Treblinka Extermination Camp

Treblinka was an extermination camp, built by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. It was located near the Treblinka village in the modern-day Masovian Voivodeship north-east of Warsaw. The camp operated officially between 23 July 1942 and 19 October 1943 as part of Operation Reinhard (the most deadly phase of the Final Solution). During this time, more than 800,000 Jews as well as unknown numbers of Romani people were murdered there. The victims included men, women, and children. Other estimates of the number killed at Treblinka exceed 1,000,000.

The camp, managed by the German SS and the Eastern European Trawnikis (also known as Hiwi guards), consisted of two separate units: Treblinka I and Treblinka II Vernichtungslager. The first camp was an Arbeitslager whose prisoners worked primarily in the nearby gravel mine or irrigation area and in the forest. Between June 1941 and 23 July 1944, more than half of its 20,000 inmates died from summary executions, hunger, disease and mistreatment.

The second camp, Treblinka II, was designed as a death factory. A small number of men who were not killed immediately upon arrival became its Jewish Sonderkommando slave-labor units, forced to bury the victims’ bodies in mass graves; in 1943, these units exhumed the bodies and then cremated them on massive open-air pyres along with the bodies of new victims. Gassing operations at Treblinka II ended in October 1943 following a revolt by the Sonderkommandos in early August. Several ethnic German guards were killed, and some 300 prisoners escaped, although less than a hundred survived. The camp was then dismantled and a farmhouse built on it in an attempt to hide the evidence of genocide.

Treblinka was declared a national monument during an official ceremony held at the site of the former gas chambers in 1964; 30,000 people attended the ceremony, including many foreign guests. A towering monument was unveiled by the Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland in the presence of survivors of the Treblinka uprising from Israel, France, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The structure’s cornerstone was laid in 1958. It was followed by the government gradually purchasing 127 hectares of land that had formed part of the camp. The first official German trial for war crimes committed at Treblinka was held in 1964–65, twenty years after the end of the war. The new exhibition centre located at the camp opened in 2006 after the collapse of the Soviet empire. It was later expanded and made into a branch of the Siedlce Regional Museum.


Before Operation Reinhard, over half a million Jews had been massacred by the Einsatzgruppen killing squads in territories conquered by Nazi Germany. However, the systematic annihilation of the Jews using industrial means began only after the 1942 Wannsee Conference. Treblinka was one of three secret extermination camps set up specifically for Operation Reinhard, the other two being Belzec and Sobibor. The killing centre at Chełmno (Kulmhof) operating from late 1941 preceded them, using gas vans for the mass murder of a large number of people, but Chełmno was not a part of Reinhard. It was a pilot project for the establishment of the next three death factories with faster methods of killing and incinerating people. In addition to Chełmno, mass killing facilities were developed at the Majdanek concentration camp and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau within the already existing Auschwitz I.

The Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews from across General Government, codenamed Aktion Reinhard, was overseen in occupied Poland by SS-Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, as the deputy of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in Berlin. The Operation Reinhard camps reported directly to the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), which was headed by Himmler. The staff of Operation Reinhard used the Action T4 euthanasia program as a basic framework for the construction of facilities.

The camp of Treblinka was located 80 kilometres (50 mi) northeast of the Polish capital Warsaw, near the Małkinia Górna railway junction connecting major cities with Łopuszyński’s gravel mine located 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) from the Treblinka town railroad station. The quarry, equipped with heavy machinery, was essential for the production of concrete. The Totenlager Treblinka II was conveniently placed halfway between some of the largest Jewish ghettos in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, the Ghetto in Warsaw and the Białystok Ghetto in the capital of Bezirk Bialystok. The Warsaw Ghetto had about 500,000 Jewish inmates, while the Białystok Ghetto had about 60,000. Right at the beginning Treblinka was split into separate subcamps, Treblinka I and Treblinka II. The German contractors who oversaw the construction of Treblinka I and Treblinka II were the Schoenbronn Company of Leipzig and the Warsaw branch of Schmidt–Munstermann. Between 1942 and 1943 the camp was further redeveloped with a crawler excavator. Additionally, trees were cut and the perimeter adjusted to fit the killing process and cremation introduced later.

Treblinka I

Treblinka I, founded officially on 15 November 1941, was a forced labor camp (Arbeitslager) for Poles and Jews captured in nearby locations. Treblinka I operated from June 1941 until 23 July 1944. During these three years, half of its 20,000 inmates perished. Treblinka I prisoners worked 12- to 14-hour shifts in the mega quarry and later also supplied fuel to open-air crematoria. During its entire course of operation, the commandant of Treblinka I was SS-Sturmbannführer Theodor van Eupen. He ran the camp with several SS men and almost 100 Hiwi guards. A widely feared overseer was Untersturmführer Franz Schwarz, who would execute prisoners with a pickaxe or a hammer.

“Quarry – Place of Forced Labour”

Treblinka II

Treblinka II (officially the SS-Sonderkommando Treblinka), was divided into three parts and built by two groups of German Jews expelled from Berlin and imprisoned at the Warsaw Ghetto (238 men of 17 to 35 years of age). They were brought in by Richard Thomalla because they could speak German. The entire camp, which was either 17 hectares (42 acres) or 13.5 hectares (33 acres) in size (sources vary), was surrounded by double-row barbed-wire fencing 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in) tall. This fence was later weaved with pine-tree branches to obstruct the view of the camp. More Jews were brought in from the surrounding settlements to work on the new railway ramp, which was ready in June 1942.

In the Wohnlager administrative and residential compound, a telephone line was built, and the main road within the campgrounds was paved along with a few side roads. The main gate for road traffic was erected on the north side. Barracks were built with supplies delivered from Warsaw, Sokołów Podlaski, and Kosów Lacki. Kitchen, bakery, and dining rooms were equipped with quality items taken from Jewish ghettos. The sleeping quarters, separate for Germans and Ukrainians, were positioned at an angle for better control of all entrances. SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz had the idea of setting up a small zoo in the centre (next to his horse stables, aerial photo), with two caged foxes, two peacocks and a roe-deer (brought in 1943). Smaller rooms were built for laundry, tailor, and shoe repair shops, as well as woodworking, medical aid, and female cleaning and kitchen staff (closest to the SS quarters).

The second section of Treblinka II (lower camp, or the Auffanglager) was the receiving area where the railway unloading ramp extended from the Treblinka line into the camp. There was a platform surrounded by the barbed-wire fence, and a new building erected on it and disguised as a railway station complete with a wooden clock and fake railroad terminal signage. Behind a second fence, about 100 metres (330 ft) from the track, there were two long barracks used for undressing, with a “cashier’s booth”, which collected money and jewellery for “safekeeping”. Jews who resisted were taken away or beaten to death by the guards. The area where the women and children were shorn of their hair was on the other side of the path from the men. All buildings contained the clothing and belongings of prisoners. Further to the right, there was a fake infirmary called “lazaret”, with the Red Cross sign on it. It was a small barracks surrounded by barbed wire where the sick, old, wounded and “difficult” prisoners were taken. They were led to the edge of an open excavation seven metres deep directly behind it, and shot one by one by Blockführer Willi Mentz, nicknamed “Frankenstein” by the inmates. The same trench was also used to burn loads of identity papers deposited by new arrivals.

The third and the most important section of Treblinka II was the actual killing zone with gas chambers built in the centre of the upper camp. It was completely screened from the railroad tracks by an earth bank built by the crawler excavator. The high earthen mound – as drawn by commandant Franz Stangl himself while in police custody – almost resembled a retaining wall, although it was not. On other sides, it was camouflaged from new arrivals with tree-branches woven into barbed-wire fences by the Tarnungskommando (the only work-detail led out to collect them). From the lower camp there was a fenced-off path leading through the forested area directly into the gas chambers. It was cynically called Himmelstraße (“the Road to Heaven”) by the SS, or der Schlauch (“the tube”). Initially, behind the gas chambers were the huge burial ditches approximately 50 metres (160 ft) long, 25 metres (82 ft) wide, and 10 metres (33 ft) deep, dug by the excavator. In early 1943, they were replaced with cremation pyres, with rails laid across the pits which were up to 30 metres long. Separate barracks were built for the roughly 300 prisoners who operated the upper camp.

Killing Process

Unlike other Nazi concentration camps across German-occupied Europe, in which prisoners were used as forced labour for the German war effort, the Totenlagers had only one function: to kill those sent there. In order to prevent incoming victims from realising their fate, Treblinka II was disguised as a transit camp for deportations further east, complete with a false stop sign “Ober Majdan”, fake train schedules, names of destinations, a false ticket window, and a fake train-station clock with hands painted on it.

The mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July 1942 with the first shipment of 6,500 victims. The gas chambers became operational the following day. For the next two months, deportations from Warsaw in two pendulum trains continued on a daily basis ranging from about 4,000 to 7,000 victims per transport, the first in the early morning and the second in mid-afternoon. All new arrivals were sent immediately to the undressing area by the Kommando Blau and from there to the gas chambers. According to German records, including the official report by SS Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, some 265,000 Jews were transported in freight trains from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka during the period from 22 July to 12 September 1942 (months before the subsequent uprising). Hundreds of prisoners died from exhaustion, suffocation and thirst while in transit to the camp in the overcrowded boxcars.

Prisoners arriving from abroad (Theresienstadt, Thrace, or Pirot) were treated differently from the Polish Jews arriving in cattle wagons. Those who had train tickets, travel foods and drinks, received a cordial greeting; nevertheless, their ultimate fate was the same. The unhinged locomotive went back to Małkinia, while the victims were pulled from the carriages onto the platform and told by an SS man (either Otto Stadie or Willy Mätzig) that they were on the way to Ukraine and needed to shower and have their clothes disinfected before receiving work uniforms. They were led through the gate amidst the chaos and constant screaming and yelling. They were beaten and separated by gender behind the gate, pushed into one of the two barracks (left and right) and ordered to tie together their shoes and to strip. Some kept their own towels. The Jews who were resistant to the process were taken to the “infirmary” with the Red Cross flag on it, and shot right behind it. Women had their hair cut off. This hair was then used “in the manufacture of hair-yarn socks for ‘U’-boat crews and hair-felt foot-wear for the Reichs-railway”. The number of transports to gas slowed down only in winter.

The newly arrived Jews were beaten incessantly with whips after undressing in order to drive them towards the gas chambers, with hesitant men being treated particularly brutally. According to postwar testimony of some SS officers, men were always gassed first, while women and children waited outside the gas chambers for their turn. During this time, the women and children could hear the sounds of suffering from inside the gas chambers, and they became well aware of the fate that awaited them, which caused panic, distress, and even involuntary defecation. An entire train transport of people could be killed in a matter of two or three hours.

Gas Chambers

The gassing area was entirely closed off with tall wood fencing made of vertical boards. Originally, it consisted of three interconnected barracks 8 metres (26 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) wide that were disguised as showers. They had double walls insulated by earth packed down in between. The interior walls and ceilings were lined with roofing paper. The floors were covered with tin-plated sheet metal used also for roofing. Solid wooden doors were insulated with swaths of rubber and bolted from the outside by heavy cross-bars. The victims were gassed with the fumes generated by a Soviet tank engine that had been disassembled from a Red Army tank captured during Operation Barbarossa. It had been brought in by the SS at the time of the camp’s construction and was also used to generate electricity. The engine was erected in a separate shack with its exhaust pipe put just below the ground and opening into all three gas chambers. The fumes could be seen seeping out. After about 20 minutes the bodies were removed by dozens of Sonderkommandos, placed onto carts and wheeled away. The system was imperfect and required a lot of effort; trains that arrived later in the day had to wait on layover tracks overnight at Treblinka, Małkinia, and Wólka Okrąglik.

Between August and September 1942, a big new building with a concrete foundation was built out of bricks and mortar under the guidance of T-4 expert Erwin Lambert. It contained 8–10 gas chambers (8 metres by 4 metres each) with a corridor in its centre. Stangl supervised the construction and brought in building materials from Małkinia. The new gas chambers became operational in early autumn 1942 and were equipped with two fume-producing engines instead of one. The metal doors, which had been disassembled from Soviet military bunkers around Białystok, had portholes through which it was possible to examine the dead before removal. The new death chambers were capable of killing 3,000 people in two hours and 12,000–15,000 victims every day, with a maximum capacity of 22,000 deaths in 24 hours.

This killing process differed significantly from the method used at Auschwitz and Majdanek, where the poisonous gas Zyklon B was utilized. At Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, the victims died from suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning. This method meant that many victims were not completely dead after inhaling the engine exhaust. The few prisoners who worked in the Sonderkommandos and survived later testified that victims frequently let out a final gasp of breath from their lungs when they were extracted from the gas chambers.

After the suffocation ended and the doors of the gas chambers were opened, the bodies of victims did not lie on the ground, but were standing and kneeling due to the severe overcrowding, with dead mothers embracing the lifeless bodies of their children. Sometimes victims began to revive in the fresh air. They were shot by the guards and buried with the others.

Cremation Pits

The Germans became fully aware of the political danger associated with the mass burial of corpses only in 1943, when the Polish victims of the Soviet Katyn massacre were discovered near Smolensk in Russia, drawing the attention of the international community. Those 22,000 officers’ bodies were well preserved underground, attesting to the Soviet war crimes. The orders to exhume corpses already buried at Treblinka and burn them instead came directly from the Nazi leadership.

Within Treblinka II, there were two large cremation pits constructed to incinerate dead bodies. The masses of corpses that had been buried with the crawler excavator during the camp’s initial operation were dug up again and cremated according to the orders of Heinrich Himmler, who had visited the camp in 1943. The instructions to utilize rails came from Herbert Floß, the camp’s cremation expert. The bodies were placed on grates over wood, splashed with gasoline, and burned in one massive blaze. It was a horrible sight, with the bellies of pregnant women exploding from boiling amniotic sac fluid, wrote Jankiel Wiernik, a Polish Jew who would later survive the 1943 uprising. He wrote that the heat radiating from the pits was maddening. The bodies would burn for five hours; the pyres operated 24 hours a day. Once the system had been perfected, some 10,000–12,000 victims could be incinerated there at the same time.

The open-air burn pits were located east of the new gas chambers and refueled from 4 am till 6 pm. The current camp memorial includes a flat grave marker resembling one of them. It is constructed from melted basalt and stone and has a concrete foundation. It is a symbolic grave, as the Nazis spread the actual human ashes, mixed with sand, over 22,000 square metres.

Organization Of The Camp

The camp was operated by 20–25 SS overseers (Germans and Austrians) and 80–120 Wachmänner guards who had been trained at Trawniki. While the guards were mainly ethnic German Volksdeutsche from the east and native Ukrainians, there were also some Russians, Tatars, Moldovans, Latvians, and Central Asians, all of whom had served in the Red Army. They were recruited of their own free will by Karl Streibel from the prisoner-of-war camps for the Soviet soldiers captured after the outbreak of war with the USSR.

The work at the Camp 2 Auffanglager receiving area was performed under threat of death by 700–800 Jewish prisoners organised into six specialised Sonderkommando squads, each of which had a different color triangle. The triangles made it impossible for new arrivals to try to blend in with members of the work-details. The blue unit (Kommando Blau) managed the railroad terminal and unlocked the freight cars. They met the new arrivals, carried out people who were already dead, removed bundles, and cleaned the boxcar floors. The red unit (Kommando Rot), which was the biggest squad, unpacked and sorted the belongings of victims who had been already “processed”. The red unit delivered these belongings to the storage barracks, which were managed by the yellow unit (Kommando Gelb), who separated high-quality items from the low-quality clothing, removed the Star of David from all outer garments, and extracted any money sewn into the linings. The yellow unit was followed by the Desinfektionskommando, who disinfected the storage, including sacks of hair from “processed” women. The Goldjuden unit (“money Jews”) collected and counted banknotes and evaluated gold and jewelry. A different group of about 300 men, called the Totenjuden (“Jews of death”), lived and worked in Camp 3 across from the gas chambers. They took the corpses away for burial and cremation after any gold teeth had been extracted, refueled the pyres, crushed the remaining bones with mallets, and collected the ashes for disposal. Each trainload of “deportees” brought to Treblinka consisted of an average of sixty heavily guarded railcars. They were divided into three sets of twenty at the layover yard. Each set was processed within the first two hours of backing onto the ramp.

Members of all work commandos were continuously beaten by the guards and often killed. New labourers (only the strongest men) were selected from new arrivals daily to obtain the necessary replacements. A different work detail was responsible for the upkeep of Treblinka II, as well as the Tarnungskommando in charge of camouflaging its essential structures with fresh tree branches woven tightly into barbed-wire fences. The Camp 1 Wohnlager residential compound contained barracks for 700 Sonderkommandos, bringing their grand total to roughly one thousand at any given time.

There was a bruise rule in effect. If a prisoner beaten on the face sustained black eyes, open wounds and severe swelling, he would be called “clepsydra” (water clock) in the camp prisoner language and most likely shot that same evening at roll call or the next day if the bruised cheeks first began to swell up then. Many Sonderkommando prisoners hanged themselves at night, incapable of coping with the horrors. Suicides in the Totenjuden barracks, wrote Wiernik, occurred at the rate of 15 to 20 per day. The work crews – usually unable to eat or sleep from fear and anxiety – were almost entirely replaced every few days, with members of the old work detail being sent to their deaths except for those most resilient to stress.

Treblinka Prisoner Uprising

After a long period of secret preparations, on 2 August 1943 an armed revolt erupted at Treblinka. The combat unit was originally organized by a former Jewish captain of the Polish Army, Dr. Julian Chorążycki described by fellow plotter Samuel Raizman as a noble man essential to the action. Chorążycki committed suicide on April 19 when faced with imminent capture. His organizing committee included Zelomir Bloch (leadership), Rudolf Masaryk, Marceli Galewski, Samuel Rajzman, Dr. Irena Lewkowska (sick bay), Leon Haberman, Hershl (Henry) Sperling from Częstochowa, and several others, The next leader was another former Polish Army officer, Dr. Berek Lajcher, who had arrived on May 1st. Born in Częstochowa but practicing medicine in Wyszków, he had been expelled by the Nazis to Wegrów in 1939. He launched the uprising on a hot summer day when a group of Germans and some forty Ukrainians drove off to the Bug River for a swim. Lajcher was killed in the revolt.

On 2 August 1943 (Monday, a regular day of rest from gassing), the door to the arsenal near the train tracks was silently unlocked, and some 20–25 rifles, 20 hand grenades and a dozen pistols were stolen and delivered in a cart to the gravel work detail. At 3:45 p.m. some 700 Jews launched the attack on the gates. They splashed gasoline in some buildings and set them ablaze, including a tank of petrol, which exploded, spreading flames on surrounding structures. Many prisoners attempted to climb over the fence. However, the machine-gun fire from the well-trained Germans (some 25 of them) and Ukrainian Trawnikis (numbering around 60) resulted in near-total slaughter. Most prisoners perished. Only 150–200 Jews succeeded in crossing over the fence. Half were killed after a chase in cars and on horses. Some of those who escaped successfully were transported across the river by the partisans of the Armia Krajowa hiding in the surrounding forest, while others who ran 30 kilometers nonstop like Sperling were helped and fed by Polish villagers. Only around 70 Jews are known to have survived until the end of the war, including future authors of published Treblinka memoirs: Jankiel Wiernik, Chil Rajchman, Samuel Willenberg, and Richard Glazar. There was also a revolt at Sobibor two months later and at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 7 October 1944.

Among the roughly 150 Jewish prisoners who escaped successfully after setting fire to the camp, there were two 19-year-olds, Samuel Willenberg and Kalman Taigman, who had both arrived in 1942 and had been forced to work there under pain of death. In August 2012 they were the only remaining Jewish survivors of the camp. Both emigrated to Israel after the war and devoted their last few years to retelling the story of Treblinka. Taigman stated of his experience, “It was hell, absolutely hell. A normal man cannot imagine how a living person could have lived through it – killers, natural-born killers, who without a trace of remorse just murdered every little thing.” Escapees Hershl Sperling and Richard Glazar committed suicide because of survivor guilt syndrome.

In spite of the revolt, Treblinka II continued to operate for another year. Stangl met with Wirth and Globocnik in Lublin and decided not to draft a report, indicating that no native Germans died in the process. The camp’s new deputy commandant Kurt Franz recalled during his testimonies: “After the uprising in August 1943 I ran the camp single-handedly for a year; however, during that period no gassings were undertaken.” Facts prove otherwise. Despite the extensive damage to the camp, the gas chambers were left intact and the killing of Polish Jews continued, albeit at a reduced speed with only ten boxcars “processed” at once until the end of the month. On 19 October 1943, Operation Reinhard was terminated by a letter from Odilo Globocnik. The following day, a large group of Jewish Arbeitskommando who had worked on dismantling the camp structures over the past several weeks were loaded onto the train and transported via Siedlce and Chełm to Sobibor for gassing on 20 October 1943. Cleanup operations continued over the winter. The last Sonderkommando disposing of the incriminating evidence were executed in July 1944.

Operational Command

Irmfried Eberl was the camp’s first commandant; he was appointed on 11 July 1942. Eberl was a psychiatrist who became the only physician to ever to command an extermination camp. According to some, his poor organizational skills caused the operation of Treblinka to soon turn disastrous; others also point out that the number of transports that were coming in reflected the high command’s wildly unrealistic expectations of Treblinka’s ability to “process” these prisoners. In the beginning, the corpses were buried in mass graves, but within days the burial pits were overflowing with bodies, and corpses were instead piled up in Camp II because the workers did not have enough time to bury them. At the same time, the gas chambers continually broke down. The SS thus resorted to shooting incoming Jews in the arrival area and piling bodies throughout the camp. According to the testimony of his colleague first sergeant Hans Hingst, Eberl’s ego and thirst for power grossly exceeded his grasp: “So many transports arrived that the disembarkation and gassing of the people could no longer be handled.”

The putrid odor of decaying human remains could be smelled up to 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) away at the nearby village of Treblinka. It was evident that large-scale killings were happening nearby, which caused panic among the villagers. On incoming Holocaust trains to Treblinka, many of the soon-to-be-murdered Jews locked inside correctly guessed what would happen to them based on the stench.

Oskar Berger, a Jewish eyewitness, told of the camp’s state when he arrived there in August 1942:

When we were unloaded, we noticed a paralyzing view – all over the place there were hundreds of human bodies. Piles of packages, clothes, suitcases, everything in a mess. German and Ukrainian SS men stood at the corners of the barracks and were shooting blindly into the crowd.

Oskar Berger

On 26 August 1942, Odilo Globocnik, the head of Operation Reinhard, visited Treblinka along with Christian Wirth and Josef Oberhauser. Commandant Irmfried Eberl was relieved of his duties. Among the reasons for his dismissal were incompetently disposing of the tens of thousands of dead bodies, using inefficient methods of killing, not properly concealing the mass murder, and stealing valuables from those who had been “processed”, which he then secretly sent to cohorts at Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin. This last activity had been expressly forbidden by Heinrich Himmler, as he wanted this property to go toward the German war effort. However, stealing collected gold and money was a common practice among concentration camp commandants; two Majdanek concentration camp commandants, Koch and Florstedt, were executed by the SS for the same reason in April 1945.

Christian Wirth was assigned to move into Treblinka to help clean up Eberl’s mess. On August 28, Globocnik temporarily suspended deportations to Treblinka. He chose Franz Stangl, who had previously been the commandant of the Sobibor extermination camp, to assume command of Treblinka as Eberl’s successor. Stangl had a reputation as a competent administrator with a good understanding of the project’s objectives, and therefore Globocnik trusted that Stangl would be capable of resuming control.

On September 1, Stangl replaced Eberl as commandant of Treblinka. He described Treblinka under Eberl’s command when he first arrived at the death camp:

I drove there, with an SS driver … We could smell it kilometres away. The road ran alongside the railway tracks. As we got nearer Treblinka but still perhaps fifteen, twenty minutes’ drive away, we began to see corpses next to the rails, first just two or three, then more and as we drove into what was Treblinka station, there were hundreds of them – just lying there – they’d obviously been there for days, in the heat. In the station was a train full of Jews, some dead, some still alive – it looked as if it had been there for days.

Franz Stangl

Franz Stangl, the camp’s commandant, on the left, talking to his deputy, Kurt Franz

Commandant Franz Stangl restored order in the camp, and the transports of Warsaw and Radom Jews began to arrive again on 3 September 1942. Stangl wanted his camp to look attractive, so he ordered the paths paved and flowers planted along the sides of Seidel Street, near camp headquarters and SS living quarters. The appearance of Treblinka concealed the fate that awaited arriving prisoners.

Stangl liked to wear a white uniform and carry a whip, and so he was nicknamed the “White Death” by prisoners. Despite being directly responsible for the camp’s operations, Stangl limited his contact with Jewish prisoners as much as possible, at least according to his own testimony. He claimed that he rarely interfered with unusually cruel acts perpetrated by his subordinate officers at the camp. He grew accustomed to the killings and perceived prisoners not as humans but merely as “cargo” that had to be destroyed, he told his prison interviewer. After Stangl, the next and the last camp commandant was Kurt Franz who managed Treblinka II until November 1943 and took care of its subsequent complete liquidation. His deputy was SS-Hauptscharführer Fritz Küttner who maintained a net of Sonderkommando informers and did the hands-on killings.

Treblinka Song

According to postwar testimonies, when transports were temporarily halted, Franz wrote lyrics to a song meant to celebrate the Treblinka extermination camp (actually, prisoner Walter Hirsch wrote them for him). The melody came from something he remembered from Buchenwald. The music was happy, in the key of D major, as though the deaths at the camp were a joyful process rather than one of mourning. The song was taught to the newly arriving Jews assigned to work in the Sonderkommando. They were forced to memorize it by nightfall of their first day at the camp. Survivor Samuel Willenberg remembered the song beginning: “With firm steps we march…. ” The lyrics recalled by Unterscharführer Franz Suchomel are quoted below:

Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous, at the world. The squads march to work. All that matters to us now is Treblinka. It is our destiny. That’s why we’ve become one with Treblinka in no time at all. We know only the word of our Commander. We know only obedience and duty. We want to serve, to go on serving until little luck ends it all. Hurray!

After The War

The last rail transport of Jews for gassing was brought to the camp on 19 August 1943 from the Białystok Ghetto. It consisted of 39 cars, according to communiqué published by the Office of Information of the Armia Krajowa, which was based on observation of Holocaust trains passing through the village of Treblinka. Following the uprising, only ten wagons were rolled onto the ramp at one time, while others had to wait. The mass shootings continued into 1944. Jews from the remaining work detail dismantled the gas chambers brick-by-brick and used them to erect a farmhouse in place of the camp’s former bakery. Its purpose as a secret guard post was confirmed by Globocnik in a letter to Himmler sent from Trieste on 5 January 1944.

The surrounding villages (Poniatowo, Prostyń, Grądy) were then destroyed by the departing Germans along with all evidence of genocide; 761 buildings were burned to the ground, and many families were killed. The fields of grain that once fed the SS were scorched. By the time the Soviets entered the area in late July 1944, everything had been leveled, plowed over, and planted with lupins. What remained, wrote visiting war correspondent Vasily Grossman, were small bits of bone in the soil, human teeth, scraps of paper and fabric, broken dishes, jars, shaving brushes, rusted pots and pans, cups of all sizes, mangled shoes, and lumps of human hair everywhere. The road leading to the camp was pitch black. Until summer 1944 human ashes (up to 20 carts every day) were regularly strewn by the remaining prisoners along the road for two kilometres in the direction of Treblinka I. When the war ended, destitute locals started walking up the Black Road (as they used to call it) in search of manmade nuggets shaped from melted gold in order to buy bread.

The new Soviet-installed government failed to preserve evidence of the crime. The scene has not been legally protected at the conclussion of World War II. In 1947 the first remembrance committee named Komitet Uczczenia Ofiar Treblinki (KUOT) formed in Warsaw and launched a design competition for the memorial. No funds were allocated for it by the Stalinist officials, and the committee disbanded in 1948. Many survivors left the country. In 1949 the town of Sokołów Podlaski took it upon itself to protect the camp with a new fence and a proper gate. A work crew with no archeological experience was sent in to beautify the grounds. In 1958, after the end of Stalinism in Poland, the Warsaw provincial council declared Treblinka to be a place of martyrology. In the next four years, some 127 hectares that had formed part of the camp were purchased from 192 farmers in the villages of Prostyń, Grądy, Wólka Okrąglik and Nowa Maliszewa.

The construction of a towering monument designed by sculptor Franciszek Duszeńko was inaugurated with the cornerstone laid on 21 April 1958 at the site of the former gas chambers. The sculpture represents the trend toward large avant-garde forms introduced in the 1960s, with a granite tower cracked down the middle and capped by a mushroom-like block carved with abstract reliefs and Jewish symbols. Treblinka was declared a national monument of martyrology on 10 May 1964 during an official ceremony attended by 30,000 people. The monument was unveiled by the Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland Zenon Kliszko in the presence of survivors of the Treblinka uprising from Israel, France, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The nearby building of the camp’s former custodian (built in 1960) was turned into an exhibition house following the collapse of the Soviet empire, and opened in 2006. It was later expanded and made into a branch of the Siedlce Regional Museum.

Death Count

There are many estimates of the total number of people killed at Treblinka based on fragmentary data from a variety of sources. Long after the camp’s official closure, the last Jewish work commando of up to 700 men was murdered by Trawnikis in July 1944. Definitive reports are scarce. Many postwar testimonies of survivors contain unsupported information and only alleged facts. Franciszek Ząbecki was one of the few non-German witnesses to see every transport that came into the camp. Ząbecki, a Polish station master before the war, was present at the nearby Treblinka railway station when the first Holocaust train arrived from Warsaw. He was employed by Deutsche Reichsbahn as a traffic controller at Treblinka village from 22 May 1941. He was a member of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), which formed most of the Polish resistance movement in World War II, and kept a daily record of the extermination transports. He also took a clandestine photo of the burning Treblinka II perimeter during the prisoner uprising. He witnessed most passing transports including the last set of five covered wagons carrying Sonderkommando to the Sobibor gas chambers on 20 October 1943. From his own records, Ząbecki estimated that no fewer than 1,200,000 people were murdered at Treblinka. He published his findings in a book in 1977.

In 1965, after a report by Dr. Helmut Krausnick, director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, the Court of Assize in Düsseldorf concluded that at least 700,000 people were killed at Treblinka. In 1969, the same court, after new evidence revealed in a report by Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler, reassessed that number to be at least 900,000. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the death toll in the gas chambers of Treblinka II (not including the deaths from forced labor in Camp I) is somewhere between 870,000 and 925,000.

The approximate number can also be estimated on the basis of a 1942 telegram from Operation Reinhard’s deputy commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle. In 2001, a copy of a decryption of this telegram was discovered among recently declassified information in Britain. The Höfle Telegram, sent to Berlin on 31 December 1942, listed 713,555 Jews as having been sent to Treblinka officially. The actual number of people who died there was probably higher, as shown through the AK communiqués. On the basis of the telegram and additional German hard evidence for 1943 listing 67,308 persons deported, historian Jacek Andrzej Młynarczyk observed that by the official count, 780,863 victims were brought by Deutsche Reichsbahn to Treblinka, regardless of the true number of victims. An archeological study using non-invasive archeological technology began at the site in 2010.

Treblinka Trials

The first official trial for war crimes committed at Treblinka was held in Düsseldorf between 12 October 1964 and 24 August 1965. Twenty years after the war ended, eleven former SS camp personnel were brought to trial by West Germany, including commandant Kurt Franz. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, along with Artur Matthes (Totenlager), Willi Mentz, and August Miete (both from Lazaret). Gustav Munzberger from Gas Chambers received 12 years, Franz Suchomel (Gold and Money) 7 years, Otto Stadie (Operation) 6 years, Erwin Lambert (Gas Chambers) 4 years, and Albert Rum (Totenlager) 3 years. Otto Horn (Corpse Detail) was acquitted and set free.

The Austrian Franz Stangl was the commandant of Treblinka from the summer of 1942 until August 1943. In 1951, Stangl escaped to Brazil, where he found work at a Volkswagen factory in São Paulo. His role in the mass murder of men, women, and children was known to the Austrian authorities, but Austria did not issue a warrant for Stangl’s arrest until 1961. In spite of being registered under his real name at the Austrian consulate in Brazil, it took another six years before he was tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and arrested in Brazil. After his extradition to West Germany he was tried for the deaths of around 900,000 people. He admitted to these killings but argued: “My conscience is clear. I was simply doing my duty.” Found guilty on 22 October 1970, Stangl was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of heart failure in prison in Düsseldorf on 28 June 1971.

Material Gain

The stealing of cash and valuables, collected from the victims of gassing, was conducted by the higher-ranking SS men on an enormous scale. When these officers left Treblinka to holiday at home, they would request a private locomotive from Klinzman and Emmerich at the Treblinka station just to transport their personal “gifts” to Małkinia for a connecting train. Then, they would drive out of the camp in cars without any incriminating evidence on their person and later arrive at Małkinia to transfer the goods. The overall amount of loot is unknown except for the period between 22 August and 21 September 1942, when there were 243 wagons of goods sent to Germany. Globocnik delivered a written tally to Reinhard headquarters on 15 December 1943 with the SS profit of RM 178,745,960.59 including 2,909.68 kilograms of gold, 18,733.69 kilograms of silver, 1,514 kilograms of platinum (all melted into bars) and 249,771.50 American dollars, on top of 130 diamond solitaires, 2,511.87 carats of brilliants, 13,458.62 carats of diamonds, and 114 kilograms of pearls. The amount of loot stolen by Globocnik himself is unknown, although Suchomel admitted in court to filling up a box of one million Reichsmarks for him.

These concrete blocks mark the path of the former rail spur that went to the extermination camp.

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