Reconstruction of Treblinka: 3.0 - Historical Overview

The Nazi regime pursued a deliberate policy of the mass extermination of all the Jewish populations living in areas under their control through two methods: by deliberate maltreatment in ghettos and concentration camps which led to death by starvation and disease, or by direct extermination by means of shooting or gassing. In the territories overrun by the Werhmach after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, shooting was the primary method of murder. Special units which had been formed before the invasion - the Einsatzgruppen - followed closely behind the invading army units and rounded up and executed all Jews. In addition some Soviet Communist functionaries (commissars), and other “undesirables” (gypsies, partisans, looters, etc.) were disposed of as well. The mass shootings of women, children, and men lead to psychological difficulties for some of the executioners. To provide a less troubling method of murder, and to meet the need for mobility, gassing vans were introduced and proved to be feasible killing instruments. However, they were of limited practicality where primitive roads were the rule and cross country travel could be entailed. They also had their own peculiar psychological drawbacks since the unloading of the corpses proved disagreeable, dirty work. The gas vans devolved from the Nazi euthanasia programs implemented to eliminate mentally and physically handicapped elements of the German population. The method of killing in the euthanasia programs was pure carbon monoxide fed into airtight rooms from storage gas cylinders.

Given the precedent and experience the Nazi’s gained in euthanasia and out of the necessity for a means of murder less traumatic to the murderers and more efficient than shooting, and asphyxiation in mobile vans, fixed gas installations were developed to which the victims were transported en masse after concentrating the populations in ghettos. These extermination camps were all located in annexed or administered regions of Poland. The first efforts at industrialized mass murder were a matter of empirical experimentation. At Auschwitz, under Rudolph Hoess, experiments were conducted using a powerful insecticide produced commercially as Zyclon B. These experiments led to the design and construction of four specialized gassing and cremation facilities in which over a million people ultimately vanished. However, Auschwitz was also as a huge slave labor camp, as well as a killing center. moreover, the total installation encompassed many square miles of SS owned and controlled territory and several large industrial complexes served by the slave inmates.

The first camp to be set up whose only purpose was solely kill masses of victims was at Chelmno, a pretty town on the banks of the river Ner (a pre-WWII picture shows the town in Figure 3.1). Murders were conducted there in a hybrid system. It served to identify drawbacks in the methodology and equipment suited for genocide. Lessons learned at Chelmno were applied later other locations. At Chelmno, Victims were transported to the killing ground by rail and by truck or auto and then were killed in gassing vans.

Chelmno began operations December 8, 1941. Like all the extermination centers, excepting Auschwitz, Chelmno was surprisingly small. Victims transported there taken to a manor house (“schloss” or castle in German)sited on grounds of about two acres (Figure 3.2). There,
the prospective victims were told that they were to undergo showering and disinfection, and then were led into the castle where they undressed before being forced into the vans backed up at the rear of the building. The fully loaded vans, which could carry as many as 100 people standing and closely packed, were locked and hoses connected from the exhaust to an intake duct in the bottom of the van box. After allowing the engine to run for several minutes - long enough to assure the death of those inside, the driver would carry his dead cargo to the burial and cremation grounds located in the Rzuchowski forest several miles away. Figure 11 presents a map of the Chelmno area.

At first the victims were dumped in mass graves. Subsequently, the dead were all cremated. The earlier victims were removed from their opened graves and their corpses were burnt in specially designed, but primitive cremation pits. Despite the awkward and inefficient logistics requiring multiple transfers and handling, 340,000 people were killed. In April of 1943, transports were halted and the killings were continued at the newly constructed camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka that had been completed that same year. The aforementioned three camps were part of Aktion Reinhard, the code word for the extermination of the Jewish population in the General Government portion of Poland. These camps were in operation only a little over a year. All three were constructed in early to mid 1942 and then were razed and signs of there existence erased by mid to late 1943. In those dozen or more months, about two million people were murdered. After their liquidation, mass killings were largely conducted at Auschwitz.

The Aktion Reinhard camps were primitive but efficient methods of conducting genocide. Under the inspectorate of Christian Wirth, a crude, barbaric and cruel overseer, Belzec was built first. It was the proving ground for the other camps. There, the methods needed to control, murder and dispose of the bodies of thousands of people a day were developed and tested. Sobibor was a refinement of Belzec. And at Treblinka under Franz Stangl, a perfected and efficient conveyor belt for importing and for turning innocent people into ashes was achieved., Stangl was the most competent of the camp commanders. Under him, roads were paved, flower beds planted, a zoo built, and 850,000 people exterminated. Death came through asphyxiation from the exhaust of a large diesel - reportedly a captured Soviet T-34 engine (Figure 12).
The victims were crammed into chambers to which the emissions from the engine were introduced. At Belzec the first gassing facility had three chambers which proved to be too small for the press of the business. The building was pulled down and a more substantial and enlarged structure erected in its place. The same process occurred at Treblinka: the first gas chambers were three 4 by 4 meter rooms. They proved utterly inadequate, and a second building was constructed which contained ten chambers each 4 by 8 meters. P>Death was not easy. The process was cruel, and extended. It took 30 minutes or more . At Treblinka the dead were buried in several large mass graves. However, after the debacle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, Himmler became increasingly concerned about secrecy and about eliminating the evidence of these crimes. This lead to a directive that all the dead be disinterred and burnt so that no one could reconstruct the number of murdered (Himmler’s directive also was applied to the dead resulting from the Einsatzgruppen operations in the Soviet Union). At Treblinka, the graves were opened beginning about March of 1943. The system used consisted of a set of railroad rails set on concrete pylons. New and old corpses were piled atop the rails, sandwiched with wood layers and set on fire. By late summer of that year all the old burial pits had been emptied and the corpses burned.

The staffing at the Reinhard camps was minimal. It consisted of a contingent of about 40 SS , of which only 20 were on hand at any one time the others being on home leave. The German staff was bolstered by about 100 Ukrainian guards, recruited from among the captured Soviet prisoners of war. The SS had the supervisory and administrative tasks. The Ukrainians served as guards within the camp and to usher the arriving convoys. The labor needed for all the other work, skilled or unskilled, was performed by a contingent of several hundred Jewish prisoners removed from incoming convoys. There were two groups of slave prisoners: one group, of about 200 men, were consigned to the death camp, and there they were kept strictly isolated until their own death. A second, much larger group was assigned to the living camp. There were about 800 to 1000 men in this contingent. To the men in the death camp fell the unenviable tasks of removing the dead from the gas chambers, and later from the mass graves. They carried and stacked the bodies on the cremation pyres. A small number of them were required to extract gold teeth from the dead.

The Jewish prisoners in the living camp did all the work that was incident to the processing of the incoming convoys. This included helping at the reception area, and collecting, sorting, and baling the belongings of the victims. They also were the carpenters, masons, tailors, and barbers of the camp. A few of them were assigned to cutting the hair of the women before gassing. A small contingent of so called Gold Jews made ingots from the gold taken from the victims and fabricated gold ornaments and jewelry at the behest of the SS. The Jewish slave labor had a tenuous existence. In the beginning of Treblinka’s operation, the reprieve was only of a few days duration. Men would be selected out of those destined for immediate killing, but they in turn would be murdered within a few days. When Treblinka came under the command of Franz Stangl, the value of a trained force was recognized and the reprieve extended to months.

In the spring of 1943, it became apparent to the prisoners that the camp’s usefulness was ending. new convoys were almost at an end, as the Jewish population of the eastern Poland neared extinction. In August of 1943, the working Jews at Treblinka rose up. They stole a small cache of arms from the SS barracks and succeeded in initiating a mass revolt. Several hundred were able to escape beyond the barbed wire fences and flee into the surrounding countryside, after they set fire to many of the building in the camp.
But the German’s raised the alarm and security forces from the local area arrived to augment the SS and Ukrainian guard staff. Most of the escapees were killed within the day, but about 40 individuals survived the war and some of them lived to testify in 1965 at the trial in Germany of their former SS masters and tormentors. Some 100 Jews could not or would not join in the escape. They lived only long enough to help liquidate the Camp and then were killed. In November 1943 the Treblinka death camp had been largely liquidated. A few buildings were left standing, but the gas chambers, the barracks and most of the fencing were gone. One of the Ukrainian guards was left to farm and secure the site from looters or the curious. When the Red Army overran the area in the summer of 1944, the remaining buildings were burned and peasants from the surrounding area churned up the soil seeking Jewish gold they believed lay buried there. The signs of the unspeakable tragedy was in the countless tiny splinters of human bone and gray ash mixed in the sandy soil.


Last modified: November, 2004
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