The aim of the SS was to destroy the evidence which would permit anyone to determine the extent of the crimes committed, and to remove as much of the evidence as possible pointing the fact that mass murder had occurred. To some extent they succeeded: there is no way that a precise count can be made of the number of victims killed at Treblinka. However, the weight of evidence now available could only be disputed by the ignorant or those with willfully bad faith, and it is clear that several hundred thousand were killed in the gas chambers, their bodies first plundered for loot, and then burned and the ashes buried in the sandy soils.
The death camp portion of this study is based on a painstaking analysis of the photography supported by previous historical accounts. It is clear that at Treblinka:
there were three large excavators used for purposes of grave digging,
that the area used for disposal of the dead is shown to be more than sufficient to accommodate one million corpses without cremation,
that a massive earth moving effort took place at this remote and barren site,
That even into recent years, bone splinters were mixed in with the soil over a large area of the former camp site.
Further, the salient details of survivor accounts are corroborated in the ground and aerial photographs analyzed here. For example, the reports that bodies were carried to the burial pits by two men using a stretcher is supported by a picture of this in practice. Detailed studies of the photography has shown the images of the two gas chambers were captured on one frame of Kurt Franz’s photographs, and that the location determinable from this and other photography is in agreement with the reports of Viernik and other sources. The reports that the death camp’s Jewish work force were required to screen and smash the bones after burning of the corpses is corroborated in images of men disposed about a large area with scattered piles of light colored materials (ashes).
Finally, the Kurt Franz photographs of the earth moving equipment in action constitute the strongest evidence of the extent of the effort which could only be explained by the need to dispose of the dead. Treblinka was not a militarily or industrially significant site. Yet at this remote location was assembled a number of equipments desperately needed in support of their war effort. The dead end rail spur led only to the punishment camp and its associated sand quarry.
The body of the following report contains the details supporting the conclusions reached about the death camp is necessarily lengthy and technical. For those who only desire an overview of the findings, it is recommended that they turn to Figures 8.7, 8.8, 8.9, 8.10, 8.12 and 8.19 - 8.21. These figures embody the essence of the work and conclusions about the Death Camp.
The death camp (also referred to as the “Upper Camp” because it was several feet higher than the rest of the installation known as the “lower Camp”), was surprisingly small. The area encompassed by the security fences only totaled about 22 acres. Reportedly there were only a small number of buildings on the site: the old and new gas chambers, the barracks housing the resident Jewish labor force, and a watch tower (situated somewhere in the center of the area). There were almost no traces found of any of these buildings on the aerial photography. An exhaustive, persistent and careful examination finally yielded persuasive evidence of the large chamber’s position on aerial photos flown in September of 1944. Scarcely any signs could be found of interior security fences. The massive earthworks, resulting from the excavation of the huge burial pits, were not distinguishable. Neither could traces of the pits themselves be seen. The earliest good aerial photos flown in May of 1944 showed only a large area of light toned, sandy soils. The pictures exposed later in September also did not have any signs of the localized excavations. So thorough was the churning of the soils as a result of the repeated digging and backfilling during the camp’s active life, that it was not possible to localize on the aerial data any of the burial sites. However, using a combination of the ground and aerial photography and written accounts, the location of the gas chambers was identified, and in one case, the site of a burial pit, opened for the removal and cremation of the corpses. Much of the security fencing was also traced through the use of the same sources..
The Gas Chambers and the Tube
The start of the reconstruction was an analysis aimed at positioning precisely the gas chambers. Figure 8.1 shows two frames of aerial photography in registration.
In figure 8.2 the fruits of the close study is represented by four annotations, A through D. A, B and C point to small light toned points
The annotation D is a large rectangular scar, with a smaller square appendage extending to the south. The larger area measures roughly 27 meters on a side. The size as well as the orientation of this feature at first points to this possibly being the site of the footings for the large gas chamber building. The pattern of this area is one that one would expect to result from an excavation made to allow the demolition and removal of a building’s foundations. However, it cannot be explained why the scars from the removal of this building should persist so clearly, while those from the grave pits became overgrown. In the figure, light tones are representative of sterile soil, and dark tones are indicative of soils which supports more vigorous plant growth. It became clearer after studying other sources, that this area could not be the site of the gas chambers. It was concluded that it was rather the area where the grates for burning of the victim’s corpses had been.
The key to resolving these question about where the gas chambers were was Yacob Viernik’s map*. (previously presented in Methods and Materials, Figure 4.1) Viernik worked in the Tottenlager, and made the map in Warsaw shortly after his escape in 1943 (Important elements of the map are verifiable on the aerial photos as demonstrated in Figure 8.3.
Viernik’s was a unique survivor. He was present early in Treblinka’s existence. He worked on building the new, large gas chambers. By virtue of his value as a artisan, the SS gave him access to both the Totenlager and the living camp. His description of his stint during the building of the new, larger, gas chambers gives insight to the location of that structure. He wrote in A Year in Treblinka:
“The work on these gas chambers lasted five weeks, which to us seemed like centuries. We had to work from dawn to dusk under the ceaseless threat of beatings
from whips and rifle butts. One of the guards, Woronkov, tortured us savagely, killing some of the workers each day. Although our physical suffering surpassed
the imagination of normal human beings, our spiritual agonies were far worse. New transports of victims arrived
each day. They were immediately ordered to disrobe and were led to the three old gas chambers, passing us on the way. Many of us saw our children, wives and
other loved ones among the victims. And when, on the impulse of grief, someone rushed to his loved ones, he would be killed on the spot. It was under these
conditions that we constructed death chambers for our brethren and ourselves.” (Reference 21)
The folowing dialog comes from a transcript of the Eichmann Trial in 1962:
Judge Halevi: [to witness] When you were a member of the Armia Ludowa, was it then that you drew this sketch?
Witness Wiernik: I prepared it when I was working in Warsaw in the Tashitza Palace. The SS was there on the one side, and I was a night watchman against air attacks - I also have a certificate about that. I used to sit there at night. Nobody disturbed me, and I gradually made that sketch.
Q : Do you remember in what month and what year you drew this sketch?
A : It was in 1944. It took a long time. I also wrote A Year in Treblinka. In 1944, it was already in America, via the underground.
The folowing dialog comes from a transcript of the Eichmann Trial in 1962:
Judge Halevi: [to witness] When you were a member of the Armia Ludowa, was it then that you drew this sketch?
It is clear that in order to have witnessed ones relatives among the throngs forced through the tube one had to be very near and overlooking it, since it was 3 meters high and screened with pine boughs. Thus, leading to the conclusion that the tube must have run very closely alongside the walls being erected for the new facility.
A little reverse engineering is called for in the next step. The task of the SS was to kill thousands of people every day; and interruptions in this process were not permissible, for it would throw a monkey wrench in a complex process involving many bureaucratic functions and much complicated scheduling and coordination. One can formulate the basic requirements that would obtain to the construction process: first, that the new gas chamber be built without interfering with current operations, and second, that when it became complete, it could be made operational with a minimum of fuss or delay. This meant, among other things, that existing security fencing and screens be adaptable to the new site. One would also expect that both the new and old chambers be operable simultaneously. To meet these specifications, the new building would have to be located as near as possible to the tube, and oriented such that existing fencing could be incorporated into the control system and that the need for new fencing be absolutely minimized.
The specifications cited above were used to roughly place the two buildings with respect to the tube identified in Figure 8.2 and Figure 8.3. But, here again, Viernik was the source who proved reliable in working out the details. He had made a model which is exhibited at the Lohamel LaGetaot Museum in Israel. A photograph of that model, shown in Figure 8.4
If the sum of the available information were only the aerial photos, what has been found so far in this analysis could be considered quite important. It has established an objective base for the survivor accounts in the photographic data. Thus the written descriptions and the modeling and maps can be substantiated by features visible on the aerial images. The method is not absolute, but rather depends on a convergence of evidence. However, there exists a picture taken by Kurt Franz, the deputy Commandant of Treblinka, which is unique: the only extant picture containing images of an Aktion Reinhard gas chamber. This picture has been widely published as showing one of the excavators used at Treblinka for digging the burial pits and later for opening and removing the corpses for burning. In the background of this picture are the old and new gas chambers. Only a portion of the gable end roof of the new chambers is visible, but the last third of the older building is clearly evident.
All the factors determined from the Franz photograph was used to expand what could be inferred about the killing facilities. Since there was a security fence running north on the east side of the buildings, one could conclude that it must serve to prevent victims from attempting to escape from the killing site (an inconvenience to the SS who would have had to run them down in around the burial pits and burning grates). This fence line would entail putting gates to allow the dead to be removed by the sondercommando details. The purpose of the gate (Annotation 2) was to permit continued passage along the access road into the totenlager.
The photograph in Figure 8.6 was subjected to the same sort of measurements and graphical analysis described in the section abount the living camp. Measurements were made to determine the angular separation to all the features of interest, and these were then
The positioning described above was done without reference to the sun illumination directions visible in the ground photo. Note in Figure 8.7 that the sun angle is very low - less than 10 degrees. Also note that the buildings and the excavator are sunlight on the broadside, which makes the sun‘s azimuth angle close to 180 degrees (due south) if the orientation shown in Figure 8.8 is correct. These conditions occur at Treblinka’s latitude about noon, local time, in mid to late December and very early January. For example, at the winter solstice, the sun’s azimuth and elevation angles are 10 and 186 degrees respectively at noon local time. At the end of November, when the sun is nearly due south, it is twice as high in the sky. By late January, the sun’s azimuth has shifted well to the west of due south at 10 degrees elevation. A date of late December is in consonance with the time Franz must have taken the photograph - late 1942 or early 1943.
Of interest is the trees which are absent from the aerial scene. The cremation of the corpses did not start in Treblinka until March 1943. At that time, the use of the excavators began for opening the mass graves and lifting out the bodies. The remains were carried to and layered atop the grills by the sonderkommando. They were then set on fire with wood and brush piled underneath. This obviously called for a great deal of firewood. The trees inside the death camp were close at hand. They would have been the first to be felled for this purpose. The access road must have been in constant use as firewood from outside the death compound was brought in. As Richard Glazar wrote:
“To clear the woods around the perimeter of the camp- - that’s our main task now. Felled trees are hauled into camp and chopped into firewood............Idyllic mounds of freshly sawn and split firewood grow up and shine out from among the towering pines that have not been felled. A path runs along one side of the lumberyard and leads up to the main gate of the second camp (i.e. the death camp). Though it is some seventy meters away, the gate is clearly visible from our work site. Here we deliver what wood is needed in that part of the camp. No one from over there is allowed out to work by the SS. The main work in the second camp still consists of digging up and incinerating the bodies from old transports. ” .”( Reference 12, P115)
By the summer of 1943, all the easily obtainable wood would have been consumed. Finally, when the camp was liquidated, all the trees around the gas chamber proper would have stood in the way of the effort to remove all traces, including foundations. They would have been felled and the stumps removed by the excavators. There is a huge pile of unidentified material at the end of the north arrow in Figure 8.8. It lies inside the boundaries of the totenlager. It may be the remains of the trees such as those visible in the ground photo and that that Richard Glazer described when he stood at the gate of the access road gazing south into the death camp:
“The gate to Camp 2 (the “Totenlager”) is opened halfway. The SS order us to bring our bundles in. I cross the boundary into the horrifying factory of death. Everyone here is dressed in rags. Zelo smiles at me in silence. Behind him there is a brick building with a steep roof. This must be the gas chambers. So the pipeline doesn’t lead directly to the entrance after all. It stops just short of it. Behind the building, and off to the side, I believe I can see steel rails. Is that the incineration grate?. The sandy surface is firmly packed. There are trees on both sides, forming a kind of boulevard...............” Reference 12, P135
Mass Production of Death
A striking aspect of the aspect of the totenlager was its barrenness. This is only marginally apprehensible in the aerial photography. But in 1942-43, in snapshots taken by Kurt Franz, its resemblance to some sort of Dante-esque wasteland is acute. In the actuality, it must have been much worse: the smell of decay and burning flesh permeating the air, and great heaps of sandy soil piled up in a bleak wasteland of barren ground. After March of 1943, the burial pits were methodically reopened and the corpses were extracted by the excavating machines and then heaped on the ground for the waiting sonderkommando. The dead were lugged on stretchers to the grills and burned (the images of two of the sonderkommando carrying a stretcher is contained in Figure 8.7 .Fires burned constantly. The ashes were removed by the ash commando from under the grates, sieved, and any remaining large bones pulverized by hand or returned to the fires. These descriptive facts come from survivor accounts, and most aspects of them are verified by the pictures in the so called Kurt Kranz Album. There exist a half dozen or so exposures from this document which capture the essence of the operations. These, after study and analysis constitute a most powerful and direct view of the process developed for disposing of the results of mass murder. First, they show the presence of at least two excavating machines; a huge earth embankment screening the eastern side of the compound; and a couple of glimpses of the opened burial pits. One can see numerous arrays of colored material piled up, which upon reflection must be the ashes of the dead.
The presence of even two machines implies a need for a considerable earth moving capability. Viernik related that there were several burial pits 10 meters deep, and 50 by 25 meters in area ( Reference 21) . His model shows the entire eastern side and the southwestern corner of the death camp is taken up by burial pits of different sizes. A pit 50 by 25 meters has a volume of 8500 cubic meters (see below for an analysis of the Treblinka graves and of their capacities). Figure 8.11 presents drawing of what such a pit
Unfortunately, the aerial photography does not contain enough information to delineate the boundaries of the graves. The May coverage is sufficient only for crudely identifying the places where deep disturbances in general are probable, but the exact boundaries cannot be established.
In any case, there would not have been a need to bury a million dead, since after March of 1943, the bodies of new victims were burned on the grates rather than buried. As the graves were being emptied and the bodies burned, the ashes were mixed with the sandy soil and reburied in the pits. The fill had to come from the embankments which had originally been made from the excavations to begin with.
One can thus envision that in Treblinka‘s earliest stages beginning in July 1942, the pits were dug and some of the earth used to create the embankments. As each mass grave was filled, it was covered with a thin layer of soil. In March of 1943, several of these graves had been filled, and the process began of removing the corpses in them. As each was emptied, the bottom was filled with the ashes of both current and earlier victims. After the revolt in August of 1943, soil in the embankments was cut away and used to fill the rest of the volume. All that was left was a gray featureless landscape.
The Ash Removal
In March of 1943, the opening of the mass graves began. The dead were disinterred, removed to the grates and burned. After the incineration, the ashes which had fallen through were removed by a the ash kommando and then sifted and any remaining bones pulverized by hand or returned to the fires for further reducing. The photograph in Figure 8.14
Another Kurt Franz photograph also contains images of probable ash heaps. This picture and an enlargement of it are shown in Figure 8.15.
Estimating the Capacities of the Burial Pits: Human Body Proportions from DaVinci
To determine the number of victims that could be buried in a grave of given dimensions, it is first necessary to estimate the volume displaced by a cadaver. Since the people murdered were both male and female, child and adult, the determination is practically limited to a first order approximation of some ideal standard. Here we have chosen an adult male. Using this metric, the number of bodies which can be accommodated by a pit will be a conservative estimate because it will omit smaller stature women and the even smaller children, killed and interred with their parents.
The sum of V(n) in the table is 3.3 cubic feet. If one were building a coffin for an individual of this size, and if one made sure the interior were 3 X 2 X 8 cells in size, it would fit him snugly, but leave a lot of empty space, particularly around the legs, head and neck.. Such a coffin would enclose 6.6 cubic feet. The SS were interested in efficient use of the burial pits, so it is clear that they made sure the burial commando packed the bodies optimally. So if we use the metric of 3.3 cubic feet as the displacement of the ideal man, any calculation of a grave’s capacity using that number will be conservative to begin with, and will be more so if we do not factor the women’s and children’s smaller bodies.
Mass grave site dimensions are usually given as though they were perfect cubes. In actuality, very large grave sites, like those a Treblinka are more like inverted, truncated pyramids. The deeper the grave, the more it had to be sloped so as to avoid the sides from slumping. This was not likely a safety concern - after all the work Jews who had to fill them or to clamber down inside to arrange the bodies were disposable. The SS would have been concerned that such slumping would make for premature filling and boundary irregularities. At Treblinka the soil was very sandy. This fact made for ease of excavation but troublesome stability. Therefore, one can be certain that the sides of each pit was sloped. It is doubted that there were soil engineering studies done, so the slope angle must have been a guess on the part of the excavator operators, bolstered by empirical experience as they dug along. Viernik cites a depth of ten meters for the pits. If it is accurate, there is even more reason to believe that the sides had to be sloped. How much they were sloped is a pure guess. Soil engineering textbooks have formulas one can plug into to determine the optimum angle, but they require that the soil mechanics be known and can be used as inputs to the equations. Therefore, we have guessed that at Treblinka, if the pits were dug 10 meters deep, the slope angles were 60 degrees. A pit 50 X 25 X 10 meters would look like that in Figure 8.23.
Due to the sloping sides, the bottom of the pit would be only 13.45 by 38.45 meters. The total volume would be 8502 cubic meters, or 300,000 cubic feet. Filled to the brim, the grave would hold about N bodies the size of the ideal man:
In the interest of bounding the problem, note that if all the men were buried in coffins, like the one cited above, N would have an absolute lower bound of 45,500.
It is concluded that a reasonable estimate for the contents of a mass grave 50 X 25 X 10 meters is at least 100,000 people. .
Last modified: November, 2004
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