Tonight and tomorrow, we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day.
When Jacob Richman sent me his list of Holocaust educational sites I was stimulated to learn more about Treblinka, the extermination camp where my father’s mother, father, sister and brother were murdered.
Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were part of “Operation Reinhold,” designed solely to exterminate Jews of the German-occupied area of Soviet Russia (Poland until 1941). Only about 70 prisoners managed to escape from Treblinka and survive the war.
From the Jewish Virtual Library:
The procedure adopted upon the arrival of the trains was the same as that in Sobibor: two German railroad workers, classified as being reliable, took over the transport from the Treblinka station to the extermination camp, a distance of 4 km. The Pole Franciszek Zabecki described the arrival of the deportation train from the Warsaw ghetto:
A small locomotive stood ready in the railroad station to transport the first section of freight cars into the camp. Everything had been planned and prepared in advance. The train consisted of 60 closed freight cars fully loaded with people: young ones, old ones, men and women, children and babies. The car doors were locked from the outside and the air holes covered with barbed wire. On the running boards on both sides and on the roof about a dozen SS-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… As the train came nearer it seemed as if an evil spirit had taken hold of the waiting SS-men. They drew their pistols, returned them to their holsters, pulled them out again, as if they wanted to shoot and kill. They approached the freight cars and tried to reduce the noise and the weeping; but then they screamed at the Jews and cursed them, all the while urging the railroad workers to hurry: “Quick, faster!” After that they returned to the camp in order to receive the deportees. (Franciszek Zabecki, ‘Wspomnienia dawne i nowe’, Warsaw, 1977 pp.39 f)
As the train approached the extermination camp, the engine blew a prolonged whistle which was the signal for the Ukrainians to man their position in the reception sector and on the roofs of the buildings. One group of SS-men and Ukrainians took up positions on the station platform. As soon as the train was moving along the tracks inside the camp, the gates behind it were closed. The deportees were taken out of the freight cars and conducted through a gate to a fenced-in square inside the camp. At the gate they were separated: men to the right, women and children to the left. A large placard announced in Polish and German:
Attention Warsaw Jews! 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 jewellery are to be deposited at the “Cash Office” against a receipt. They will be returned later on presentation of the receipt. For physical cleanliness, all arrivals must have a bath before travelling on.(Verdict of LG Dusseldorf AZ 81 Ks 2/64, p. 81.)
During this first phase, from the beginning to the middle of August, 5,000 – 7,000 Jews arrived every day in Treblinka. Then the pace of the transports increased; there were days on which 10,000 – 12,000 deportees reached the camp, together with thousands who were already dead and others who were utterly exhausted.
Abraham Goldfarb, who arrived there on August 25, described the scene:
When we arrived in Treblinka and the Germans opened the freight cars we beheld a horrible sight. The car was full of corpses. The bodies were partly decomposed by chlorine. The stench in the cars made those still alive choke. The Germans ordered everyone to get out; those still able to do so were half dead. Waiting SS and Ukrainians beat us and shot at us…
On the way to the gas chambers Germans with dogs stood along the fence on both sides. The dogs had been trained to attack people; they bit the men’s genitals and the women’s breasts, ripping off pieces of flesh. The Germans hit the 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 the other parts of the camp. The Germans drove the running victims on with shouts of: “Faster, faster, the water will get cold, others still have to go under the showers!” To escape from the blows, the victims ran to the gas chambers as quickly as they could, the stronger ones pushing the weaker aside. At the entrance to the gas chambers stood the two Ukrainians, Ivan Demaniuk and Nikolai, one of them armed with an iron bar, the other with a sword. They drove the people inside with blows… As soon as the gas chambers were full, the Ukrainians closed the doors and started the engine. Some 20-25 minutes later an SS-man or a Ukrainian looked through a window in the door. When they had ascertained that everyone had been asphyxiated, the Jewish prisoners had to open the doors and remove the corpses. Since the chambers were overcrowded and the victims held on to one another, they all stood upright and were like one single block of flesh. (Yad Vashem Archives 0-3/2140)
Breakdowns and interruptions occurred in the operation of the gas chambers. During the initial phase the personnel did not know how long it would take to asphyxiate the victims. On occasion the doors were opened too early and the victims were still alive, so that the doors had to be closed again. The engines which produced the gas occasionally failed. If such mishaps occurred when the victims were already inside the gas chambers, they were left standing there until the engines had been repaired. Some 268,000 Jews met their deaths in the first extermination wave in Treblinka, which lasted five weeks–from July 23 to August 28, 1942.
By April 1943, when the Nazis closed Treblinka and tried to erase evidence of its existence, more than 750,000 Jews had been gassed there.