Treblinka – Part I – Background

To my readers:

I have been traveling for a few weeks, so have not posted.  But I have set my mind to tackling a most daunting piece of the Holocaust and of my book to be – Treblinka.  Over the next few blog posts, I will attempt to convey some small measure of what that place was and what happened to Sam Goldberg, one of the 60 survivors.  Gird your loins!


Hitler put together the dream team to solve the “Jewish Question” – Heinrich Himmler – overall head; Hermann Göring — head of administration; Reinhard Heydrich – -Chief of Police and head of Gestapo; and Adolf Eichman – Supervisor of Jewish Affairs and Evacuation Affairs.

On July 31, 1941, Goring issued the following order to Heydrich:

“Complementing the task that was assigned to you on January 21, 1939, which was to solve the Jewish problem by emigration and evacuation in the most effective manner in accordance with the conditions of that time, I hereby charge you with making all necessary organization, practical and financial preparations for bringing about the final solution of the Jewish problem in the territories within the German sphere of influence in Europe.”[1]

On January 20, 1942, six months after this order, the Nazis held the Wanasee Conference.  Marching orders were given to the SS to carry out the Final Solution.  The dream team had given up on the idea of resettling the Jews in a faraway land and now resolved that they just must be “liquidated.”

So much had been done to lay the ground for genocide.   Books have of course been written on this, but some specific that are relevant to this discussion:

  •  SS troops in the hundreds of thousands were trained and ready;
  • Jews had lost all freedoms and privileges and were being forced to move into ghettoes all across Poland;
  • September, 1941 – gassing as a killing technique was successfully attempted in Auschwitz, using Zyklon B to gas 250 hospital patients and 600 Soviet POWs;
  • Other Soviet POWs were used to test a gas van at Sachsenhauser.    The van pumped its own gas from the exhaust pipe into the hold – asphyxiating those inside with carbon monoxide;
  • Soviet POWs sent to Trawniki to be trained as guards for the future death camps;
  • August, 1941 – the Euthanasia program was closed down and it’s “doctors” and employees, now skilled in killing with gas were ready for deployment elsewhere (see blog post Dec. 21, 2015);
  • December 7 – Pearl Harbor attacked by the Japanese.  America enters the war and Hitler proclaims: “The world war is here.  The annihilation of world Jewry must be the necessary consequence.”
  • December 8, 1941 – First death camp – Chelmo – 60 KM from Lodz – began to function – mobile van units passed its own carbon monoxide into the passenger cab, asphyxiating those within.
  • By the end of 1941, the Einsatzguppen had shot one million Jews, east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line (line on map that originally separated the two sides of Poland into Soviet and German controlled zones) (see blog post dated Jan. 7, 2016).

Thus the next phase of the Final Solution begins.

October, 1941 – Construction began at Belzec. The camp was complete and operational in May of 1942.  The technology used here is borrowed from the success of Chelmo.  The main innovation was that large chambers are constructed and sealed to hold many Jews at once.  The engine was removed from the car and piping connects it to the chamber.   The carbon monoxide from the engine rushes into the sealed chamber, asphyxiating those inside.  Much more efficient.

This same model is used for Sobibor and Treblinka.

Sobibor began construction in March of 1942 and became operational in April.  The first Commandant of Sobibor was Franz Stengle, an alumnus of the Euthanasia program.  Stengle later becomes the Commandant of Treblinka, riding around on his horse with his white linen riding outfit.  But this is getting ahead of the story.

June 1, 1942 – Treblinka construction began.  The location was chosen because of its proximity to Warsaw, where 350,000 Jews awaited “liquidation.”  Further, in 1941 a labor/penal camp had been built there to exploit the quarry for raw materials.  The penal camp becomes known as Treblinka I, with the death camp known as Treblinka II. Irmfield Eberl was the Nazi who oversaw the construction and was the first Commandant of Treblinka II.

These three death camps, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka make up the “Operation Reinhard” Camps.  These camps were christened with this name in memory of one of members of the Dream Team – Reinhardt Heydrich. He was assassinated by a Czech and Slovak employed by the British intelligence.   Heydrich died on June 4, 1942.  His death was a rallying cry to escalate the murder of the Jews.  Heydrich was proclaimed a victim of the international Jewish conspiracy that was responsible for the war.

As with Belzec and Sobibor, Jews from the surrounding areas were brought to build the camp.  This is where Sam comes into the story.  He was one of these Jews captured and brought to Treblinka to build the camp in June of 1942.

After escaping the Soviet POW camp (see blog post Feb. 25, 2016) Sam reunited with his parents in Yashnetz in what had been the Soviet controlled area.  He had heard that the Germans were not “touching” the Jews of Stochek[2] and they lived without a ghetto.  So he and his parents tried to travel there, but were turned back three times.  Then a tragedy struck, his mother, Chaya Faiga had a stroke.  Her hand and foot were paralyzed.  She told Sam to go to Stochek without her.   He did not want to leave his parents, but she insisted. With many tears and protestation, Sam left and crossed the border undetected making his way towards Stochek.  Just before Stochek there was a small Shtetle called Sadovneh, which also had an open ghetto.   It was there that Sam met a Jews who asked him to be his partner in his butcher business.   He thought Sam would be a good husband for his daughter.   But as Sam explained: “I thought as much about getting married at that time as a dead person dances.”   Sam did not wear the arm band with the yellow star and thus moved freely from town to town, buying, selling and shechting (slaughtering) animals.  This went on until the Nazis came to Sadovneh and forced the Jews of Sadovneh to move to Stochek to prepare them for their slaughter.

Sam moved to Stochek and continued his business.   The Judenrat had periodic round ups of young strong men to meet their quota demanded by the Germans for a slave labor force. Having made friends with a Jewish policeman, Sam avoided the Judenrat’s work force round ups.  The policeman warned him each time so he could hide.

His luck ran out one day in June, 1942.  He was in a barn shechting “behamos” (cattle).  The man from the Judenrat had a quota of 135 men to deliver to the SS by that evening.   “When I saw him,” Sam explained, “I jumped out of the barn into the grains.  It wasn’t his fault either.  He had to get the 135 Jews.  He knew where I was killing the behamos, so he saw that I was jumping down form the barn into the grain.  So he called a German and they caught me.  They caught me, put me on a truck and off to Treblinka.”

Thus it begins.

[1] Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka, p. 11

[2] Stochek is the Shtetle where Esther grew up.


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