Reconstruction of Treblinka: 2.0 - Geography of the Locale

The Treblinka extermination camp was built in northeastern part of the General Government portion of Poland (Figure 2.1). The General Gouvernment was the rump state left after the Germans annexed the northern and western parts of pre war Poland and assigned the eastern portions of the country to be administered as parts of the other conquered Reichkommissariats Ostland and Ukraine.

The immediate area of the camp is shown on the modern map in Figure 2.2. The campís namesake, the village of Treblinka, is about 10 kilometers south of Malkinia, a town located on the main Warsaw-Bialystok railroad. During WW II, a junction at Malkinia took another rail line south to Siedlce. A spur line was built Off the Malkinia-Siedlce railroad line southeast of Treblinka village (the rail line to Siedlce no longer exists today, but the right of way is indicated on the highway map by the dashed black line). The line ran to a penal colony built in early 1941. This camp was called Treblinka 1, and served as a punishment camp for Jewish and Polish prisoners.

Construction of the Treblinka extermination camp was begun in May or June 1942 by two German firms contracted to do the building. The camp was erected on the east side of the branch serving Treblinka I. A short siding was laid into the extermination camp on which the transports of the doomed victims were to be shunted. Traces of this siding can be seen on the May 1944 aerial photograph.

Treblinka was surprisingly small - approximately 700 by 1500 feet at the longest and widest parts- encompassing some 53 acres. In the photograph of Figure 2.3,
the light toned area on the south is the site of the totenlager, or death camp. The light tones are representative of the sandy soils in the region, and were exposed during the campís operation. At first mass burial pits were excavated and then filled with corpses and covered again with soil. In early 1943, the pits were opened, the dead removed and burned on open air grates. After the graves were emptied, the ashes were mixed with soil and reburied. The camp was razed in November 1943 and attempts were made to erase all traces of its existence. The aerial photograph in Figure 2.3 documents the state of the camp in May 1944, when eastern Poland was still under Nazi control. The Red army did not overrun the area until late August or early September, when advance units of the Red Army swept past and reached Warsaw in August, 50 miles away (see Appendix C - Military Operations, 1944). The campís namesake, the village of Treblinka, is located about 4-5 kilometers to the north (cropped from the Figure 3 photograph) and contained the railroad station. A view of the area taken looking north west towards Treblinka village is presented in Figure 2.4.
Another view (Figure 5) looking southwest shows the rail spur as it turned away from the main line and headed to the Treblinka camps. As one can see, the area around Treblinka is generally flat. The soil is mostly sandy loam, with pine forests over much of the region. Marshy areas of the Bug River and of its tributaries are to the north and west. In the Treblinka death camp, a dense forest existed at the time the camp was erected in 1942. Part of this forest was felled and used in the campís construction. Further cutting occurred in 1943 to provide fuel and, perhaps, for the burning of corpses. By 1944, the forest within the camp boundaries was reduced to a remnant, with many openings in the canopy. In Figure 2.6, a comparison of the site between 1940 and 1944 is presented. It should be noted that the 1940 aerial photography was very poor quality - the future camp site was covered on the extreme edge of the frame at a very small scale. Moreover, the print was damaged with emulsion peeled off the paper backing and cracks across the image. Nevertheless, one can easily map out the forest boundaries and by superimposition, determine the area of cleared trees.

From Figure 2.6, the area cleared of trees was determined. The 1944 coverage was warped to match the earlier photograph. The two photographs were then composited, as shown in Figure 2.7.
An adjustment of the relative tones then allowed discriminating the dark toned forested areas, which had disappeared between 1940 and 1944. It can be appreciated that more than half of the Treblinkaís 53 acres were cut. Close stereoscopic inspection of the best quality coverage flown in 1944 revealed that even the parts which remained in 1944 were severely thinned. By May 1944, the Treblinka extermination site was mostly a leveled sandy track. Small areas of thinned pines and birches occupied the north central portion. Two masonry buildings, remnants from the siteís past remained near the road and railroad which led to the punishment camp. A long narrow patch of newly seeded land grew lush along the eastern boundary. This may have been the lupines, reported in postwar Polish and German testimony, to have been planted as a part of the sanitization of the camp

Odilo Globocnik, who was in charge of Aktion Reinhard wrote to Himmler November 4, 1943: "On October 10, 1943: I concluded Operation Reinhard which I had conducted in the General Goverment and have liquidated all camps." By late 1944, little remained to indicate the terrible tragedy that had transpired. The camp is easy to miss on the aerial photography. On the ground some fencing was left, as well as the burned shells of two masonry buildings. Two brick buildings and several wooden structures had been converted into a farmstead tended by a Ukrainian farmer, a former guard of the camp recruited to as a sort of security guardian. At the time the Red Army overran the area, all the remaining buildings were burnt, leaving only the shells of the brick structures. Local Polish farmers then proceeded to dig up the grounds in a frantic search for gold and other valuables suspected to have been buried by the Jewish victims. Parts of the totenlager became a moonscape of overturned soil, littered with scraps of barbed wire and fragments of bone (Figure 2.8).

In 1959 Martin Gilber and a Polish friend drove by car to Malkinia Junction. They could not cross the Bug River bridge. It had been destroyed in 1944 and not rebuilt. A peasant was hailed and ferried them across and then carried them by horse cart to the camp. Gilbert describes the trip: "From Treblinka village we proceeded for another mile or two, along the line of an abandoned railway through a forest of tall trees. Finally we reached an enormous clearing, bounded on all sides by dense woodland. Darkness was falling, and with it, the chill of night and a cold dew. I stepped down from the cart on to the sandy soil: a soil that was gray rather than brown. Driven by I know not what impulse, I ran my hand through that soil, again and again. The earth beneath my feet was coarse and sharp: filled with the fragments of human bone." (Reference 10, p17)

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