Treblinka Death Camp

The rail lines leading to the Treblinka Death Camp.
This way led to Treblinka. Here passed all transports of Jews from almost all Europe destinated for annihilation in Treblinka death camp. Warsaw. Modavian. About 1943. Photograph. (Photo by Votava/Imagno/Getty Images)

During the Holocaust, Treblinka was one of the deadliest Nazi death camps -- a site where an estimated 870,000 people were murdered in just 15 months. Located in the forested, northern region of Nazi-occupied Poland approximately 31 miles (50 km) northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka began as a forced labor camp (established in November 1941) but expanded to include a death camp in July 1942.

A prisoner revolt on August 2, 1943 saw the successful escape of 70 prisoners; however, the prisoners’ effort to burn down the camp was unsuccessful.

The Treblinka Death Camp continued to operate until October 1943; after which it was razed to the ground and a farmhouse built on top.

Creation of the Camp System – Treblinka I

The Treblinka camp system was initially established on November 15, 1941 by the SS as a forced labor camp outside the Polish villages of Treblinka and Malkinia. Jews, Poles, and criminals were sent to the forced-labor camp called Treblinka, which later became known as Treblinka I when the nearby death camp opened in 1942.

The forced-labor component of the camp focused on work in a nearby quarry and, as the camp system expanded, harvesting of firewood from the nearby forests for the operation of the death camp. On average, the camp’s workforce contained between 1,000 and 2,000 workers that were predominantly male.

Following the expansion of the camp, female workers served a larger role by performing the function of sorting and repairing clothing from the death camp before its subsequent shipment to the German interior.

Men and women were housed in separate areas of Treblinka I and after July 1942, prisoners were also further separated into groups of Jews and non-Jews.

Treblinka I was overseen by Commandant/Sturmbannführer Theodor van Eupen. Van Eupen was aided in the camp’s administration by SS officers and a large contingent of volunteer guards known as “Hiwis” (slang from the German term Hilfswilliger, or volunteer assistant).

The Hiwis were traditionally Eastern Europeans who saw an opportunity to raise their status under the occupying German forces.  Between 1941 and 1944, it is estimated that 20,000 prisoners passed through Treblinka I with a 50% mortality rate due to camp’s harsh conditions and the camp staff’s lack of respect for human life.

Establishment of the Death Camp

Following the formalization of the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, the SS decided to establish three death camps. The three camps, in order of establishment, were Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The three camps were supported by a warehouse camp outside of Lublin, known as Majdanek, which also had a substantial gassing operation.

The system was initially overseen by SS Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich; however, Heydrich was assassinated by the Czech resistance in May 1942. Two months after his death, this deadly camp system was named after him by being called “Operation Reinhard.”

Construction on the Treblinka Death Camp, officially called Treblinka II, began on April 10, 1942. The labor to create the camp was primarily provided by German Jews who had spent some time in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The death camp was located 1.2 miles (2 km) from Treblinka I and was divided into three sections.

Each of these sections specifically existed to further the process of exterminating European Jewry.

Section 1: Camp Administration

The first section of the camp was devoted to camp administration, living space, and workshops that supported the camp’s primary purpose. The camp was staffed by approximately 20 to 30 SS and police officials. They were supported by anywhere from 90 to 120 Hiwis, who were largely of Ukranian and Russian descent.

The Germans and Eastern Europeans were housed separately within the administrative section of the camp. Additional barracks were also set aside for the 700 to 1,000 Jewish prisoners who worked in the workshops, who cooked and cleaned laundry, and those who staffed the gas chamber and crematoria.

In addition to living space and administrative buildings, the first section of the camp also included workshops to support the gassing operations.

A kitchen, bakery, and dining rooms were also located in this section of the camp and were filled with items taken from Jews in nearby ghettos and transports into the camp itself.

A medical barrack and stable rounded out the buildings in the administrative section. Later, SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz, the final commandant at Treblinka, established a small zoo next to the stables to house animals that he brought with him to the camp.

Section 2: The “Reception” Area

The second section of the camp, known as the “reception” or “unloading” area, was the location encountered first by the vast majority of the individuals who set foot on the approximately 40-acre property. It was here that the rail spur that went into the Treblinka II camp reached its end point and were the trains loaded with approximately seven thousand victims would arrive.

The deception in this area of the camp was quite elaborate.  Individuals who arrived at the reception area encountered a pseudo-rail station, complete with signage and a clock.

After undergoing an often traumatic unloading of the rail cars, the victims were taken to the “deportation square.” Told they were going to have their clothes disinfected and to take a shower, the men were ordered into one undressing barrack and the women and children into another.

Here they were forced to remove their clothing and surrender their valuables at a cashier’s table, where they were falsely told that the items would be returned to them at a later time. After the initial processing, women had their heads shaved by prisoner-barbers.

The victims were then forced into a corridor that led them into the third section of the camp, where the gassing took place.

Elderly, infirm and difficult prisoners often did not go along this same path and instead were taken behind a false medical infirmary where they were executed by bullets.  Their bodies were then burned in a pit, along with any paper documents brought by the victims.

Section 3: The “Killing” Area

The third section of the camp was not visible from the reception zone; an earthen retaining wall separated the killing area from the railroad line and reception area.

The chief method of entering the killing zone was through a corridor known as “the tube” (Schlauch), through which naked victims were forced to run.  (The Sonderkommando also euphemistically called the tube the “Road to Heaven.”)

The victims ran until they reached a brick building falsely labeled as “showers,” but which really held three 13 by 13 feet (4 by 4 m) gas chambers. Once inside one of the gas chambers, the entrance was sealed shut and the tightly-packed victims were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide gas that was pumped into the gas chamber from a nearby tank engine.

As long as the engine ran correctly, the process took about 20 to 30 minutes. Post-war reports from SS officials claimed an initial capacity of 3,000 people every three hours.

In the late summer 1942, a new gas chamber structure was built with a much larger capacity. The additional building had ten gas chambers, with exhaust from two engines providing the carbon monoxide for the chamber’s function.

The increase in capacity purportedly could kill around 20,000 people per day; however, the chambers were not often used at full capacity and instead averaged around 12,000 to 15,000 victims in a 24-hour period.

After the victims were gassed, the Sonderkommando carried the bodies to nearby pits. Initially, the bodies were simply buried in mass graves in the area surrounding the gas chamber. In late 1942, however, this policy was changed and the bodies were burned in nearby cremation pits.

In February/March 1943, Heinrich Himmler visited Treblinka and ordered that all mass graves were to be dug up and the bodies burned. Himmler wanted to get rid of all evidence of what had been done at Treblinka.

The Revolt at Treblinka

As the German military began to experience its initial wave of losses in early 1943, underground networks sent word to the Sonderkommando at Treblinka. Fearing a termination of their own lives, a group of prisoners dubbed “The Organizing Committee” began to make plans for a mass revolt and subsequent escape.

The Committee was led by former Polish military officer Dr. Julian Chorazycki until Chorazycki was caught arranging for the purchase of weapons in April 1943. Rather than risk revealing his co-conspirators during torture, Chorazycki committed suicide using a vial of cyanide he had procured.

His chief collaborators, Marceli Galewski (who was known as the “camp elder”), Zev Kurland (the camp hospital’s “Kapo”), Jankiel Wiernik (camp carpenter), Dr. Irena Lewkowska (who worked in the guard’s hospital), and Zelo Bloch (a former army officer from Czechoslovakia) continued the efforts to plan the uprising.

Fueled by news of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, the pieces slowly came together in the summer of 1943.

On August 2, 1943, after obtaining a crucial key to the camp’s weapons storeroom, the uprising began. Prisoners set about killing as many SS officials and guards as possible while simultaneously setting fire to the camp’s buildings.

Other prisoners cut the barbed wire fence allowing approximately 300 prisoners to escape. Two hundred prisoners were recaptured during an extensive manhunt. Those who survived the capture were then executed.

Approximately 70 escapees managed to survive the war, including Wiernik, who wrote an account of his experiences the following year while in hiding with Polish rescuers. The account was smuggled out by members of the Jewish underground and sent to the Allied powers.

Aftermath of the Revolt

Unfortunately, the Treblinka Uprising did not render the gas chambers inoperable and the gassings continued into October 1943, when Odilo Globocnik terminated “Operation Reinhard.”

A number of members of the Sonderkommando were kept behind while the others were sent to Sobibor to be gassed.  The remaining members dismantled the gassing and cremation facilities and constructed a farmhouse with the remnants in the former administrative section of the Treblinka II facility. 

A former Ukranian Hiwi, Oswald Strebel, took up residence in the farmhouse with his family and was instructed to tell any outsiders that he had lived on and farmed the surrounding land for decades.

Treblinka I continued to be operational until July 1944. The work in the forest ceased since the wood was no longer needed for the operations of Treblinka II; however, the labor in the quarry continued until the camp’s end.

Although the remains of Treblinka II were completely destroyed, killings in Treblinka I continued by execution until the end.

Discovery by Soviet Forces

Soviet forces moved into the area surrounding Treblinka in late July 1944; however, they did not officially enter the former camp complex until August 16.  Direct evidence of the genocide was present in the ground despite the attempts by the SS officials to cover up their crimes before fleeing.

Eyewitnesses reported finding remnants of bone, teeth, hair, and personal objects throughout the topsoil that had been hastily spread and planted before the SS evacuation. Additionally, human ashes were found strewn between the two camps.

Post-War Trials of Treblnka Officials

Two trials were held in the post-war era that specifically addressed the crimes committed at Treblinka.

In the first trial (held from October 12, 1964 to August 24, 1965), the last commandant of Treblinka, Kurt Franz, and ten subordinates were charged with crimes related to the extermination of Jews at Treblinka.

Franz was sentenced to life in prison, the highest sentence in Germany at that time. Three of the other SS officials were also sentenced to life in prison while five others were sentenced to terms ranging from three to twelve years. SS Unterscharführer Otto Horn, affiliated with the Totenlager or corpse detail, was acquitted and SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Küttner died before the first trial in 1964.

The second trial related to crimes at Treblinka took place from May 13 to December 22, 1970. It focused on one defendant, former commandant Franz Stangl, who was the overseer of the camp at the height of its gassing operations.

Stangl had fled to Brazil in the immediate post-war period and was extradited from there in 1967. In addition to his crimes at Treblinka, Stangl was also found guilty of wrongdoing in relation to the Hadamar euthaniasia center and his role as the first commandant at the Sobibor Death Camp. He was sentenced to life in prison but died just over six months into his term in June 1971.

Before his death, Stangl consented to a series of interviews with journalist Gitta Sereny, who then published the interviews in a book entitled Into That Darkness.

Treblinka Today

In 1958, the Soviet Union officially opened a memorial on the site of the former death camp. In 1964, it was declared a national memorial to commemorate the martyrs of the Soviet regime killed by the Nazi government. This approach was common to memorials on sites located within the Soviet Union.

Following the breakdown of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the memorial was revamped and expanded and a museum was opened in the former home of the memorial’s maintenance manager.