Established: 3 July 1942
Location: 80km north-east of Warsaw
On a bend on the river Bug, three kilometers from the village of Treblinka, a “work camp” (Arbeitslager) for German and Polish prisoners hostile to the Nazi regime was set up in November 1941. The Nazis preferred to keep such prisoners “safe”, and they were used as forced labour in a range of projects until the last days of the war. This camp was known as Treblinka I, a hard camp with a level of repression not dissimiliar to many others, such that few prisoners could resist for long the fatigue, the appalling food, the tortures, and the harshness of the climate. But this was still nothing compared to Treblinka II, the facility constructed next to Treblinka I and specifically equipped to help deliver the “Final Solution”, the genocide of Europe’s Jews.
The expansion of the camp began in May 1942. Barracks, offices, housing for the guard detachments, kitchens, warehouses, laboratories of all kinds, even a fake hospital (the “Lazaret”) with a red cross painted on its roof were all constructed. And to start with, three gas chambers were also built, disguised as showers complete with tiled walls, but no water issued from the pipes: instead, they released the exhaust fumes of a diesel engine, then carbon monoxide, and later the infamous Zyklon B. But these initial facilities proved insufficient, and no less than ten more were later added, such that literally thousands of “special treatments” (Sonderbehandlungen) could be carried out each day. The victims were men, women and children sent in from Poland, Germany, France, Holland, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Greece and Russia, who arrived daily on a ramp at the train station that led directly inside the camp perimeter. There was even a fake railway station, whose doors led to a path that became known as the “road to heaven” (Himmelstrasse).
Before entering (obviously already naked) what appeared to be an ordinary disinfection station with showers, all the inmates were shaved, so that their hair could be collected for industrial usage. Entire trains would leave the camp for the Third Reich, loaded up with clothes, shoes, prosthetic limbs, glasses, babies’ prams, and luggage. Inmates’ money and jewellery, apart from a portion which ended up in the pockets of the guards, was deposited in the SS’ safes, a sum of huge value that to this day no-one can quantify nor identify its final location.
Originally, the bodies were buried in mass graves,and then burnt on huge grills. Some calculations suggested that at least 900,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. It is not known how many other prisoners, notably Soviet prisoners-of-war, were killed without being registered and before they officially entered the camp.
Treblinka was another camp that witnessed a secret underground resistance movement, which organised a rising and a break-out attempt on 2 August 1943. Around 6-700 prisoners managed to overpower their guards, and having set various barracks on fire, forced a passage through the barbed-wire perimeter fence, the fields laden with mines and finally an anti-tank ditch. Many, nearly all, were recaptured and shot. Only 40 managed to survive the merciless hunt the SS conducted for the escapees, and so were able to join up with the partisan formations operating in the area. After this, in the autumn of the same year, the SS decided to close the camp down, and to dispatch the remaining inmates to other camps: they totally destroyed Treblinka with fire and dynamite.
Apart from the memories of the slaughter carried out at the site, today nothing remains of Treblinka. A monument made up of quarry stones symbolizing gravestnes recalls the names of the districts, the villages, the cities and the countries from which the victims of this sinister and terrible site of violence and death had originated.