Reconstruction of Treblinka

Historical Overview

The Nazi regime pursued a deliberate policy of mass extermination of the Jewish population living in the areas under their control. For this purpose they used two methods: (a) deliberate maltreatment in ghettos and concentration camps which led to death by starvation and disease, or, (b) direct extermination by means of shooting or gassing. In the territories overrun by the Wehrmacht after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941, shooting was the primary method of murder. Special units that had been formed before the invasion - the Einsatzgruppen - followed closely behind the invading army units rounding up and executing all Jews. In addition many Soviet Communist functionaries (commissars) and other "undesirables" (gypsies, partisans, looters, etc.) were also executed. The mass shootings of women, children, and men provoked 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. The exhaust fumes from the engine, rich in deadly carbon monoxide, were channeled through the compartment where the hapless victims soon died. The vans, however, were of limited practicality where primitive roads were the rule and cross-country travel might be necessary. Gassing vans also had their own peculiar psychological drawbacks as the unloading of the corpses proved disagreeable, dirty work. The vans had evolved from the Nazi euthanasia program designed to eliminate mentally and physically handicapped elements of the German population. The original killing method used pure carbon monoxide fed into airtight rooms from gas storage cylinders.

With these precedents and the experience gained by the Nazis in the euthanasia program, a means of murder less traumatic to the murderers and more efficient than shooting, or asphyxiation in mobile gas vans was developed. Having concentrated the Jewish population in ghettos, the victims were transported en-masse to purpose-built fixed gas installations. The gas chambers in the extermination camps were all located in the annexed or administered regions of Poland. The first efforts to carry out industrialized mass murder were a matter of empirical experimentation. At Auschwitz, under Rudolph Hoess, experiments were carried out using a powerful cyanide-based insecticide produced commercially as Zyklon B. These experiments led to the design and construction of four specialized gassing and cremation facilities in which over a million people ultimately vanished. Auschwitz was also a huge slave labor camp, as well as a killing center. The total Auschwitz complex encompassed many square miles of SS owned and controlled territory as well as several large industrial complexes served by the slave inmates.

The first camp designed specifically for killing masses of victims was set up at Chelmno, a pretty town on the banks of the river Ner (Figure 9 shows a pre-WWII picture of the town). Murders were conducted there in a hybrid system that served to identify drawbacks in the methodology and equipment suited for genocide. Victims were transported to the killing grounds at Chelmno by rail, truck or auto and were subsequently killed in gassing vans. The experiences gained there were later applied at other locations.

Chelmno began operations on December 8, 1941. Like all extermination centers, excepting Auschwitz, Chelmno was surprisingly small. Victims transported there were taken to a manor house ("Schloss" or castle in German). Figure 10 is a prewar picture of the "castle" sited on about two acres of grounds. Once there the prospective victims were told that they were to take a shower and undergo disinfection. The victims 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 standing, closely-packed people, were locked inside. Hoses were connected from the vehicle's exhaust to an intake duct in the bottom of the van box. After allowing the engine to run for several minutes - long enough to ensure 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.

Innitially the victims were dumped into mass graves. Subsequently, the dead were all cremated. Earlier victims were removed from their reopened 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 the gassing vans. In April of 1943, Figure 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 for only a little over a year. All three had been constructed in early to mid 1942 and were susequently razed and all signs of their existence erased by mid to late 1943. In those dozen or more months, about two million people were murdered. After the three camps were dismantled, mass killings were largely conducted at Auschwitz.

Initially the victims were dumped into mass graves. Subsequently, the dead were all cremated. Earlier victims were removed from their reopened 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 the gassing vans. 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 for only a little over a year. All three had been constructed in early to mid 1942 and were subsequently razed and all signs of their existence erased by mid to late 1943. In those dozen or more months, about two million people were murdered. After the three Aktion Reinhard camps were dismantled, mass killings were largely conducted at Auschwitz.

The Aktion Reinhard camps were primitive, but efficient, venues for conducting genocide. Belzec was built first under the inspectorate of Christian Wirth, a crude, barbaric and cruel overseer. It was the proving ground for the other camps. The methods needed to control, murder and dispose of the bodies of thousands of people a day were developed and tested there. Sobibor was a refinement of Belzec. Treblinka, under Franz Stangl, developed and perfected an efficient conveyor belt for importing and transforming innocent people into ashes. Stangl was the most competent of the camp commanders. Under him, roads were paved, flower beds planted, a zoo built, and 850,000 people were exterminated. Death came through asphyxiation from the exhaust of a large internal combustion engine - reportedly a captured Soviet T-34 diesel engine (Figure 12). Figure The victims were crammed into chambers into which the emissions from the engine were introduced. At Belzec the first gassing facility had three chambers that 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.

Death was not easy. The process was cruel, and extended. It took 30 minutes or more to kill the victims. 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 with eliminating the evidence of these crimes. This lead to a directive that all the dead be disinterred and cremated 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 around March of 1943 and the remains cremated. The method used consisted of several steel railroad rails set on concrete pylons to form a grid. New and old corpses were piled atop the rails, sandwiched with layers of wood and set on fire. By late summer of that year all the old burial pits had been emptied, the corpses burned and their bones crushed.

Staffing at the Reinhard camps was minimal. It consisted of a contingent of approximately 40 SS, of which only 20 were ever on hand at any one time, the others being on home leave. About 100 Ukrainian guards, recruited from among the captured Soviet prisoners of war, bolstered the German staff. 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, was consigned to the death camp, where 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 task 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 and hidden valuables 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, as well as collecting, sorting, and baling the belongings of the victims. They were also 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. Jewish slave labor had a tenuous existence. At the beginning of Treblinka's operation, the reprieve was only of a few days duration. Men would be selected from 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 period was 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 rebelled. 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. The Germans 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 of their former SS masters and tormentors in Germany. Some 100 Jews could not or would not join in the escape. They lived only long enough to help liquidate the camp and were then killed. By November 1943 the Treblinka death camp had been largely liquidated. Few buildings were left standing, but the gas chambers, the barracks and most of the fencing was 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 only signs of the unspeakable tragedy were the countless tiny splinters of human bone and gray ash mixed in the sandy soil.

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