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Treblinka Extermination Process (Fall 2012)

            During the period of time spanning from January 30, 1933 to May 8, 1945 Hitler and Nazi Germany would conduct the systematic killing of six million Jews in Europe, known as the Holocaust.  Numerous concentration camps and approximately six death camps existed during this time period; Treblinka was one of them.  Built as part of Operation Reinhard, Treblinka was a German Nazi extermination camp and operated from July 23, 1942 to October 19, 1943.   Strategically built in northeast Generalgouvernement, Treblinka was 2.5 miles off the main line railway, which ran from Warsaw to Bialystok.  Trees were planted around the perimeter while branches were entwined with the barbed wire fence to hide the camp, making it impossible to see in from the outside.  Watchtowers were located on each corner of the camp and were later built throughout. In a little over a year the Nazi’s were able to exterminate an estimated 870,000 men, women, and children.  Among these 800,000 or more were Jews, the rest Romani people.  

            Treblinka started as a forced labor camp for Jews but was later split into two camps: Treblinka I and II.  Treblinka II was built a mile from the original camp, connected by a rail spur that lead from Treblinka I (labor camp) to Treblinka II (death camp).  The first groups of Jewish people to be killed in Treblinka were those from the Warsaw Ghetto.  From then on Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw district, Radom and Lublin districts, and the Bialystok district were murdered at Treblinka.   Being a death camp Treblinka consisted of living, reception, and extermination areas only.  

            Treblinka was the third death camp build as part of Operation Reinhard; therefore, the extermination process used was based off experience the Nazi’s gained at Belzec and Sobibor.  Approaching trains of 50-60 cars, holding around 7,000 people, in route to Treblinka had to first make a stop at Malkinia Station.  Here 20 cars at a time were removed and brought into the camp.  This was done to accommodate the layout of the camp and the short ramps in the upper part of the camp.  One Pole describes the deportation trains arrival: “The car doors were locked from the outside and the air holes covered with barbed wire.  ON the running boards on both side and the roof a dozen soldiers stood or lay with machine guns at the ready.  It was hot and most of the people in the freight cars were deadly exhausted…” (Treblinka Extermination Camp 17).  

            Coming up on the camp, a whistle was blown to alert camp workers to man their positions.  Once the train entered the camp, the gates closed behind it and the car doors opened.  Jews were forced out of the cars and into the “Deportation Square” where a German officer gave them a speech: “You are in a transit camp from which the transport will continue to labor camps.  To prevent epidemics, clothing as well as pieces of baggage are to be handed over for disinfection.  Gold, money, foreign currency, and jewelry are to be deposited at the “Cash Office” against a receipt.  For physical cleanliness, all arrivals must have a bath before traveling on” (Treblinka Extermination Camp 17). 

            From this point on men were separated from women and children.  In a barrack women and children were told to undress. Sometimes in the winter the temperature reached -20 degrees. All belongings were placed in large storerooms.  Men were forced to undress outside.  While in the barracks women’s hair was cut, men’s shaved off. This hair was used to make yarn socks and hair felt foot wear for the railway workers. One of the last things they did was write postcards “that encouraged relatives to move east for resettlement” (Niss 2).  

            From here victims that looked weak were taken near the infirmary and shot, the rest forced to run along a fenced in path, the “tube” which lead from the barracks to the gas chambers, located in the southeastern part of the camp.  One victim describes: “Germans with dogs stood along the fence on both sides.  The German’s hit people with whips and iron bars to spur them on so that they pressed forward into the “showers” as quickly as possible.  The screams of the women could be heard far away, even in other parts of the camp. To escape from the blows, the victims ran to the gas chambers as quickly as they could” (Treblinka Extermination Camp 18).

            The victims were told they were being lead to “showers” to bathe themselves.  These “showers” were contained in a large brick building.   At first glance the chambers appeared to be showers: pipes ran across the ceilings that carried the gas into the chamber, down, into what appeared to be showerheads.  In a separate room that was attached to the gas chamber, housed a diesel motor that would pump the carbon monoxide gas into the chamber.  Victims entered from one side, once all inside a German officer shouted, “Ivan, water!” (Niss 2) which would begin the gassing. The gas chambers had small windows where others on the outside could watch the slow, suffocation of the victims inside.  Men were generally gassed first while the women and children stood outside the chamber awaiting their turn.  During this period the, “women and children could hear the sounds of suffering from inside the gas chamber, and they became well aware of the fate that awaited them, which naturally caused panic and distress, and involuntary defecation” (Treblinka extermination camps 9).   

            Due to the massive numbers of people brought through the camp at a time, the gas chambers were not big enough to hold all of them.  Those who did not make it into the gas chamber were shot in the reception part of the camp.  The gassing process took 30 to 40 minutes before the victims were actually dead.  Sometimes the officers didn’t allow enough time for suffocation and the carbon monoxide poisoning to take place, and the victims inside were still alive.  The doors were resealed and the gas turned back on.  A door on the opposite side was opened once all the victims were dead, the bodies, “standing upright like one single block of flesh” (Treblinka Extermination Camp).  The bodies were then removed from the chambers and searched for any valuables the victims might have been hiding, while extracting their gold teeth.  German’s viewed the Jews to be of no value, having the Star of David taken off their clothing and their identity cards destroyed.

            From there, the bodies were dragged to the burial area.  Originally the victims were buried in massive graves together.  More ditches and gravesites were needed in order for the officers to be able to bury all the people killed within the camp along with those who died on the journey there.  This got to be too callous of work so the workers would drag the bodies to the railroad tracks and burn them.  As the German’s gained more experience they build crematoriums, burning the victim’s bodies.  Inside Treblinka there were two crematoriums located east of the gas chambers.  In the cremation process, “the bodies were placed on grates and burned whole within the wood and ash” (Treblinka extermination camps 9).  The crematoriums were much more affective burning 1,000 bodies in a matter of five hours.  

            In effort to make the camp more effective, improvements were made to the camp to “increase the extermination capacity” (Treblinka extermination camps 9).  Necessary changes were made to the gas chambers, making them larger while lowering the ceiling height.  This made them more efficiently by lowering the amount of gas needed to gas the victims, less space to fill with gas.  This increased the gas chamber capacity from 600 to 3,800 victims.  One Polish man involved in the construction of the camp recalled: “I realized it was to be a gas chamber.  What was indicative of this was a special door of thick steel insulated with rubber, twisted with a bolt and placed in an iron frame, and also the fact that in one of the building compartments, an engine was installed from which three iron pipes led through the roof to the three remaining parts of the building” (Treblinka Death Camp 2).  

             The Jewish ceremonial curtain that was taken from a synagogue hung at the entrance to the gas chambers.  On it the words, “This is the Gateway to God.  Righteous Men will pass through” (Treblinka Death Camp 4) with the Star of David.  Those victims that appeared to weak right out of the rail cars were told they were being sent to the infirmary.  This was an in-closed area with a Red Cross flag at the entrance, where they were then murdered. When the camp first opened the twenty wagons containing 2,000 to 3,000 people would be killed in three to four hours; as German’s gained experience this could be completed in an hour and a half.  

            Upon arriving at Treblinka some of the Jews were not executed right away and became part of the Sonderkommando and were forced into labor, working in the killing areas.  They did all the dirty work of the camp; cleaning the rail cars, the gas chambers after bodies were removed, and buried or burned them afterwards.   Other victims selected to be part laborers “worked in the administration-reception area, facilitating detraining, disrobing, relinquishment of valuables, and movement into the “tube” of new arrivals” (Treblinka Holocaust Encyclopedia 2).  All these tasks were completed in succession of each other to keep the process moving.  For example once the victims were out of the rail cars, they were immediately cleaned and sent out for the next shipment of people.  Immediately after the gas chambers were emptied, they were cleaned so the next group could be pushed in.  Eventually these laborers would be gassed or shot and replaced with new victims entering the camp.  

            Over the short period of a year thousands of innocent Jewish people were killed at Treblinka.  Some victims attempted to escape on the way to the camp, and some tried to escape the camp itself.  Anyone who showed any form of resistance was hanged or executed.  Towards the end of March 1943, German officers at the camp began destroying all evidence.  In July the camp was shut down, most of the buildings/structures destroyed, and the land plowed and planted over.  Treblinka was eventually liquidated; putting an end to all the torturous activates occurring within the barbed wire fence.  The SS Officers and commandants were put on trial, most sentenced to life in prison.  

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