Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

The former Nazi extermination camp Treblinka

In a forest just northeast of Warsaw, there is a path lined with rows of concrete blocks. These blocks mark the positions of the old railway track that once led to the former Nazi extermination camp Treblinka.Treblinka was one of three such camps (the others being Belzec and Sobibor) built by the Nazis as part of Aktion Reinhard, the second and deadliest phase of the Final Solution. Construction of the camp was completed between May and July of 1942, with the first railway transport of victims arriving at Treblinka in July from the Warsaw ghetto. In total the site of Treblinka covered 17 hectares, almost completely camouflaged by the surrounding forest.

Treblinka was made up of two units: Treblinka I and Treblinka II. Treblinka I was a forced labour camp. Prisoners were made to work in gravel pits and in the forest, gathering fuel for cremation pits. Between 1941 and 1944, more than half of Treblinka I’s 20,000 inmates had been killed, if not by shootings or physical abuse, then by starvation or disease. Treblinka II was an extermination camp. From July 1942 to August 1943, carbon monoxide gas was used in gas chambers to murder hundreds of people at a time. Overall, between 780,000 and 925,000 Jewish prisoners were murdered during this period, most murdered within just hours of arriving at the camp. It was this systematic efficiency that turned Treblinka into one of the most deadly killing centres of the Nazi regime, second only to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Monument at Treblinka II death camp
Picture by Adrian Grycuk - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Poland license.

The transportations to Treblinka began on the 23rd July 1942 and from then to September, daily transports arrived at Treblinka from Warsaw, amounting to over 241,000 Jews. They were transported in appalling conditions, in freight wagons with windows of barbed wire. Chil Rajchman, a survivor of Treblinka, was on one of these transports and described the journey to the camp in his book ‘Treblinka a Survivor's Memory': “There are about 140 of us in the freight wagon, it is extraordinary tight with dense, stale air, all of us pressed against one another”. On these transports there was little-to-no access to food or water and for most journeys (which could last for days) those on the train went without. Many of the people on these transports were unaware of where they were headed, what Treblinka was and what took place there. Some hoped they were being sent to a work camp or to the East as they had been told.

Stone memorial at Treblinka resembling the original cremation pit. It is a flat grave marker constructed of crushed and cemented black basalt symbolising burnt charcoal.
Picture by Adrian Grycuk - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Poland license.

The majority of Treblinka's victims were Jews from the General Government region, a Nazi occupied territory created in 1939 by the Nazis from those areas of Poland which were not directly incorporated into Germany or the Soviet Union – this included many of Poland’s major Jewish communities such as Warsaw, Kraków and Lublin. However, thousands of Jews were also transported from elsewhere in Europe, and over 2000 Romani people are also thought to have been murdered at Treblinka.

Given Treblinka was an extermination camp, few new arrivals would survive longer than a day. After disembarking, they would be told they had arrived at a Transit camp where they would be cleaned before being taken to labour camps. Men and women were made to separate - children with the latter - and were forced to undress before being led to the gas chambers. Some Jews were selected for manual work, thereby forced to support the operation of the camp (such as cleaning and cremating the dead). This group of prisoners were known as the Sonderkommando, and scarcely survived longer than a couple weeks before being murdered themselves and replaced by new arrivals.

The last survivor of the Treblinka revolt, Samuel Willenberg and professor Paweł Śpiewak, Director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland at commemorations on the 70th anniversary of the revolt.
Picture by Adrian Grycuk - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Poland license.

Despite the persecution faced by victims at Treblinka, on 2nd August 1943, Jewish prisoners revolted during an uprising. After months of planning, the prisoners took arms and headed for the main gate, and despite being under gunfire, several hundred of those imprisoned were able to escape the camp. Jankiel Wiernik was a survivor of Treblinka and took part in the uprising. Later in life he described the moment the revolt began: “We leaped to our feet. Everyone fell to his prearranged task and performed it with meticulous care". Around 700 of the camp’s 840 prisoners took part in the revolt, with around 200 successfully escaping.

Resistance during the Holocaust took place in many different ways and this is a key example. The bravery and determination shown by victims of the Holocaust, in spite of the risk and persecution they faced, is truly inspiring. This is why it is important as Ambassadors that we ensure their incredible stories are told and remembered.

By Curtis Burbidge, Holly Edgar and Jack Thurlow