Treblinka

NB: The following article contains content that some people may find distressing.

Few episodes in recorded history come close to reflecting the potential for horror and brutality humans can inflict upon each other; than the fifteen months of industrialised genocide, perpetrated approximately three kilometres south of a tiny railway siding in eastern Poland named Treblinka.

And while the devastation of human life at this weeping sore on the soul of humanity was second only to Auschwitz in its homicidal rage and violence; its short time-frame, relatively small geographical area and highly methodical approach to wholesale slaughter, is surely impossible to fully comprehend.

Treblinka began its journey into darkest infamy with the establishment of an Arbeitslager (work-camp) on the 1st of September 1941; two years to the day after outright hostilities broke out in Europe.

Its initial prisoners were to be found within the local civilian populations who were sentenced for real or imagined offences and subsequently put to work in the nearby quarry or adjoining forests.

In response to recommendations set out during the Wannsee Conference which took place on the 20th of January 1942, an additional camp was ordered to be built nearby which would be exclusively employed in carrying out directives for Aktion Rheinhard; part of the Final Solution to the Jewish question in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The man who was chosen to manage this desired grisly undertaking was one Franz Stangl. Stangl had caught the eye of his previous commanders during the Nazis’ initial stages of coordinated murder against the intellectually disabled known as the T-4 Euthanasia Programme at Hartheim.

His proficiency and zeal in the efficient coordination of killing had been furthermore noticed with some degree of satisfaction when he had been appointed Reichsfuhrer-SS of the Sobibor extermination camp.

By this time it was believed by the Nazi high command that Stangl’s talents and natural acumen were just the things required to add order to the newly formed camp at Treblinka which had been experiencing difficulties in response to the volume of people arriving from the recently liquidated Warsaw Ghetto.

One problem which existed was born from the high levels of intoxication that both the officers’ guards Sonderkommando and locomotive drivers had a proclivity towards. While a certain degree of alcohol and other drugs were essential in assisting with the inevitable fraying of nerves and psychological degradation such work resulted in, it was also something that needed to be closely monitored at the risk of compromising the smooth running of the camp’s operational duties.

Of particular concern was the frequent refusal members of the Sonderkommando would display in regards to the handling of masses of corpses which had been left out in the elements for too long.

The nature of decomposition, particularly on warmer days, would reach such a stage of putrefaction that workers occasionally opted for a preference of being shot instead of descending once more into the maggot-ridden pit of rotting flesh mixed with human excreta.

So, on the 1st of September 1942, Stangl stepped down from the railway siding in this tiny scattering of buildings, to assume command of the coming storm against the Jewish people.

Wearing a crisp clean white uniform and carrying a riding crop he would become known to the unfortunate inmates over the proceeding months as the White Death.

Stangl quickly made his mark on Treblinka with his attention to detail, discipline and administrative skills. Soon the camp was ready to receive its allocated ‘cargo’ for processing with a newfound sense of order and calm fortitude.

During the following twelve months, Treblinka would prove the final destination for close to seven hundred thousand Jews whose existences would be brutally wiped out and eventually ground into the soil of eastern Poland.

The steady stream of rail traffic, aided by copious amounts of vodka to alleviate the fraying nerves of the drivers, continued on throughout the remainder of the year and well into 1943.

Upon arrival at the small railway siding from nearby Malkinia Gorna, passengers would be told that they would be stopping only for a brief rest before continuing their journey further eastwards into the Ukraine for ‘resettlement’.

Fake signs including fictitious timetables attesting to this ruse were also employed in an attempt to maintain calm amongst the distressed remaining survivors of the cramped and suffocating cattle cars.

Stangl, dressed in his white attire, would oversee the disembarkation with a seemingly polite and calm demeanour. The arrivals were then told of their intended estimated departure time, after which they would be invited down a nearby path to an awaiting series of trucks to deliver them to the camp with a promise of being provided with rest and refreshments.

Upon entering the camp, the newly arrived deportees were met with a hostile welcome as the awaiting guards used clubs and whips to round them up and force them to strip naked at the first stage of the process of annihilation. Afterwards these unfortunate people were marched down a short branch-covered walkway known as the ‘funnel’ (also commonly referred to as ‘the road to heaven’) to the ‘delousing’ chambers where the professional barbers awaited to cut their hair which would be transported back to Germany, before being systematically gassed to death by the use of carbon monoxide; pumped through the looming cold concrete enclosure by the use of a well-maintained engine. As a rule, the men would be the first to meet their fate; at times needing to be forced in through the use of whips, followed by the women and children who; in the absence of their brothers, husbands, sons and fathers, usually needed no such encouragement. As the screams of their menfolk were heard through the interminable minutes waiting a ‘death panic’ was often experienced by these freezing huddled few, manifested by the involuntary emptying of bowels and bladders before meeting the inevitable end which some chose to rush towards in an embrace of restful finality.

From whistle to smoke this process would be finely tuned to a time of just under two hours, with the eventual result providing one more small but essential bite out of an entire race of unique people.

During a visit to the camp by Heinrich Himmler in late February and early March of 1943, a new order was given to exhume all bodies previously buried and cremate these remains. This directive had been given, in partial response to fears from the Nazi high command who were concerned about ways to fully obfuscate all evidence concerning the extermination processes which had been carried out so far.

So, the corpses of hundreds of thousands were once more defiled as their once vital hopes, dreams, endeavours and loves were systematically dug up and piled on the mounting funeral pyres. What remained was bludgeoned into fine dust with hammers and mallets, then ground into the surrounding soils by tractors in an attempt to obliterate all traces of their presence.

By the middle of 1943, the nucleus of a desperate and determined group of slave labourers within Treblinka had formulated a plan intended to both destroy the camp and also provide a means of escape.

This uprising, planned for April, eventually took place on the 2nd of August when weapons and grenades were stolen from a secure room, made accessible through the use of a crudely fashioned key.

Setting fire to the barracks where the Germans and Ukrainian guards were located, the revolting prisoners soon managed to force an egress through the surrounding barbed wire and into the awaiting forest and marshy swampland beyond.

Of the approximately 700 prisoners involved in the rebellion, almost all of them were shot outright during the initial chaos and confusion.

The prisoners who had not been part of the escape were soon given orders to destroy what remained of the camp in an effort to further hide all evidence of all that had transpired before the incoming tide of the Red Army’s steady advance into central Europe arrived.

After this final job had been completed all prisoners involved were themselves shot.

With the end of the war in sight, the advancing Red Army entered the camp in late July of 1944.

In spite of the concerted efforts made to hide all traces of what had once been, the Soviet soldiers were to notice a strange assortment of objects within the earth, freshly planted with Lupins: scraps of cloth and paper; fragments of bone; the ground up detritus of machine and man mixed together in a seemingly nonsensical manner; a nearby road, blackened like tar, yet throwing up clouds of ashy deposit whenever a wheel turned upon it.

This road, called the ‘Black Road’, was to be trod upon in the years to come; as desperately hungry locals were seen to be searching through and sifting with their hands; looking for the odd remaining tooth containing a hopeful gleam of gold; perhaps enough to buy a loaf of bread.

 


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