265,040 Warsaw Jews arrived at Treblinka between July 23 and September 30, 1942. – Abraham Krzepicki was one of these unlucky people. He described how on August 25, SS guards came with whips and guns to the Warsaw factory where he worked. Chased to the Umschlagplatz, he was whipped until he got into the boxcar. It was boiling hot and there was no food or water. He could not move; it was hard to breath. The only air came from a small window, up high and a few cracks in the boards. Soon, with only a pail in the corner for people to relieve themselves, the stench of feces and urine, mixed with human sweat became unbearable. Many did not survive the journey.
Jankiel Wiernik described his journey from Warsaw to Treblinka:
“As many as 80 persons were crowded in each car, with no way of escape. I was wearing only a pair of pants, a shirt and a pair of slippers. I had left at home a packed knapsack and a pair of boots which I had prepared because of rumors that we would be taken to the Ukraine and put to work there. . .. The air in the cars was becoming stiflingly hot and oppressive. It was difficult for us to breathe. Despair descended on us like a pall. I saw all of my companions in misery, but my mind was still unable to grasp the fate that lay in store for us. I had thought in terms of suffering, homelessness and hunger, but I still did not realize that the hangman’s ruthless arm was threatening all of us, our children, our very existence.” (Wiernik at 150)
Each train had 50-60 cars. The train arrived at the nearby Malkinia Station. Only 20 cars were taken into Treblinka at a time. The rest waited their turn for their meeting with death. Imagine standing in one of these boxcars, pressed against others whom you do not know, with no food, no water, dead people around you, no way to escape and no one who will help you. Then when the train finally arrived at Treblinka and the doors open, you are greeted with SS guards armed with rifles, whips and dogs barking and biting.
Those who arrived at Treblinka before Stangl took over and “cleaned up” the place, were immediately confronted with the stench of human corpses and the sight of thousands of bloated bodies piled up all around the square. If you arrived after the “clean up” you entered a space that looked like a train station. Stangl had the Jews build a tall clock (that did not change time), a timetable and ticket counters. This ruse was constructed to convince new arrivals that all was well and they would indeed be continuing their travels eastward. When these desperately thirsty travelers exited the train, they were greeted by music, played by an orchestra led by the Warsaw musician Artur Gold.
The farce continued. The SS guards announced that all would be well. All valuables should be deposit with the official and each person will get a receipt in order to retrieve them after his or her shower. Some men were chosen for work detail, while the rest were sent to the barracks for undressing. The women and children were sent to another barracks where they undressed and the women’s hair was shorn for shipment to Germany for mattress stuffing. All were told to be sure to tie their shoe laces together so that they could find them later.
As they stood naked and dazed in the barracks they were shouted at, hit with whips and butts of rifles to herd them into the “tube,” also called the “road to heaven.” This path was a few meters wide and about 100 meters long and led directly to the “showers.” In they went – through the door with the star of David on top. Inside, they were met by the Hebrew inscription: “This is the gateway to G-d. The righteous shall pass through.” (Snyder at 270)
With the doors sealed, the gas was turned on and the victims’ last shred of doubt vaporized. Terrified screams, crying, and Shma Yisrael were the last sounds in their ears. After the victims fell eternally silent, the doors on the other side were opened and Jewish workers removed the dead bodies and dumped them in mass graves. These unlucky Jews were call “Soderkommandos.”
Recently, I saw a movie – “Son of Saul.” It won the academy award this year for Best Foreign Film. It is the story of Saul Auslander who was a Soderkommando. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article. It is very hard to watch, as it is a realistic depiction of a death camp. But if you want a sense of what it might have been like in Treblinka, watch this movie.
Those chosen to “live” and work in the camp had a wide variety of jobs. For example, some like Sam worked in the laundry. Others worked in the tinsmith shop or worked as carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, locksmiths, or blacksmiths. Others collected dead bodies from the train and carried them to the mass grave. Jankiel Wiernik was chosen to work in a group that handled corpses. “The work was very hard,” he explained. “We had to drag each corpse, in teams of two, for a distance of approximately 300 meters. Sometimes we tied ropes around the dead bodies to pull them to their graves.” (Wiernik at 153)
Others collected the incomprehensible amount of clothing and valuables left by the victims. Abraham Krzepicki described this as one of his jobs at Treblinka:
“[P]iled up in huge mounds, were the garments, underwear, shoes and all sorts of other items left by the men, women and children who had undressed there the day before. Various amounts of cash, large and small, were also lying around on the floor. There was Polish money as well as foreign currency, securities and jewelry. It was our job to pick up the rags as they were, and to add them to the piles of clothing near the railroad tracks.” (Krzepicki at 91)
Oskar Strawczynski describes the variety of things that the murdered victims brought:
“[F]rom the most expensive imported textiles, to the cheapest cottons; from the most elegant suits, to the cheapest worn-out rages. There are rows of suitcases and in them, everything imaginable: haberdashery, cosmetics, drugs – it seems no article in the world cannot be found here. The sorted items are brought to one side of the square, where they are piled into huge bales. There is also an enormous amount of food and other goods: dried noodles, sugar, soap, candles, matches, cigarettes, and sweets. There is no lack of the most expensive canned foods, tea and coffee, but there are also moldy crusts of bread. Some poor Jews even brought a few potatoes.” (Strawczynski at 135) He describes how if no Germans were around, the guards would quickly dump valuables into their pockets and how the “entire square [gave] the impression of a huge bazaar.” (Id. at 136)
Jews were also able to gather some of the money and valuables and hide them away. They were used to pay guards who would go to nearby towns to buy them goods. Because of the vast amounts of money in Treblinka, prices in the nearby towns were extremely high. Treblinka’s neighbors did not want to miss out on the opportunity to profit from the murder factory. Jews also hid away some of the money and valuables in the hopes of escaping or getting out alive. Sam, who worked in the laundry, found money and jewelry sown into the clothing. Sam buried some of the money and jewelry he found in a special place – by a tree – in the hopes of escape or of the war finally ending. This stash of money and jewelry saved him on many occasions after his escape from Treblinka.
I am honored to wear a ring that comes from Sam’s stash of valuables. Esther wore it during her life and I inherited this priceless article from her. It is my constant reminder of both of them and of this place.
In the suitcases left behind there were also passports, legal documents and pictures. All of these precious items were taken to a special area not far from the Lazaret where they were burned. “When you looked at these mountains of photographs, literally millions of them,” Oskar Strawczynski said, “you could clearly feel and understand the immense horror and brutality of what was taking place. All these people looking out at you from the pictures; just a while ago, they too were alive and full of hope. All these lives suddenly turned to ashes.” (Id. at 138).
For the prisoners of Treblinka, roll calls, twice daily, were supremely dangerous moments of the day. The prisoners lined up in rows of five, standing at attention for at least two hours at a time. If a Nazi felt you were not standing properly, they would beat you on the spot – 25 or 50 lashes – there in front of the others. Before the morning roll call, prisoners took great pains to shave and pinch their cheeks to look as healthy as possible. If you appeared sick or disabled at roll call, you would be promptly removed and sent to the gas chamber or the Lazaret.
There are many terrible stories from Treblinka. Some stories told by Sam have been shared in previous blog posts (see posts 12/25/15; 12/30/15; 1/1/16; & 4/6/16). The memoirs cited below include more detail and many stories that I could not share here. I will, however, share one final story that I believe depicts not only the sadistic nature of Kurt Franz – the Lalka – but the brutality of the Nazi murderers and life in the camp. This story is retold by Oskar Strawczynski.
“One day, Lalka takes a walk along the platform, self-satisfied and arrogant as usual, hunting rifle on his shoulder, Barry following lazily. As it happens, he notices a Jew, Mr. Sztajer, one of my neighbors from Czestochowa. Without a second thought, he aims his rifle at the Jewish buttocks. Sztajer falls, screaming in pain. Lalka approaches him, laughing, and orders him to get up and pull down his pants, so that he can check his aim. The man doubles up in pain, blood streaming from his lead-filled behind. But Lalka is not satisfied. With a disappointing shrug, he mutters: ‘Damn it! I missed the balls.’ He continues his walk, looking for a new target.” (Id. at 137)
And the killing continued, thousands each day. By the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943, the Germans started to worry that the world would discover the crimes committed at Treblinka. The hundreds of thousands of corpses buried in mass graves were damning evidence. Because of this fear, Stangl received an order that he must begin burning the corpses. Not only the corpses of the new victims, but he must exhume the buried corpses and burn them as well. Of course it was the Jews who were forced to carry out this unspeakable task.
Bodies were exhumed with a huge steam shovel. Train tracks were used to create grills upon which the bodies were burned. By spring 1943, fires burned day and night. It was discovered that women’s bodies burn better than men’s. So women were put on the bottom of the pile and men on the top so that all would burn properly. Oil was poured on the bodies to help the inferno.
As the bodies were burned and transports began to slow, the prisoners were convinced that their end was near. They had heard from the Ukrainian guards that Germans suffered a defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943. With well over 750,000 already murdered, prisoners knew that when the Germans had no further use for them they too would be turned to ash. This led to intensified plans for an uprising.
My next and final Treblinka-post will focus on the plan and execution of the uprising at Treblinka on August 2, 1943. Sam was part of the uprising and it was this event that led to his escape.
PS. I know the picture of the train tracks are from Auschwitz/Birkenau, but I could not find a picture of the train tracks going into Treblinka that I could post here. I found this on Flicker.
Rajzman, Samuel, “The End of Treblinka,” in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY. Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 231-251.
Krzepicki, Abraham, “Seventeen Days in Treblinka,” in Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY. Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 77-145.
Wiernik, Jankiel, “One Year in Treblinka.” Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY. Holocaust Library. 1979 at pp. 147-188.
Strawczynski, Oskar, “Ten Months in Treblinka (October 5, 1943 – August 2, 1943),” in Cymlich & Strawczynski, Escaping Hell in Treblinka. New York, Jerusalem. Yad Vashem and The Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project. 2007 at pp. 121-282.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
Arad, Yitzhak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. 1987.
Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience. New York, NY. Random House.