Channel 5 broadcast a TV documentary titled Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp in the UK on Wednesday 27 November 2013. It is available from the 5 On Demand catch up service until 22:30 UK time on 27 November 2014. I am not certain if there are any geographical restrictions, but I would be surprised if it works outside the UK. Channel 5 documentaries are often subsequently shown globally on the History or Discovery channels.
Channel 5’s website describes the programme as follows:
This revealing documentary follows a team of British archaeologists who have been granted unprecedented access to excavate and investigate one of Hitler’s most notorious extermination camps, 50 years after it was dismantled.
Between 1942 and 1943, the Nazis murdered more than 800,000 people at Treblinka in north east Poland, brutally exploiting many more as slave labour. Today no visible traces of those atrocities remain. The Nazis dismantled the camp in 1943 in an attempt to conceal what had happened there.
In the summer of 2013, British archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls led a team that carried out the first ever comprehensive forensic investigation of the camp’s remains. Her goal was to piece together the grim mechanics of industrialised slaughter that were used there, using a combination of forensic detective work, aerial surveys and, for the first time, archaeological digs.
This film follows Caroline and the team as they get to work at Treblinka, uncovering the location and remains of the camp and detailing its key structures, including the processing rooms, gas chambers and burial pits. Drawing on testimony from one of the last survivors of the camp and newly-discovered documentary sources, the programme provides a new, visceral and compelling narrative of one of the darkest chapters in human history.
Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls is a forensic archaeologist who works with the police on murder and missing persons cases. She has spent six years using the skills that this work has taught her to carry out forensic archaeology on the site of mass murders.
There were two camps at Treblinka. Treblinka 1 was a labour camp that was set up in 1941 for Polish Gentile and Jewish prisoners. About 20,000 died by starvation, torture and execution.
Treblinka 2 was set up in 1942 purely to murder people. A handful of prisoners were used to operate the camp, but most were killed soon after arrival. Almost all the victims were Jewish, but some were Roma, a point that the programme did not mention.
The Germans destroyed the camp in 1943, planting trees on its site. This means that the exact layout of the camp is not known. Survivors and former guards have produced plans, but these have been drawn from memory years after the event, so are not identical.
The use of airborne lidar produces images with the vegetation stripped away, revealing features in the ground that are otherwise hard to spot . These can then be archaeologically investigated to see if they are sites of historic significance.
Lidar revealed a number of depressions that may be unknown mass graves near Treblinka 1. No physical evidence of the gas chambers of Treblinka 2 has ever been discovered, but lidar revealed possible sites.
Investigation of the possible mass graves at Treblinka 1 discovered human bones, including those of children. A survivor, who had been sent there in 1942 when he was 15, recounted the brutality of the guards. On one occasion they chopped up a prisoner with axes whilst he was still alive. The injuries that he would have received were consistent with wounds on one of the bones found.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, put Odilo Globocnik, an Austrian Nazi who commanded the Police and SS units in Lublin, in charge of Aktion Reinhard, the murder of the Jews of occupied Poland. Globocnik was ordered to build three death camps at Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor, transport the Jews to them, seize their assets and valuables for the Reich and kill them in 18 months.
Colls was keen to find the site of the gas chambers at Treblinka. She visited Majdanek, a German concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, in order to inspect its gas chambers. She wanted to know what types of building materials were used to build it in order to help her know what to look for at Treblinka.
The archaeologists faced an enormous challenge because of the efficiency of the clean up. No buildings and only a small number of witnesses survived. The first account was by Vasily Grossman, who pieced together a number of accounts just after Treblinka was liberated by the Red Army in 1944. He wrote that flames from the grill pits used to burn the corpses of the dead were visible from 30-40km away. Local peasants were forced to scatter the ashes along the road to Treblinka 1.
Fragments of cremated human bones are still present on the surface. Colls took advice from the Chief Rabbi of Israel about the treatment of remains. He advised that bones should be buried, and that excavation should stop if a mass grave is found.
The second commandant of Treblinka was Franz Stangl, another Austrian Nazi. Like many of the personnel at the Aktion Reinhard death camps, he had previously worked in the T4 Euthanasia programme, the murder of mentally and physically disabled people by the Nazi regime. The methods used in it, including using carbon monoxide to gas the victims and the methods of disposing of the corpses were repeated on a much greater scale in Aktion Reinhard.
When Stangl arrived at Treblinka he encountered corpses from 15 to 20 minutes drive away. He attempted to replace a chaotic system with production line efficiency, but it remained savage.
Colls was curious to know how much the victims knew of what awaited them. The problem was that what happened was so far beyond what could be imagined. The Jews arrived at Treblinka exhausted, dehydrated and with no idea of where they were.
She visited Warsaw, where she met a historian and a woman who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto. She was aged six in 1942, when the Germans murdered her father. She and her mother escaped the Ghetto before deportations to Treblinka began in July 1942.
Around 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw in 1939, a third of the city’s population. Deportations from surrounding areas took the Ghetto’s population to over 400,000, who were crammed into a small area. Starvation and disease were rife, with about 83,000 Jews dying between 1940, when the Ghetto was sealed, and July 1942. At least 300,000 more were killed at Treblinka.
There is limited, but clear, eye-witness evidence of the gassing process. Accounts from the war crimes trial of Willi Mentz, an SS NCO, testimony of Pavel Leleko, a Ukrainian Guard, the memoirs of Franciszeck Zabecki, the local station master, and a report by Abraham Krzepicki, one of the few Jews to see the gas chambers and live, were read out. The programme spelt Krzepicki’s name as Zrzepicki, but all other sources spell his name with a K. He escaped and recounted his experiences, but did not survive the war.
Samuel Willenberg, the only person from the 6,000 on his train from Opatow to Treblinka to survive, was interviewed. He met a friend on arrival, who told him what was happening at the camp, and warned him to tell the Germans that he had a trade, so that he might be selected for slave labour.
There were two sets of gas chambers, and the lidar evidence suggested their possible locations. Excavations at the larger one produced sand and stones but no building materials. It appeared that the 1943 cover up had buried it, and that the ground level was now much higher than in 1943.
Colls, however, was convinced by her experience working with the police that was not possible to hide all clues at crime scene this large. Digging then began at the possible site of smaller gas chamber, which was the first to be built. It had also been buried underneath sand, but not as much sand had been used in this case. Items such as combs, coins, pendants, jewellery and false teeth were found.
Krzepicki wrote that the gas chambers looked like the shower rooms of a public bath house with white tiles on walls and terracotta ones on the floor. White and terracotta tiles with stars of David on them were found at the suspected site of the second gas chamber, along with bricks and concrete. The Germans are known to have put a Star of David on the outside of the gas chamber as part of their attempt to disguise it as a bath house, so may well have continued this deception inside.
Less than 80 of the 1.6m Jews sent to the Aktion Reinhard camps survived. At the better known Auschwitz a higher proportion of the Jews were selected for slave labour, but almost all died the day they arrived at the Aktion Reinhard ones. The programme ended with the burial of the bones that were found, the first time that the remains of Treblinka victims have had a proper interment. More archaeology work is planned in 2014.
Unfortunately the programme did not put the names of people interviewed on the screen, and I would not like to guess at spelling a Polish name that I have only heard spoken, so I have not been able to name some of the interviewees. The names of now deceased survivors or guards whose recollections were read out were put on-screen, and I recognised Samuel Willenberg from previous TV documentaries on Treblinka.