingly harsh anti-Jewish laws were passed and the general population were incited to abuse Jews. However, it wasn’t easy for the Jews to leave. The processes to emigrate from Germany were hard to comply with, and other countries refused to change their immigration policies, or strict quotas to make it possible for Jews to emigrate, without lengthy procedures, and a lot of money.
Once World War II broke out, Jews from either Germany or the occupied territories, were unable to leave, and Hitler was able to put his lethal plans into action, with the full support of his Nazi cohort. In January 1942, a secret meeting of top Nazis agreed on the details for the ‘final solution to the Jewish question in Europe’. The Death Camps at places such as Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór arose following these discussions, which included agreement to ‘comb’ Europe for Jews, and deport them eastwards, to be worked to death or executed.
Poland was a natural site for many of the camps due to its high number of Jewish people already living there. Furthermore Poland was located far from the prying eyes of Western Europe.
For further reading about the final solution click here.
Why Didn’t They Fight Back?
They did! And Jews participated in the resistance movement, in all of the occupied countries. In the Polish Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos, (areas of the cities where the Nazis forced the Jews to live), there were uprisings against the Germans. The overwhelming military force of the German army quickly crushed their attempts, however. The Jews involved preferred to face their death fighting, rather than be sent passively to the gas chambers.
The Germans were meticulous in how they controlled vast number of Jews without them rioting and overwhelming the guards. A story developed that they were being sent to transfer camps, and then onto work camps, or for resettlement. They could take one bag, or suitcase, containing their personal belongings. Anyone who showed any sign of dissent was immediately shot. On arrival at Treblinka, the victims were usually in no condition to fight back after the train journey, and were hurried through to the ‘decontamination rooms’ immediately. Total brutality and cold-bloodedness were used to instantly quell any problems.
In the Labour camp, anyone giving any trouble faced certain death, usually by gunfire, being hung, or simply beaten to death. The bodies then were on display as a deterrent to others, who might be thinking the same way.
There was, however, a rebellion at Treblinka II organised by the prisoners, which broke out on 2nd August 1943. The camp was partly destroyed by fire, but less than a hundred survived the escape, and subsequent hunt by the guards.
What Is Left Of The Area Today?
The destruction of all evidence of the Final Solution was ordered in an effort to conceal from the Russian Army, and the world, what had actually taken place in these camps. Painstaking work of forensic archaeologists, and study of personal testimonies, has pieced together our knowledge today of what the site looked like, and how it functioned.
All that remains today of Treblinka II is a museum full of relics, and what has been erected on the site, in remembrance of those who died.
Today there are stones depicting the history of Treblinka. These ‘memorial stones’ are the most powerful monument with 17,000 separate pieces of granite, one for each of the communities that lost Jews in the Holocaust. 216 of them carry inscriptions with names of cities and towns from where Jews were transported.
The only stone, which carried a person’s full name, commemorates Janusz Korczak (see further below). A huge memorial rises from the middle of memorial stone field, alongside another stone obelisk, inscribed with a simple, but powerful message in several languages.
Particularly poignant is the Ribbon of Remembrance, which is a white ribbon winding through the trees, along the path, and around the perimeter of the field of memorial stones. This ribbon lists the names of about 4,000 of the people who died here. That seems like a lot, but only represents less the 0.5% of those who actually lost their lives, and is less than the number who typically arrived on just one daily train, into the camp.
A symbolic railway, loading platform, and cremation grate, have been rebuilt in an effort to help us understand the original layout.
The remains of Treblinka I labour camp are more obvious with the foundations of most of the buildings still visible today.
At the Execution Site, 500 metres from Treblinka I, a stone memorial has been erected together with hundreds of concrete crosses marked with the names of some of the prisoners who died there.
There is also a memorial to the Roma and Sinti people, who died at the labour camp. The Roma and Sinti, (collectively known as gypsies), were a separate ethnic group thought to have arrived in Europe in the 1400’s, from northern India. They are believed to have numbered over 900,000 in the German occupied territories, and Hitler also believed them to be an inferior race, requiring extermination. For more information on the gypsies, and why Hitler wanted them killed click here.
The road from Treblinka I, to the Execution Site, is marked with crosses symbolising the hundreds of people who were shot dead along this road. The woods contain plaques detailing various burial, and archaeological sites, plus testimonies from those who escaped near certain death.
Significant People Mentioned
There is a unique stone commemorating Janusz Korczak, and the children in his care at the symbolic cemetery of the concentration camp. This became a symbol of the martyr’s death, of thousands of people at Treblinka. Janusz, born Henryk Goldszmit, entered this world around 1878 or 1879. He was a writer, a teacher, a voluntary social worker, and a doctor. Although he was repeatedly offered the opportunity to escape, he chose to stay with the orphans in his care, right up to the day they were rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent to Treblinka. He is reported to have told the children that they were going out to the country, where life would be much better, and to wear their best clothes. He and the children were gassed at the beginning of August 1942.
For further reading about Janus Korczak click here.
“one sun shines for us,
one hail destroys our crops,
and one soil buries the bones of our ancestors”. Society 1910.
Samuel Willenberg and Kalman Taigman arrived at the camp aged 19. Samuel was with his mother, after being rounded up with thousands of other Jews, in Warsaw in July 1942.
Samuel and Kalman were among the slaves made to dig up bodies, and burn them, but on 2 August 2 1943, during the revolt, they were among the 300 – 400 prisoners who escaped. Most were hunted, and killed, by the SS and just 67 prisoners were known to have survived the war.
Samuel was shot in the leg, but hid before heading to Warsaw, where he fought the Nazis in the 1944 Warsaw uprising. Kalman also avoided capture.
“Soon there will be no one left to tell. The world cannot forget Treblinka.” Said Kalman in an interview dated 2012.
The last two survivors of Treblinka took part in a BBC documentary to make sure the truth did not die with them.
Sadly, today there are no survivors still living.
You can read an article about Samuel Willlenberg written after his death here.
Holocaust deniers are people who believe that the Holocaust never happened, or that it was on a far smaller scale, than the weight of evidence proves. Holocaust deniers suggest Treblinka was just a transit camp, but British forensic archaeologist, Caroline Sturdy Colls, used radar to find evidence of the massive burial pits there. This work is ongoing today.
Eyewitness accounts from Jews who managed to escape, testify to the hellish horrors, and atrocities, that took place there.
It beggars belief that anyone can seriously review the evidence, and suggest that Treblinka was not a site of mass murder, and genocide.
For more information on Holocaust deniers, and their motivations click here.
We had stayed the previous night in the Museum carpark, with our motorhome, intending to get the jump on the first visitors to the site the next morning. The parking area was quiet, and flat. The GPS coordinates are 52.635177, 22.052206.
However, at 8.30am, seven busloads of Jewish teenagers, from Israel arrived, all wishing to pay their respects to their fallen relatives, and ancestors. They were visiting Poland, on a planned Holocaust visit, and this was their third stopping point. So, we shared our early bird status with some 300 Jewish visitors, who were wearing white sweatshirts, and waving the blue and white flags of Israel.
We visited the museum on our own, then arrived at the Memorial Stones. Watching the kids go from typical bubbling teenagers, to quietly reflecting, hugging, consoling, and wiping away tears from one another, was a sobering experience. The mood changed dramatically.
They laid out blue ribbons, making the Star of David form, at the foot of the great stone monument, set up microphones, and proceeded to sing, and pray, in front of the stones. We felt very privileged to be witnessing such an outpouring of emotions, two or three generations on, from the events that took place here.
The museum is open daily from 9am to 6.30pm. It costs seven Zlotys per person (€1.61) and one Zloty for the map. They accept cash only.
The museum is closed for Easter and Christmas.
For more information click here.
While this might be considered Dark Tourism, I believe it is important that we, you, visit these places if nearby. Also, please read as much as you can, in order to prevent such horrors from ever being repeated, in humanities future.
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