Extermination camp in the northeastern part of the Generalgouvernement. It was situated in a sparsely populated area near Malkinia, a railway station on the main Warsaw-Bialystok line; the camp's precise location was 2.5 miles (4 km) northwest of the village and railway stop of Treblinka.
The site selected was heavily wooded and well hidden from view. A penal camp, known as Treblinka I, had been set up nearby in 1941; Poles and Jews were imprisoned there, working in quarries from which they extracted materials used in the construction of fortifications on the German-Soviet border. The extermination camp was established as part of Aktion Reinhard; work on it began in late May and early June of 1942, and was completed on July 22 of that year. The project was carried out by German firms, using inmates of Treblinka I and Jews brought in from neighboring towns. In addition to the camp structures and gas chambers, a branch railway track, leading from the camp to the nearby railway station, was constructed. Huge pits were dug within the camp's grounds to be used as mass graves.
The camp was laid out in a rectangle 1,312 feet wide by 1,968 feet long (400 x 600 m), resembling the Sobibor camp, which had already been built. Two barbed-wire fences surrounded the camp; the inner one had tree branches, periodically replenished, entwined in the wire to block any view of the camp and its activities. 26 foot (8 m) high watchtowers were placed along the fence and at each of the four corners. The camp was divided into three parts: the living area, the reception area, and the extermination area.
The Living Area
The living area contained housing for the Germans and Ukrainians who worked there, as well as the camp offices, the clinic, storerooms, and workshops. One section, demarcated by its own fence, contained the barracks housing the Jewish prisoners who worked in the camp, and the workshops in which they were employed as tailors, shoemakers, and carpenters.
In the reception area, the deportees on incoming transports were taken off the train and subjected to a variety of procedures before being forced into the gas chambers. In addition to the railway siding and platform, this area contained the "deportation square," a fenced-in section with two barracks in which the new arrivals had to remove their clothes. On another lot near the railway platform were two large storerooms where the personal possessions taken from the victims were sorted and stored.
The extermination area, called the "upper camp" by the Germans, was in the southeastern part. Covering an area 656 by 820 feet (200 x 250 m), it was completely fenced in and separated from the rest of the camp. In this area was a brick building containing three gas chambers, each measuring 13 by 13 feet (4 x 4 m). An adjoining shed housed a diesel engine that produced the carbon monoxide for the chambers. The gas was introduced by way of pipes attached to the ceilings of the gas chambers that ended in what looked like shower heads, to create the impression that the chambers were merely bathhouses. In the building, a hallway led to each of the three gas chambers; inside each, facing the entrance, was a second door through which the dead bodies were removed. At a distance of 492-656 feet (150-200 m) from the gas chambers, to the east of the building, lay the huge trenches in which the bodies were interred. A narrow path, fenced in on each side and camouflaged with tree branches, led from the reception area to the extermination area. It was along this path, nicknamed the "pipe" or "tube" (Schlauch), that the Jews, now naked, were driven to the gas chambers.
The camp's first commander was SS-Obersturmfuehrer Imfried Eberl. In August 1942, he was replaced by SS-Obersturmfuehrer Franz Stangl, the former commander of Sobibor. The German staff, numbering between 20-30 SS men, all of whom had taken part in the Euthanasia Program, held the command and administrative positions in the camp. A Ukrainian company consisting of 90-120 men served as camp guards and security personnel. They had the tasks of ensuring that no Jews would escape and of quashing any attempt at resistance. Some of the Ukrainians were given other duties, including the operation of the gas chambers. Most of them were Soviet prisoners of war who had volunteered to serve the Germans and had been enlisted and trained for their duties at the Trawniki camp. Some of the Soviet prisoners of war were of German extraction (Volksdeutsche), and the majority of these were appointed platoon or squad commanders. There were also between 700-1,000 Jewish prisoners in the camp, who performed all the manual labor, including work that was part of the extermination process. In addition, they attended to the personal needs of the German and Ukrainian staff.
The "Permanent" Staff of Forced Laborers
Groups of Jewish prisoners were employed on construction work as well, which proceeded even while the extermination process was in operation. They were also ordered to cut tree branches in the adjoining woods, to be used for camouflage, and did other jobs as well. These prisoners were taken from the incoming transports, put to work for a few days or weeks at the most, and then selected out and killed, their places taken by new arrivals. In September 1942, the camp commanders decided to introduce more efficient methods thereby reducing the time required for the killing of each transport. The plan was to establish a permanent staff of Jewish prisoners (rather than one that was continually replaced), the members of which would each specialize in one particular phase of the process. Though such a permanent staff did come into being, under the prevailing conditions its "permanence" was of short duration: the frequent Selektionen; the death penalty meted out for the slightest offense; illness; epidemics; and suicides all took their toll. Among the Jewish prisoners were fifty women used for auxiliary help in the laundry and the kitchen; some women were also put to work in the extermination area.
The Treblinka extermination process was based on experience the Germans had gained in the Belzec and Sobibor camps. An incoming train, generally consisting of fifty to sixty cars (containing a total of 6-7,000 persons), first came to a stop in the Treblinka village railway station. Twenty of the cars were brought into the camp, while the rest waited behind in the station. As each part of a transport was due to enter the camp, reinforced Ukrainian guard detachments took up positions on the camp railway platform and in the reception area. When the cars came to a stop, the doors were opened and SS men ordered the Jews to get out.
The Murder Process
A camp officer then announced to the arrivals that they had come to a transit camp from which they were going to be dispersed to various labor camps; for hygienic reasons, they would now take showers and have their clothes disinfected. Any money and valuables in their possession were to be handed over for safekeeping and would be returned to them after they had been to the showers. Following this announcement, the Jews were ordered into the "deportation square." At the entrance to the square, the men were ordered into a barracks to the right, and the women and children to the left. This had to be done on the run, with the guards shouting at them, driving them on, and beating them. The women and children were made to enter a barracks on the left side of the square, where they had to undress. Beginning in the fall of 1942, the women's hair was shorn at this point, behind a partition that was put up for this purpose. From the barracks, they entered, naked, the "tube" that led to the gas chambers. Women and children were gassed first, while the men were kept in the deportation square, standing naked and waiting until their turn came to enter the "pipe." Once the victims were locked inside the gas chambers, which had the appearance of shower rooms, the diesel engine was started and the carbon monoxide poured in. In less than thirty minutes, all had died of asphyxiation. Their bodies were removed and taken to the trenches for burial. In the initial stage, it took from three to four hours for all the people in the twenty railway cars to be liquidated, but with time the Germans gained expertise and reduced the duration of the killing process to no more than an hour or two.
Preparations for Subsequent Transports
While the killing was going on, the railway cars that had brought the victims were being cleared of the corpses of those who had died en route and of the articles and the dirt that had been left behind. This work was done by a team of some fifty male prisoners. The twenty-car segment of the train then pulled out to make room for another twenty cars, with their human load, to enter the camp from the station where they had been kept waiting. At this time, another team of prisoners, also numbering some fifty men, went into action to collect the clothes and other articles that had been left in the deportation square barracks and transfer them to the sorting area. Here, a team of one hundred prisoners searched the clothing and articles for any money or valuables. They also removed the yellow badges from the clothing and any other sign that might have identified the clothes, destroyed all passports and identity cards, and prepared the items for forwarding from the camp. A group of 200-300, kept apart from the other Jewish prisoners, was employed in the extermination area, on such tasks as removing the corpses from the gas chambers, cleaning the chambers, extracting the victims' gold teeth, and burying their bodies. When the practice of cremating the bodies was introduced in the spring of 1943, with the aim of removing all traces of the mass murder that had been committed in Treblinka, this group of prisoners was charged with the task.
Expanding the Capacity of the Gas Chambers
The Germans soon realized - as they previously had at Belzec and Sobibor - that the bottleneck in the extermination process at Treblinka was the limited capacity of the gas chambers, which covered an area of no more than 57 square yards (48 sq. m). It was therefore decided to increase the number of gas chambers, and ten more were built between the end of August and the beginning of October 1942, with a total area of 383 square yards (320 sq. m). They were inside a brick building that had a hallway down the center and five doors on each side, each door leading to a gas chamber. A second door in each chamber could be opened only from the outside and was used to remove the corpses. The capacity of the new gas chambers was more than sufficient for the "human cargo" coming in twenty railway cars at one time.
Another improvement in the extermination process was the introduction of what was called the Lazarett (infirmary). When a transport arrived, those too weak to reach the gas chambers on their own were told they would be put into the sick bay. They were taken to a closed-in, camouflaged area with a Red Cross flag flying over it. Inside was a large ditch where SS men and Ukrainians were waiting for the sick Jews and killed them on the spot.
The mass extermination program at Treblinka went into effect on July 23, 1942, and the first transports to reach the camp were made up of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. Between that date and September 21, 254,000 Jews from Warsaw and 112,000 from other places in the Warsaw district were murdered at Treblinka, making a total of 366,000 from the district. From the Radom district, 337,000 Jews were murdered, and from the Lublin district 35,000, most of them before the winter of 1942-1943. The total number of victims who had been residents of the Generalgouvernement was 738,000. From the Bialystok district, over 107,000 Jews were taken to Treblinka to be killed, most of them between November 1942 and January 1943. Jews from outside Poland were also killed at Treblinka. From Slovakia, 7,000 Jews who had first been deported to ghettos in the Generalgouvernement were murdered in the summer and fall of 1942; from Theresienstadt, five transports brought 8,000 Jews in the period from October 5-25, 1942. From Greece, over 4,000 Jews who had first been deported from their homes in Thrace to Bulgaria came in the latter half of March 1943; and from Macedonia, the part of Yugoslavia that Bulgaria had annexed, 7,000 Jews were murdered in Treblinka at the end of March and the beginning of April 1943. From Salonika, at least one transport of 2,800 Jews came at the end of March 1943. A total of 29,000 Jews from countries other than Poland were murdered at Treblinka. Two thousand Gypsies, as well, were among the victims there. The mass extermination program continued until April 1943, after which only a few isolated transports arrived; the camp had fulfilled its function.
In late February and early March of 1943, Heinrich Himmler visited Treblinka; following this visit, in accordance with his orders, an operation was launched to burn the bodies of the victims. The mass graves were opened and the corpses taken out, to be consumed by the flames of huge pyres (the "roasts"). The bones were crushed and, together with the ashes, were reburied in the same graves. This burning of corpses, in an effort to obliterate traces of the killings, was continued until the end of July 1943. On its completion, the camp was shut down, in the fall of 1943. A total of 870,000 people had been murdered there.
Escape and Resistance
Hundreds of attempts to escape were made from the trains that were on their way to the camp. Some of those who tried to escape were killed by their jump or were shot to death by the transport escorts. Others were caught by railway guards or were handed over to the police by local inhabitants who found them. Some of the escapees managed to reach ghettos that were still in existence at the time, only to be sent to their death when it was the turn of the Jews in those ghettos to be deported. There were also many attempts to escape from the camp itself, especially in the first few months of its existence, when order and security had not been fully established. As a rule, the attempts were made at night, and involved getting through the fence or hiding in the railway cars that had been loaded with the victims' clothing and valuables (often by the would-be escapees themselves) and were about to leave the camp. Another method was to dig an underground passage leading to a point beyond the camp perimeter, but all those who tried this means of escape were caught. Everyone caught in an escape attempt was hanged. Even of those who did manage to escape from the train on the way to the camp or from the camp itself, not many survived. As time went by, more stringent security measures were taken in the camp, and for every prisoner who escaped, ten of those left behind were executed. Measures of this kind deterred escape attempts. Several efforts at resistance were made in Treblinka, both by individuals and by entire transports, in which SS men and Ukrainians were killed or wounded. At the beginning of 1943, a resistance group was formed among the inmates. It was led by persons who held the senior posts entrusted to prisoners; one of them was Dr. Julian Chorazycki, who was the SS men's physician. At a latter stage the chief Kapo, Marceli Galewski, and other Kapos and work-team leaders also joined. Efforts were made to obtain weapons with the help of the Ukrainians, but these efforts failed and led to Dr. Chorazycki's death. Prisoners from both parts of the camp - the main camp and the extermination area - belonged to the underground resistance group. In the extermination area, the resistance was led by a Jewish officer from the Czech army, Zelo Bloch. The group's plan, which took form in April 1943, was based on taking weapons from the SS armory and then seizing control of the camp, destroying it, and fleeing to the forests to join the partisans. Fifty to seventy men were members of the resistance, but it was expected that all the prisoners would join in an uprising if it were to break out.
When the burning of the bodies was nearing completion and it was clear that both the camp and the prisoners were about to be liquidated, the leaders of the underground resolved that the uprising must not be postponed any longer. A date and time were fixed: the afternoon of August 2, 1943. Initially, the uprising went according to plan; with the help of a copied key, the armory was opened and weapons taken out and handed to the resistance members. At this point, the resistance men began to suspect that one of the SS officers, Kurt Kuttner, had noticed unusual activities going on and was about to alarm the camp guard; the man was shot at once. This shot alarmed the guards and put an end to the removal and distribution of weapons from the armory, and the plan to seize control of the camp was abandoned. Instead, those resistance members who had arms in their hands opened fire on the SS men and set some of the camp buildings on fire. Masses of prisoners now tried to storm the fence and escape from the camp; they were fired at from all the watchtowers and most of them were hit, falling in or near the fence area. Those who succeeded in getting out of the camp were apprehended and shot by additional German security forces that had been alerted to the scene and, pursuing the escaped prisoners, combed the surrounding area. Of the approximately 750 prisoners who had tried to make their escape, seventy survived to see liberation.
In the Aftermath of the Uprising
Most of the camp structures, except for the gas chambers, were made of wood and went up in flames. Of the prisoners who were left, some were killed on the spot, while the rest were made to demolish the remaining structures and fences and obliterate the traces of the activities that had taken place at the camp. When this work was over, these prisoners too were shot. The grounds were plowed under and trees were planted; the camp was turned into a farm, and a Ukrainian peasant family was settled there.
Two trials were held in Dusseldorf, in the Federal Republic of Germany, of SS men who had served in Treblinka. In the first trial, lasting from October 12, 1964, to August 24, 1965, there were ten defendants, including the deputy camp commandant, Kurt Franz. Of the ten, one was acquitted, five were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to twelve years, and four were given life sentences. The second trial was that of Franz Stangl, the Treblinka camp commandant, who had escaped to Brazil but was extradited to Germany. His trial, conducted from May 13 to December 22, 1970, resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment.
A Polish National Monument
During the period from 1959-1964, the area of the Treblinka camp was made into a Polish national monument, in the form of a cemetery. Hundreds of stones were set in the ground, inscribed with the names of the countries and places from which the victims had originated.