Treblinka: A Documentary Proposal

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A word of history:

Treblinka was one of three Aktion Reinhard Death Camps established along major railway lines in German-occupied Poland for the sole purpose of killing Jews. Situated on the main railway lines between Warsaw and Bialystok, two of Poland’s largest Jewish communities, it began operation on July 22, 1942 and continued in operation for fourteen months until August 14, 1943, shortly after the death camp uprising. Staffed by some 30 Germans and some 90 Ukrainians, former Soviet Prisoners of War all, during its 14 months of operation between 870,000 and 925,000 Jews were killed with fewer than 100 known survivors.

 

There are four stories to be told:

 

  1. The Killers and the killing process
  2. Their Victims
  3. The Ghettos and towns from which they came to Treblinka
  4. Uprising of August 2, 1943

We may also want to make mention of the few post-war trials and the inconsequential verdicts as well as to show the breathtaking memorial at Treblinka, the thousands of stones that stand for community after community, towns, villages and cities whose Jewish inhabitants met their end at Treblinka.

Aktion Reinhard:

In June 1941 the Germans began the implementation of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” Nazi antisemitism had long identified the Jews as the major enemy of the German people, a cancer on the very body of the German nation.

At first, their target was to force the Jews to emigrate from Germany by making their continued presence in Germany impossible by depriving them of civil liberties and legal protections. Discrimination was followed by active persecution, economic restrictions that reduced the Jews to poverty, and their physical attacks against their property and person, all designed to force them to leave.

That strategy failed for two reasons:

The world was unwilling to receive the Jews in the numbers required to provide for their safety and – more importantly;

Germany kept expanding and controlling lands with ever greater number of Jews.

In March 1938, it occupied Austria with its 200,000 Jews; in September the Sudetenland and its Jews, by the spring of 1939 Bohemia and Moravia and its 90,000 Jews and in September 1939, Western Poland [the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Poland in a pre-arranged agreement between Hitler and Stalin] and some 2,000,000 more Jews. Polish Jews were confined to ghettos, reservations where they were to remain until…

Until what? Neither the Germans nor the Jews were certain.

In June 1941 the mass murder of Jews began in the occupied Soviet territories. Three thousand men, members of the Mobile Killing Units, Einsatzgruppen were sent into these lands with explicit instructions to murder all Jews, Soviet commissars and Gypsies. They advanced city-by-city, town-by-town, village-by-village murdering the Jews one-by one, by one, bullet-by-bullet. Aided by the German Army, German allied troops such as Romania, local gendarmeries and native antisemites, more than 1.5 million Jews were killed directly and their bodies buried in mass graves throughout the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and the Soviet Union. Some villages took the initiative to murder their own Jews and thus to possess their booty without sharing it with the Germans.

Yet there were two problems with method of killing for the Germans

  1. It was too public;
  2. It was too difficult for the killers who required alcohol to get through their difficult task and who were breaking down under the strain.

Thus, a new method had to be found: instead of sending the killers to their victims, the victims would be made mobile and sent to six killing centers, systematic factories of death, where a depersonalized, machine like assembly line was established for killing by gas.

The order on Hitler’s authority to establish these camps was given to Odilo Globocnik in November; killing of Jews by gas began on December 9th at Chelmno, coordination between government bureaucracies, Nazi party officials and the SS was formalized at the Wannsee Conference in January 20, 1942 and by February the first of three Aktion Reihard Camps were open. By the end of 1942 Belzec was closed and by the fall of 1943 Sobibor and Treblinka could be closed as the Jews of Poland were no longer, and these camps which served a regional killing task had fulfilled their purpose.

More than two million Jews had been killed in these camps. And Treblinka was the most lethal of all the camps. (It was only overtaken by the far better known camp of Auschwitz Birkenau in the spring and summer of 1944 when 437,402 Hungarian Jews were deported in 56 days.

Treblinka was opened on July 22, 1942. On July 23, 1942 the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began and within the next eight weeks until September 21, 1942, 265,000 Jews were transported from Warsaw to Treblinka where they were killed upon arrival.

The story of Warsaw is dramatic: Adam Czerniakow was head of the Warsaw Judenrat, the Jewish Council. He had tried valiantly but ultimately unsuccessfully to organize the ghetto in such a way that it could provide, however meagerly, for its residents. He protected its children by providing education and extra – though still starvation -- rations He was caught in an impossible situation, representing Jewish needs to German masters and, in turn, imposing German orders on his almost 500,000 inhabitants. He had conducted himself with dignity believing that chaos would be only more destructive to Warsaw Jews and resistance could not succeed, it would only result in the total destruction of the ghetto.

On July 23, the 9th day of Av in the Jewish calendar, the traditional Jewish fastday commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE respectively, Czerniakow concluded the 9th book of his Diary. He wrote a note to his wife and swallowed cyanide. His last words were a tragic confession of failure: “The SS want me to kill children with my own hand.” This he could not do.

The order for deportation appeared without his signature.

Among the victims of the deportation, among those killed in Treblinka were Dr. Janusz Korczak, the famed pediatrician and radio personality who was the Dr. Spock and Mr. Rogers of Poland. Offered safety on the “Aryan” [non-Jewish] side of Warsaw, Korczak asked that he be joined by 192 children of the orphanage he headed. When their safety could not be assured, he led a march to the Umschlagpatz, the deportation point in Warsaw: He lined his children up in rows of four. The orphans were clutching flasks of water and their favorite books and toys, One hundred ninety two children were counted off by the Germans. Korczak stood at the head of his wards, a child carried the flag of King Matt, with a Star of David set against a while foiled on the other side. The orphans walked quietly in their rows of four. One eyewitness recalled: “This was not march to the train cars, but rather a mute protest against the murderous regime…a process the likes of which no human eye had ever seen.”

Courage took many forms in the Warsaw Ghetto, the courage of children facing the unknown with dignity, and the courage of their teacher who did what a teacher must do. He stayed with his students to the end – unto death.

During these eight weeks, there was no resistance to the German onslaught. Ghettoized Jews were deceived into believing that they were to be resettled in the East. Some were so hungry that they reported for deportation merely for the promise of some bread and marmalade. The Jewish underground was desperate to know the fate of the deported Jews. There was much information about the systematic murder of Jews elsewhere, but too little to information that could be confirmed about what was happened at the other end of the line.

A daring mission was undertaken. One of the Bundist organizers with strong union ties was smuggled aboard a train to Treblinka posing as an engineer. He arrived at Malkinia where he interviewed the drivers who told him.

That trains were arriving full and going back empty.

No wells had been dug at the camp.

No food had been delivered.

Treblinka was quiet at night.

Perhaps, he could imagine the rest of the story but how could he be certain? He met an escaping prisoner who had buried himself among the booty that was taken out of Treblinka for shipment to the Reich, who described to him the killing process, detail by detail. Still, he was uncertain. How could he know? “Breath deeply” he was told. The smell of burning corpses is unmistakable.

He had news, real news to convey to the Jewish underground in Warsaw and with such information, confirmed by others, came the knowledge of killing by gas and the determination to resist unto death. Resistance, as Marek Edelman, the last living commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, said: “is not a decision of how to live or how to die but a decision of how to live until one died.”

Liberated from all hope that they could live if they cooperated with the Germans, the knowledge of impending death freed the resistance fighters to battle their enemy, a battle unto death. Such loss of hope for survival was essential to Jewish resistance.

Other communities were deported to Treblinka, their stories are less well known: 346,000 Jews to the Radom District, 110,000 from the Bialystok District, where the major ghetto of Bialystok was spared for a time – but only for a time -- since it manufactured items essential to the German war effort, 33,000 Jews were deported from Lublin, which itself was the home to a major concentration camp, which systematic killing had yet to begin.

Among other killed at Treblinka were the 12,000 Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. Bulgarian police administered the deportation of Jews from the areas it occupied. Sometime later, Bulgarian opposition leaders, the press, some Parliamentarians, lawyers and Church leaders protested the planned deportation of the Jews of Bulgaria proper. Having seen what happened to foreign Jews, they refused to deliver their own for deportation to Treblinka.

 

The Process:

Fifty or 60 cars bound for the killing center first stopped at the Malkinia station, the reception area for Treblinka. Twenty cars at a time were detached from the train and brought into the killing center so that arrival could be paced for complete annihilation.

Arriving Jews were forced off the trains. Attempting to deceive them to the end, German SS and police told the newly arrived victims that they had arrived in a transit area and must hand over their valuable.

"Deportation square" contained two barracks: men and women were separated; young children went with their mothers to undress. Storerooms were used to hold the valuable.

A fenced-in path, known as the "tube," – “the highway to heaven” --led from the reception area to the gas chamber entrance, located in the killing area. Victims were whipped, running naked along this path to the gas chambers, which were labeled as showers.

Once inside the doors were sealed and an engine was started, which forced carbon monoxide into the gas chamber. Auschwitz used Zyklon B; Treblinka was more primintive. Members of the Sonderkommando (special units of group of Jewish prisoners worked in the killing area. removed bodies from the gas chambers and initially buried them in mass graves. Later, as the mass graves reached their saturation point, they were forced to exhume and burn them in pyres, open air ovens of rail tracks. From time to time, the Sonderkommando were killed and new prisoner was chosen to take their place. It was among these Sonderkommando, the only Jews who lived for a time at Treblinka, the resistance erupted.

Ever “sensitive to the needs of the handicapped,” those Germans structured the camp so that those who could not walk were carried to a special area which appeared to be a hospital, a Red Cross Flag flying proudly. There they were short by SS and police personnel before their bodies joined the other Jews for burial or burning.  The same “courteous” special treatment was offered to very young children, those too young to walk.

Who were the killers?

The first Commandants of the Treblinka II killing center were SS 2nd Lieutenant Irmfried Eberl, MD, who served from July until August 1942. He is particularly fascinating because he is directly linked the first attempts by Germany to gas their victims.
The first to be killed by gas were not Jews but – to use non PC language -- the mentally retarded, physically handicapped, congenitally ill and emotionally disturbed German “Aryans” who were killed T-4 program designed by “perfect the Mater Race” by eliminating “life unworthy of living” and “useless eaters. How do you have a Master Race and a retarded child? A trained physician Eberl got his start killing hundreds and thousand and developing gassing techniques. When this process was halted – actually driven underground – by Church and family protests, he graduated to bigger and between things, killing hundreds of thousands.
His successor from August 1942-August 1943 was Franz Stangl, who was interviewed extensively by Gita Sereny for her book Into the Heart of Darkness from Mercy Killing to Mass Murder, a study of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka. When Sereny asked: “why do you dehumanize the Jews if you are going to kill them? Stangl quickly answered, “It makes it easier on my men.” It is easier to get rid of a lump of shit than a man, woman or children. We also have extensive interviews with Franz Suchomel, who was Stangl’s assistant as well.
And then there were the ordinary men who staffed the camp, Ukrainian Prisoners of War, who switched sides and staffed the German killing effort, Polish and Ukrainian civilians whose countries were occupied by the Germans but who joined forces in their antisemetic efforts becoming indispensible to the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. We also have access to their thoughts and experience from trial records and perhaps brief interviews.
Armed Uprising:
Jewish inmates organized a resistance group in Treblinka in early 1943. Inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, they too only undertook resistance when the end was near and they feared that the killing would end and with it, their role as Sonderkommando would come to an end. In late spring and early summer they decided to revolt. On August 2nd they seized arms from the Camp Armory, but the theft was discovered before they had time to seize the camp. They stormed the main gate seeking to overpower their guards and get to the adjacent forests. We have compelling first hand testimony of these armed uprising.

Hundreds of prisoners stormed the main gate in an attempt to escape. Many were killed by machine-gun fire. More than 300 did escape -- though two thirds of those who escaped were eventually tracked down and killed by German SS and police as well as military units. Surviving prisoners dismantled the camp and burned or buried its remains. They were rewarded for their work by being shot. There are probably less than a handful of living survivors of Treblinka. After they die, all that we will have is historical, rather than living memory.

Resources:

There are significant resources for creating a documentary on Treblinka.
•    The USC Shoah Foundation Institute has several interviews with survivors of Treblinka.
•    The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has interview with Richard Glazer, Fred Kort and Chiel Rajchman who participated in the Uprising.
•    There are three long and impressive interviews with Abraham Bomba who was a member of the Sonderkommando at Treblinka and served as a barber cutting the hair of the arriving prisoner but a moment before they entered the gas chamber. He was the last to see them alive.
•    The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has a stunning interview with Vladka Meed who smuggled a map of Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto to the “Aryan side” to alert the Western world as to the fate of the Jews.

All US Holocaust Memorial Museum tapes are public information with but a small processing fee for access. Claude Lanzmann’s outtakes of interviews that he did not use in Shoah are also in the Museum. Their use must be negotiated with Lanzmann but he has been willing to let them be used for a fee in the past. He interviewed Treblinka resistance fighters as well as deputy Commandants of Treblinka and used only a small portion of these tapes.

I believe that Yad Vashem also has interviews with survivors of Treblinka and we should plan on interviewing the few remaining ones if they are able.

Scholars are available in abundance including Yitzhak Arad former director of Yad Vashem, Israel Holocaust Memorial, and the author Aktion Reinhard, a study of the the death camps. Among the visual are the map of Treblinka, which Fred Kort used in the trial of Treblinka guards and a model of Treblinka done by Treblinka survivor Yankiel Wiernik as well as his masterful testimony. It might also possible to get Gita Sereny’s interview with Franz Stangl, commandant to Treblinka. There should also be the filmed testimony of Treblinka survivors at the John Demjanuk trial in Jerusalem, though we have to be careful with their use since Demjanuk was accused of being Ivan the Terrrible of Treblinka, which the Supreme Court of Israel said could not be substantiated beyond a reasonable doubt. Still the descriptions of Treblinka and of their plight can be used.