Treblinka: Reconstruction of the Death Camp

Physical Characteristics

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 [8.8 hectares]. There were reportedly 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 that was situated somewhere in the center of the area. There were almost no traces found of any of these buildings on the aerial photographs. An exhaustive, persistent and careful examination finally yielded persuasive evidence of the large chamber's position on aerial photos taken 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 taken in May of 1944 showed only a large area of light toned and 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, any of the burial sites on the aerial data. However, using a combination of 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 use of the same sources.

The Gas Chambers and the Tube

The reconstruction was begun with an analysis aimed at precisely positioning the gas chambers. Figure 31 shows two frames of aerial photography in registration.
It could be assumed that the May aerial photographic coverage would be the best for locating the gas chambers because it was taken only six months after the buildings were razed. A close study of this photographic coverage - using a variety of tonal and image sharpening enhancements - failed to reveal many clues. It was known that the chambers were located somewhere in the center of the 'Totenlager', but the May imagery in that area is in a bland, homogeneous region of mostly undifferentiated light gray tones. One feature which is clearly visible is an access road extending down through the woods. This road is shown on many maps of the camp as ending at a gate just to the northwest of the new gas chamber and to the east of the tube. The road served to localize the search, but remnant scars or other signs could still not be found on the May coverage. The September coverage, on the other hand, evinces a complex of scars and vegetative cover showing varying degrees of stress. These photographs were taken after the Red Army overran this region of Poland in late August and early September of 1944. See Appendix C for a chronology of the military operations at that time. It is presumed that most of the disturbances are attributable to the effects of the camp's operations and subsequent sanitization and clearing. It is also probable that most of the frantic digging by the local peasantry seeking gold and other valuables took place after the Red Army moved on. Thus, the September coverage, despite a lapse of 10 months from the camp's razing, seems to hold the key to the gas chamber's location. The time of the year allowed a maximum visibility of stressed plant cover almost one year after the time that the camp was razed. Several significant patterns were discovered after close study of this photography.