Sam arrived at Treblinka in June of 1942 by bus with 135 men captured in Stochzek. Upon arrival, they were separated into two groups – one to the right, the other to the left. Sam described the scene:
“The German officer gave us a speech that the right ones are going home and the left ones will stay here for a while. So I wanted to go home, so I stole myself out to the left. He saw that I was doing this, so he gave me a smack, ‘what are you doing, you disgusting pig? Stay here where I put you.’ So I started to cry. So my friend who was a policeman came to me and said, ‘I left behind a wife and a child, I’m not running, you see how we are, stay here, you stay here!’ And that is how it was. I got calmed down. The people they picked out to go to the right were shot to death before my eyes. They took out a machine gun and they killed them right away.”
The first Commandant of Treblinka was Irmfield Eberl. Eberl was a physician who honed his skills during the Euthanasia program (see blog post Dec. 21, 2015) and served briefly at Chelmo before his appointment at Treblinka. He took a look at Sam, a young strong man of 22 and asked:
“What do you know how to do?”
“I’m a farmer, but I can do anything, everything that has to be done,” Sam answered.
So Sam was assigned the job of making roofs out of bundles of straw.
You might ask, how did Sam know how to make roofs?
He explained: “I had seen how the workers did that on our farm, but I had never done, not in my life, but I saw. When the time came that I had to remember everything, I remembered how to do it. So I took the straw and made the bundles. I asked the boys to pass it to me and they kissed and said yes, yes, beautiful. They liked the work.”
The camp was built by the slave labor of the Jews. There were two distinct sections of the camp. The section where Sam lived and worked is where the railroad cars arrived and where people were “processed” before being funneled through the narrow “road to heaven” that led to the gas chambers. In Jankiel Wiernik description of Treblinka in One Year in Treblinka, he refers to this section as “Camp No. 1.”
In Camp No. 1 there was a railroad spur that opened up to a large open space. It is this area where people were sorted and the luggage and clothing piled up. Camp No. 1 had the Larzaret (infirmary). The ill and the elderly were taken directly to the Lazaret from the train. There were two men who wore white aprons and red crosses on their sleeves that escorted them. At the Lazaret Nazi officers and Ukrainians posed as doctors in white coats (technique taken straight from the Euthanasia program). The patients were seated on a long bench in order to be examined. But no examination occurred. They were shot in the neck. The corpses toppled into the ditch on the other side of the bench. Once a sufficient number were killed, they set the corpses on fire, making room for the next batch. Camp No. 1 also had a large room where the women had their hair shorn before heading to the showers, as well four watch towers, a stables, a pigsty, a food storage building and a weapons arsenal.
It will come as no surprise that in Camp No. 1, the barracks of the Germans and Ukrainians were set apart from the barracks and the workshops of the Jews.
After Sam finished building the roofs, the Germans asked him “can you wash laundry?” He said “Yavall – yes!” So they brought him a basin with a board and ordered him to wash clothes. He worked washing laundry for about six weeks when he realized that this is too much for him alone.
By this time, there had been a change in commanders — Eberl was out and Franz Stangl – was in. Eberl was dismissed for incompetence. Under his command, the dead piled up in the open square. “The smell was indescribable;” Stangl said. “The hundreds, no the thousands of bodies everywhere, decomposing, putrefying.” He was shocked by what he saw. (Sereney at 267) It seems Eberl did not “process” the victims and their belongings quickly enough. Stangl brought his expertise from the Euthanasia program and Sobibor to fix the mess at Treblinka.
Kurt Franz, Stangl’s right hand man at Sobibor came along with him to Treblinka. Kurt Franz was known as the Lalka – the Doll – because he was so beautiful. He was also known as the worst sadist and cruelest German. The Lalka had a big dog, named Barry. “This dog was trained to attack a man’s genitals,” Samuel Rajzman explains. “Once you were attacked by that dog, even if you lived, you were in such bad shape that you would be taken to the Lazaret and shot. Kurt Franz was the worse of the murderers there.” (Rajzman at 240) It is told that the Lalka never walked through the camp without killing a few Jews on the way. Just for sport. Oh, he loved sport – he especially loved boxing. He had Jews conduct boxing matches for his entertainment and even had them build him a zoo.
Nonetheless, the Lalka, this horror of a person, was Sam’s savior. He liked Sam’s eyes. Sam had eyes that were translucent blue, a color that I imagine would result if you mixed the blue of the sky and the blue of the shallow sea. “I will make a laundry for you and you will be the supervisor of the laundry,’ the Lalka told Sam. Two days later, there was a laundry built with Sam installed as supervisor.
It gets crazier – in the beginning, Sam would venture out to the open area where the clothes were piled up, to gather the laundry and bring it back for washing. The Lalka saw that Sam was collecting the clothes himself. He told him not to gather the clothes – it was too dangerous. Many prisoners were killed in that space each day. Sam should stay in the laundry where it was safer and other prisoners would bring the clothes to him. It is almost hard to fathom that this man who is described by most survivors as the worst of the worst saw Sam as his Pet Jew and took care of him. (see blog post December 30, 2015).
The work force in the laundry was increased by twelve women who were taken from a transport and put to work with Sam. Sam said this was not enough. So they added another twelve women. At one point, Sam had thirty-three women working in the laundry.
While Sam worked in the laundry, there was an older SS Officer who was assigned to guard the laundry workers. One day, Sam told him that he wanted to use the washing tub to cook food for the people in the laundry. The German said: “I understand, but other Germans will come in here, what will they say?” Sam responded: “It will happen to me, whatever they say, they say. I’ll cook here.” So he cooked – whatever he could steal from the kitchen or things he found in people’s clothes. He gave the food to those who worked with him in the laundry, but also to the sick in the hospital. “I risked my life,” Sam explained, “I carried them food.”
Sam told me that he believed he was saved because of the zechus (merit) of taking food to the sick and dying of Treblinka.
In his 13 months at Treblinka, Sam never went to Camp No. 2, where the gas chambers and mass graves were. He knew, they all knew. The smell of rotting corpses and then later burning flesh permeated the camp. There was a tall wooden wall separating the two camps. There were only a few prisoners who went back and forth. One such prisoner was Jankiel Wiernik. He was a carpenter and helped to build structures in both camps. He described Camp No. 2 as having its own barracks for the prisoners who worked there, a laundry and a laboratory. When Wiernik first arrived in August of 1942, there were three gas chambers. However, ten more were built, ultimately bringing the number to 13. The front entrance of the gas chambers had a star of David on it, to trick the Jews to think they were going to a regular shower.
The Treblinka gas chambers did not use the famous Zyklon B from Auschwitz/Birkenau, rather they used old fashion carbon monoxide. An old Soviet tank motor would pump gas into the chambers through pipes. The chambers were sealed, the motor turned on and as the gas was pumped in, those within were asphyxiated. Death took approximately 25 minutes. Once the people inside were dead, the doors were opened and the prisoners carried them out and threw them into huge pits. During the first phase of Treblinka’s operation, these mass graves were dug and filled with thousands of bodies. Later, the bodies were burned.
When Stangl arrived at Treblinka, he had to clean up the mess. The first thing he did was to stop all transports for one week, giving the prisoners time to clean up. During this week, Abraham Krzepicki, who was in Camp No. 2, was able to look inside one of the gas chambers. In his “Notes from Seventeen Days in Treblinka,” he described what he saw:
“I saw before me a room which was not too large. It looked like a regular shower room with all the accoutrements of a public bathhouse. The walls of the room were covered with small, white tiles. It was very fine, clean work. The floor was covered with orange terra cotta tiles. Nickel-plated metal faucets were set into the ceiling.” (Krzepicki 105).
Last week, I watched a documentary called “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine.” It shows archeologists attempting to find evidence of Treblinka and especially evidence of the gas chambers. They did indeed find the location of the gas chambers and as they dug down they found some of the orange terra cotta tiles described by Krzepicki. The tiles had stars of David on them. I highly recommend this documentary. It is on Netflix.
The gas chambers at Treblinka began operation on July 23, 1942. Yitzchak Arad, in his book, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, states that construction continued and the camp was not completed until later. (Arad at 43). Sam, one of the early Treblinka builders, recalls that building continued until Rosh Hashanah.
For Sam and the other prisoners, that Rosh Hashonah must have been impossibly arduous.
Interview with Sam Goldberg: July 13, 1997.
Interview with Sam Goldberg: 1991.
Arad, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. 1987.
Krzepicki, Abraha. Notes from Seventeen Days in Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY. Holocaust Library. 1979 at 77.
Wiernik, Jankiel. One Year in Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY. Holocaust Library. 1979 at 147.
Willenberg, Samuel. I Survived Treblinka in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York.
Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness. New York. Random House. 1983.