- killing centers
Location: Labor Camp and Killing Center
Treblinka: Maps Operation Reinhard (also known as Aktion Reinhard) authorities chose the site for the Treblinka killing center in a sparsely populated area near the villages of Treblinka and Malkinia. Malkinia was located on the main Warsaw-Bialystok rail line, about 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, in the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not directly annexed to Germany, attached to German East Prussia, or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union).
In November 1941, under the auspices of the SS and Police Leader for District Warsaw in the Generalgouvernement, SS and police authorities established a forced-labor camp for Jews, known as Treblinka, later as Treblinka I. The camp also served the SS and police authorities as a so-called Labor Education Camp for non-Jewish Poles whom the Germans perceived to have violated labor discipline. Both Polish and Jewish inmates, imprisoned in separate compounds of the labor camp, were deployed at forced labor. The majority of the forced laborers worked in a nearby gravel pit.
In July 1942, the Operation Reinhard authorities completed the construction of a killing center, known as Treblinka II, approximately a mile from the labor camp. When Treblinka II commenced operations, two other Operation Reinhard killing centers, Belzec and Sobibor, were already in operation.
The Treblinka II killing center was located near the Polish village of Wolka Okraglik along the Malkinia-Siedlce railway line. The Germans built a rail spur that led from the labor camp, Treblinka I, to the killing center, Treblinka II, and that connected as well to the Malkinia station. The site of the killing center was heavily wooded and hidden from view.
The camp was laid out in a trapezoid of 1,312 by 1,968 feet. Branches woven into the barbed-wire fence and trees planted around the perimeter served as camouflage, blocking any view into the camp from the outside. Watchtowers 26 feet high were placed along the fence and at each of the four corners.
The camp was divided into three parts: the reception area, the living area, and the killing area. The living area contained housing for German staff and the guard unit. It also contained administrative offices, a clinic, storerooms, and workshops. One section contained barracks that housed those Jewish prisoners selected from incoming transports to provide forced labor to support the camp’s function: mass murder.
The authorities at the Treblinka II killing center consisted of a small staff of German SS and police officials (between 25 and 35) and a police auxiliary guard unit of between 90 and 150 men, all of whom were either former Soviet prisoners of war of various nationalities or Ukrainian civilians selected or recruited for this purpose. All members of the guard unit were trained at a special facility of the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, the Trawniki training camp.
Commandants of the Treblinka II killing center were SS 2nd Lieutenant Dr. Irmfried Eberl from July until August 1942, SS Captain Franz Stangl from August 1942 until August 1943, and SS 2nd Lieutenant Kurt Franz from August 1943 until November 1943. Commandant of the Treblinka labor camp from 1941 through 1944 was SS Captain Theodor van Eupen. Unlike Treblinka II, whose commandant reported to the Operation Reinhard authorities, the commandant of Treblinka I was subordinate to the SS and Police Leader in Warsaw.
Treblinka Incoming trains of about 50 or 60 cars bound for the killing center first stopped at the Malkinia station. Twenty cars at a time were detached from the train and brought into the killing center. The guards ordered the victims to disembark in the reception area, which contained the railway siding and platform. German SS and police personnel announced that the deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables. The reception area also contained a fenced-in "deportation square" with two barracks in which deportees—men separated from women and children—had to undress. It also contained large storerooms, where the possessions that the victims had had to relinquish upon arrival were sorted and stored prior to shipment via Lublin to Germany.
A camouflaged, fenced-in path, known as the "tube," led from the reception area to the gas chamber entrance, located in the killing area. Victims were forced to run naked along this path to the gas chambers, deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, an engine installed outside the building pumped carbon monoxide into the gas chambers, killing those inside. Members of the Sonderkommando (special detachment)—a group of Jewish prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers—worked in the killing area. They removed bodies from the gas chambers and initially buried them in mass graves. In late 1942 and 1943, the Jewish forced laborers had to exhume the already buried bodies and burn them in huge trenches on makeshift “ovens” made of rail track.
Other prisoners selected for temporary survival worked in the administration-reception area, facilitating detraining, disrobing, relinquishment of valuables, and movement into the “tube” of new arrivals. They also sorted the possessions of the murdered victims in preparation for transport to Germany, and were responsible for cleaning out freight cars for the next deportation. German SS and police personnel and the Trawniki-trained auxiliaries periodically murdered the members of these detachments of Jewish laborers, and replaced them with persons selected from newly arriving transports. Those victims who were too weak to reach the gas chambers on their own were told they would receive medical attention. Members of the Sonderkommando carried them to a camouflaged area, which was disguised—with a Red Cross flag—as a hospital. There, SS and police personnel shot them.
Deportations to Treblinka
Deportations to Treblinka came mainly from the ghettos of the Warsaw and Radom districts in Generalgouvernement. Between late July and September 1942, the Germans deported around 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka. Between August and November 1942, SS and police authorities deported around 346,000 Jews to Treblinka II from the Radom District. From October 1942 until February 1943, the Germans deported more than 110,000 Jews from the Bialystok District (a section of German-occupied Poland that was attached administratively to German East Prussia) to Treblinka II. Treblinka also received transports of at least 33,300 Jews from District Lublin.
German SS and police authorities deported Jews to Treblinka from the Bulgarian-occupied zones in Greece (Thrace) and Yugoslavia (Macedonia). They also deported some 8,000 Jews from Theresienstadt in Bohemia to Treblinka II. Other small groups of Jews of undetermined number were killed at Treblinka II; the Germans had deported them from Germany, Austria, France, and Slovakia via various transit locations in the Generalgouvernement. In addition an undetermined number of Roma (Gypsies) and Poles were killed at Treblinka II.
Deportations to Treblinka continued until May 1943. A few isolated transports arrived after that date. Beginning in the fall of 1942, the camp authorities, under orders from Lublin, began to exhume bodies from the mass graves and burn them in order to obliterate the evidence of mass killing. Jewish prisoners were forced to do this grisly work. The burning of corpses continued until the end of July 1943.
Resistance and Revolt in Treblinka
Treblinka Uprising Jewish inmates organized a resistance group in Treblinka in early 1943. When camp operations neared completion, the prisoners feared they would be killed and the camp dismantled. During the late spring and summer of 1943, the resistance leaders decided to revolt. On August 2, 1943, prisoners quietly seized weapons from the camp armory, but were discovered before they could take over the camp. Hundreds of prisoners stormed the main gate in an attempt to escape. Many were killed by machine-gun fire. More than 300 did escape—though two thirds of those who escaped were eventually tracked down and killed by German SS and police as well as military units. Acting under orders from Lublin, German SS and police personnel supervised the surviving prisoners, who were forced to dismantle the camp. After completion of this job, the German SS and police authorities shot the surviving prisoners.
The End of the Treblinka Camps
The Germans had ordered that Treblinka II be dismantled in the fall of 1943. From late July 1942 through September 1943, the Germans killed an estimated 925,000 Jews at the Treblinka killing center, as well as an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs. Treblinka I, the forced-labor camp, continued operations until late July 1944. While the killing center was in operation, some of the arriving Jews were selected and transferred to Treblinka I, while Jews too weak to work at Treblinka I were periodically sent to Treblinka II to be killed. During late July 1944, with Soviet troops moving into the area, the camp authorities and the Trawniki-trained guards shot the remaining Jewish prisoners, between 300 and 700, and hastily dismantled and evacuated the camp. Soviet troops overran the site of both labor camp and killing center during the last week of July 1944.
Series: Killing Centers
Critical Thinking Questions
- To what degree was the German population and the local community in Poland aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about the killing centers? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials? What choices do other countries have in the face of mistreatment of civilians?
- Who worked at the killing centers? What pressures and motivations affected the choice to work there and daily decisions they faced?