Reconstruction of Treblinka: 4.0 - Methods and Materials

The reconstruction of the Camp used three sets of sources. They were:

1. Sketch maps prepared in various ways by survivors or by other individuals based on survivor accounts. These maps appeared in books by Sereny, Arad, and Glazar. (Reference 1,12,19)

2. Aerial photography flown by the Luftwaffe in 1944, which was reviewed and copied at the National Archives and Records Administration (US NARA).

3. Ground photos. Most of these were comprised of the pictures contained in the so called “Kurt Franz Album”. Copies of these photographs were provided by Yad Vashem and by the Ghetto‘Fighter‘s Museum.

Many bits and pieces of evidence drawn from the sources were combined. In general, the aerial photography formed the foundation for all conclusions. This was so both because it provided a geometric underpinning, and because many structures razed months before the coverage was flown could still be detected on the pictures. Also, ground photography was correlated to the aerial, thus affording a firm method of positioning structures and features appearing in the ground exposed pictures. In some cases, individual trees, seen on the ground photos were identified on the aerial coverage and thus afforded a means of positioning the buildings.

Maps

Maps appear in a number of well known sources including the books by the journalist Gita Sereny, the historian Hillberg, and survivors Glazer, Viernik and Willemberg. In addition, a reconstruction by Ya’akov Viernik in the form of a model of Treblinka exists, and photographs of it are on the internet.

The site maps formed a basic reference giving the relative locations and orientations of the camp’s buildings and layout. They varied from source to source quite a bit in many details, One map (Figure 13) which was of value was drawn by Ya’akov Viernik,
an escapee and survivor of Treblinka. This map is wildly out of scale, but it was prepared by Viernik in Warsaw immediately after his escape. Viernik’s map thus benefited from the advantage of being prepared while the experience at Treblinka was reasonably fresh. Of limited usefulness in reconstructing the camp as a whole, it provided some good insights Namely, that the “tube” was sited in woods (the tube was a fenced and screened alley way which led from the undressing barracks to the gas chambers), and had a right angle turn in it.

These details did not jibe with the appearance of the camp in aerial photos flown in 1944. However, in reconstructing the camp, it was concluded that Viernik’s map showed things as they had actually were in its early history. 1940 German photos showed the original forest covering most of the camp’s area. Photographs taken on the ground in 1942-43 by Kurt Franz showed that the gas chamber area trees around it (see Section 4.0 below) - remnants of the woods shown on Viernik’s map, and which had vanished by 1944. Viernik was also proved reliable in his drawing of the fence lines. The northern-most fence shown in his map turned out to be still visible as a cut through the woods when 1944 aerial photography was examined stereoscopically. The fence had been constructed early in Treblinka‘s operation and then abandoned.

But the greatest value of Viernik’s map was to establish the credibility of his memory. This was useful in using pictures of the model of Treblinka he built in the sixties which turned out to be reliable not as an absolute depiction of the camp. Again the scales were misleading, but the relative positioning and shaping of fence lines could be relied upon. Viernik’s model and map were crucial in interpreting the aerial photography, and helped in identifying the site of the gas chambers with a high degree of confidence.

Many bits and pieces of evidence were drawn on similarly in analyzing the rest of the camp. In general, the aerial photography formed the foundation for all conclusions. This was so both because it provided a geometric underpinning, and because many structures razed months before the coverage was flown could still be detected on the pictures. Also, ground photography was correlated to the aerial, thus affording a firm method of positioning structures and features appearing in the ground exposed pictures. In some cases, individual trees, seen on the ground photos were identified on the aerial coverage and thus afforded a means of positioning the buildings.

Aerial Photography

The primary materials used in reconstructing Treblinka were aerial photographs. Unfortunately, no coverage is known from the time of the camp’s active period. Available aerial photography consists of captured Luftwaffe coverage flown between May and October 1944, a period encompassing a time after the camp’s demolition while the area was still in German hands, and the subsequent capture of the region by the Red Army. The aerial photos formed the foundation used to identify the location and orientation of buildings present at the camp. This is so, even though most of the camps was obliterated as a result of the prisoner revolt in August of 1943, because of the subsequent efforts by the Germans to obliterate traces, and due to further damage (burning) by the Red Army and perhaps by the local population in 1944-45. Aerial views often permit retain traces of vanished structures and activity which cannot be seen clearly, or at all, on the ground. At Treblinka, most of the buildings were not built on footings or some other form of permanent foundation. The primary method of construction was wood, and if foundations were used at all, they consisted of wooden piers (for example, survivor accounts of the Jewish worker barracks describe the floor as being the local sandy soil). Only the more substantial buildings such as the new gas chambers, or the bakery were of masonry construction on solid foundations. Thus, after Treblinka was razed, there were no easy clues to guide one, such as concrete footings or slabs. In the case of the Gas chambers, the Germans went to a great deal of trouble by destroying the foundations and removing or burying the bricks out of which it was made. No direct trace of the gas chamber could be seen on the aerial coverage. Its location, however was determined by detecting the remains of the tube’s fence posts. On the September cover, faint scars were left where vegetation had dried around the post holes. The aerial views contained many additional traces of former buildings in the form of faint tonal variations. These resulted from a number of possible causes: changes in the density of grass cover, soil color changes due to the presence of charcoal left after fires, soil compaction due to construction, etc.

Ground Photography

The primary ground photos used were the pictures contained in the so called Kurt Franz Album. This source had a number of photographs taken by or for Kurt Franz, the deputy Commandant of Treblinka. These pictures had been discovered by German authorities in the process of arresting and arraigning Franz before his post war trial in 1965. All the pictures were taken between Franz’s reporting for duty in 1942, and before his departure in November of 1943 when the camp’s razing and sanitization were complete. The photographs were explicitly forbidden by SS directive. Nevertheless, Franz ignored the strictures and took numerous pictures of facilities and activity in the living camp and death camp areas. He appeared to avoid images of the more sensitive buildings (i.e.- the gas chambers), but included several pictures of the work of the excavators around the burial pits. (There is one picture showing cadavers at the opening of a grave. This picture has been published on the internet, and is contained in Arad’s Pictorial History of the Holocaust, but I have been unable to determine if it came from the Franz Album). These pictures allow the rough positioning of the machines, and in one case of an opened grave site. There is one picture in which the two gas chambers were recorded in a small corner of the picture frame: the older structure is partially but clearly visible. Of the newer, larger structure, only a portion of the gable roof can be seen. Other structures, such as the worker barracks, the Lazarette, or the SS barracks were not photographed. It appears that Franz avoided including security fencing in the pictures. However, in a few instances one can detect fencing in the background. These proved valuable clues in locating and positioning the pictures.

The following table lists the aerial and terrestrial photos used.

Aerial Photography
Mission Frame Date Archive
GX120 fms124F-125 May 15 1944 USNARA
GX12225 fms258,259 Sept 1944 USNARA
GX72 fms 139,140 May 1944 USNARA
GX937 fm 74 1940 USNARA

Aerial photographs were reviewed at US National Archives and Records Administration building at College Park Maryland. This archive contains the complete library of Luftwaffe WW II coverage captured by the US in 1945. NARA permits researchers to view the first generation prints made from the original negatives. A Nikon 990 fitted with a macro lens was used to obtain high quality copies. These digital images were subsequently enhanced using tonal remap algorithms and spatial filters to bring out subtle details.

Ground Photography

Source
Archive
Date
Comments
Kurt Franz Album
Yad Vashem, Israel
1942-43
Yad Vashem provided copies of pictures found in the possession of Kurt Franz, deputy Commandant of Treblinka, by German authorities before his trial in 1965. These photos include parts of the living camp, and a significant number of pictures of the excavators used in the death camp.
Kurt Franz Album & various
Ghetto Fighter's Museum Photo Archive
1942-44
The Ghetto Fighter’s Museum maintains photo archive on the internet. Pictures are available of a variety of dates and events, including Treblinka in 1962.
Various
Novosty Press
1944
Several pictures from the period just after the Red Army Captured Treblinka.

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