Tag Archives: Treblinka

Treblinka: Inside Hitler’s Secret Death Camp – Channel 5

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.

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Voices from the Ghetto – BBC World Service

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a radio programme called Voices from the Ghetto. It is available to listen to from this link. It is shown as being available for over a year and I do not think that there are any geographic restrictions on listening to radio programmes from the BBC website.

It tells the story of an archive of documents that was buried under the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II by an organisation called Oneg Shabbat (Joy of the Sabbath). The original idea came from Emanuel Ringelblum, a teacher and left wing political activist, who wanted to record what was happening to the 500,000 Jews in the Ghetto.

The OS collected diaries, poems, songs, reports, surveys, posters, paintings, sketches, maps, tram tickets and even sweet wrappings. It was intended to be both a chronicle and a warning.

The programme was narrated by Monica Whitlock and used the OS archive to tell the story of the Ghetto. Modern actors and singers read from its documents and sang songs collected by OS. One of the few survivors of the Ghetto, Janina Davidowicz, described her experiences. She now lives in Britain and writes under the name Janina David.  A previous BBC World Service radio programme in its Witness series gave a longer account of her experiences in the Ghetto.

Ringelblum built up a network of reporters and typists from his political connections and trusted friends. Everything was recorded in triplicate. For security reasons, nobody knew everything; there was what the programme said would now be called an information firewall.

There was believed to be a need to record events as they happened. The hope was to record every facet of Jewish life in the Ghetto. The situation of Warsaw’s Jews was dire from the start, even though nobody could predict how it would end; in 1940-41 most expected to survive the war.

Warsaw was bombed in the first month of the war, September 1939. More civilians were killed in Poland that month than have died in 8 years of war in 21st century Iraq.

Warsaw was called the Paris of the east; a third of its population were Jews. The Germans divided it into three parts; German, Polish and Jewish. Many Poles and Jews therefore had to re-locate. Jews from other parts of Poland were sent to Warsaw, meaning that the already over-crowded Ghetto contained 50% more Jews than had lived in the city before the war.

Disease and starvation were rife in the Ghetto, which survived only thanks to smuggling; you could not exist on the official rations. Children were good smugglers because they could get through small gaps, but were in great danger. Large numbers were shot by the Germans, but the smuggling continued.

Many people tried to survive by selling goods. Some ended up clad only in blankets in the style of Ghandi. Beggars were stripped of their clothes after they died. Janina Davidowicz said that people had to learn to step over the corpses.

There were some telephones in the Ghetto. OS recorded Wladyslaw Szlengel’s poem Telephone, which was about an inhabitant of the Ghetto who had a telephone, but nobody to ring except the Speaking Clock.

The Germans allowed Poles only primary schools and completely banned education for Jews. The penalty for educating Jewish children was death for the teachers, parents and children. Despite this, secret schools were established; there was believed to be a need to educate children for after the war.

There were restaurants, night clubs and orchestras for those who had money. Some events were held at the Femina Theatre; the Femina Cinema in modern Warsaw is on the same site.  Janina Davidowicz related that she attended a charity performance to raise funds for the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak.

OS received reports of the slaughter of Jews elsewhere, which it sent to London and New York via the Polish Underground. Its funds were tiny and it was left with a dilemma. Should it save the most talented? Or buy guns? What was point in collecting pieces of paper if everybody was to die? Some consoled themselves with the thought that the Germans could kill thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands but surely not 500,000?

The Jewish Symphony Orchestra rehearsed Beethoven’s ninth symphony with The Ode to Joy translated to Hebrew. It had no French horns, oboes or bassoons, so used saxophones. There was no paper for scores, so the musicians played from memory. The Germans suspended it in April 1942 because it had played Aryan music, but it continued to rehearse.

OS regarded 26 June 1942 as a great day because the BBC broadcast its reports of the fate of Polish Jewry, showing that its work not had not been in vain.

However, the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began on 22 July. At first people packed bags believing/hoping that they were going to a better life in work camps. OS documents for this period read out in the programme recorded the weather and the numbers deported in a matter of fact manner.

By the end of the deportations on 24 September there had been a depopulation unknown even in plagues. OS recorded that 253,742 Jews had been deported in 46 days. Others had earlier died of disease or starvation or had been killed by the Germans.

Those left in the Ghetto measured their life expectancy in weeks rather than months. Weapons were smuggled in and holes were knocked in walls and cellars, giving the Jews the ability to move between houses without going into the street. The month long Ghetto Uprising ended in mid-May 1943; the Ghetto was then destroyed.

In order to preserve OS’s record, Ringelblum had thousands of documents packed into 10 tin boxes and buried in August 1942. Other caches were buried later. He still looked for writers to record the end of European Jewry. Scraps of notebooks thrown from trains and reports from escapees from Treblinka were gathered and sent to London and New York by the Polish Underground.

Ringelblum, his wife and son were caught and shot in March 1944. Janina Davidowicz was smuggled to out of the Ghetto. Her father died in Majdanek. He was offered the chance to escape but too said he was too weak to do so. He asked one of the escapees to take a message to Janina, which he did after the war.

Most of the menbers of OS died at Treblinka.  There were three survivors; the journalist Rachel Auerbach, Bluma Wasser, a typist, and her husband Hersch, who had jumped from a train to Treblinka.

In 1946 they found 10 grimy metal boxes, containing part of the archive. In 1950 workmen building a housing estate discovered 2 milk churns full of documents. The two finds totalled 35,000 documents and artifacts. The third and largest cache has never been discovered. It is thought to have been buried near where the Chinese Embassy now stands. In 2003 a team dug down into its  garden, but they found only burnt scraps of a diary.

See also:

Kassow, Samuel, Who will Write our History?: Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (London: Penguin, 2009. Originally published by Indiana University Press, 2007).

Note that the name of the body that gathered these documents is given as Oneg Shabbat, Oyneg Shabbes, Oyneg Shabes and Oyneg Shabbos by the various sources used in this post. The archive is often now called the Ringelblum Archive. The originals belong to the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has digital copies.

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