Military history

TWENTY-FOUR

Treblinka

In July 1944, Grossman, once again accompanied by Troyanovsky, rejoined General Chuikov and his Stalingrad Army, now renamed the 8th Guards Army. Troyanovsky described the approach to the city of Lublin in eastern Poland. ‘The road to Lublin is literally crammed with troops. There is much air activity on both sides. Writer Vasily Grossman and I take turns to watch the sky. It had been raining. There is water in the ditches and in bomb and shell craters, yet one still often has to hide in them from the enemy’s Messerschmitts.’

Troyanovsky also recorded their meeting with General Chuikov. Grossman wasted no time in questioning the general, both of whose hands were bandaged.

What about Lublin?’ Grossman asked.

‘Lublin will be liberated. It’s a matter of a few hours. It’s something else that I am concerned about.’ We said nothing. ‘Look, one could almost touch Berlin with one’s hand now. And it’s the dream of every Soviet warrior to take part in capturing Berlin. But I’m afraid that the [Stavka] leadership could change their minds and move my army to another axis. It’s happened a few times before. Yet it’s perfect logic and common sense. Just think: stalingradtsy advancing on Berlin!’

While Chuikov fretted over his army’s right to glory in the advance on Berlin, his soldiers were just about to discover the camp of Majdanek, on the other side of Lublin.

The Red Army’s deep thrusts into Poland in the summer of 1944 produced even more ghastly revelations than those of the massacres at Babi Yar, Berdichev and Odessa. Majdanek, a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Red Army soldiers, had been turned into a concentration and extermination camp. Prisoners from Gestapo headquarters in Lublin were executed in the camp while fighting continued in the city. On 24 July, the crematorium itself was set on fire, in an attempt to cover the crimes, just before Soviet troops reached the camp.

Even though Grossman was on the spot, his rival Konstantin Simonov, who had replaced him at Stalingrad, was brought in to write about Nazi crimes there for Krasnaya Zvezda. Simonov, a favourite of the regime, avoided any emphasis on the Jewish identity of victims in his article. The Main Political Department of the Red Army also brought in Western journalists from Moscow, and the Kremlin set up a Special Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Committed by Germans at the Extermination Camp of Majdanek. Since many non-Jewish Poles and Russian prisoners had also suffered at Majdanek, the Soviet authorities felt able to use the camp for their own propaganda.

The site of Treblinka, further north, was reached by other troops from the 1st Belorussian Front almost at the same time as Majdanek. This was the first Aktion-Reinhard extermination camp to be reached, but the SS, on Himmler’s direct order, had attempted to destroy all traces of its existence.1 The Red Army managed to locate about forty survivors from the camp – some were hiding in the surrounding pine forests. Grossman, who was allowed to go there, lost no time in interviewing these survivors and also local Polish peasants. His account, a careful reconstruction from these interviews of the experience undergone by the 800,000 victims, is generally regarded as his most powerful piece of writing. Grossman instinctively seems to have sensed the main theme of his piece. How did a camp staff of roughly twenty-five SS men and around a hundred Ukrainian auxiliary Wachmänner manage to kill so many people? He soon discovered that they achieved their goals by deceit, followed by psychological disorientation and then sheer terror. The article was published in November in Znamya under the title ‘The Hell Called Treblinka’. It was quoted later at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal.

Thrift, thoroughness and pedantic cleanliness – all these are good qualities typical of many Germans. They prove effective when applied in agriculture and industry. But Hitler has put these qualities of the German character to work committing crimes against humanity. In the labour camps in Poland, the SS acted as if it was all about growing cauliflowers or potatoes.

Majdanek as Grossman would have seen it in July 1944.

The camp was divided into rectangles. Barracks were built in absolutely straight lines. Birch trees were planted along the sand-covered paths. Asters and dahlias grew in the fertilised soil. Concrete pools were made for the water fowl, there were pools for washing with comfortable steps, outbuildings for the German personnel, a model bakery, a barber’s shop, garage, petrol station, warehouses. The camp of Lublin-Majdanek and dozens of other labour camps where the Gestapo had planned a long and serious operation were organised according to the same formula, with little gardens, drinking fountains and concrete roads.

Camp No. 1 existed from the spring of 1941 until 23 July 1944. Surviving prisoners were annihilated when they could already hear an indistinct faraway rumble from Soviet artillery. In the early morning on the 23 July, guards and SS soldiers drank some schnapps for courage and began the liquidation of the camp. By the evening, all prisoners at the camp were killed and buried.

A carpenter from Warsaw, Max Levit, survived. He was wounded and lay under the corpses of his comrades until it was dark, and then he crawled into the forest. He told us how, when he was already lying in the trench, he heard the team of thirty boys from the camp sing the song ‘My Motherland is Vast’ just before the execution. He heard how one of the boys shouted: ‘Stalin will avenge us!’ He heard how the leader of the boys, the camp favourite, red-haired Leib, who fell down into the trench after the salvo, lifted himself a little and asked: ‘Papa guard, you’ve missed. Please could you do it once again, one more time?’

Round-up of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.

Now we know the whole story about German Ordnung at this labour camp . . . We know about the work at the sand quarry, about those who did not fulfil the norm and were thrown into the pit from the cliff. We know about the food ration: 170 grams of bread and half a litre of slops which they called soup. We know about death from starvation, about the swollen people who were taken outside the barbed wire on wheelbarrows and shot. We know about incredible orgies of the Germans, about how they raped girls and shot their forced lovers immediately afterwards, how a drunken German cut off a woman’s breast with a knife, how they threw people down from a top-floor window six metres from the ground, how a drunken company would take ten to fifteen prisoners from the barracks during the night and practise different methods of killing, without haste, shooting the doomed men in the heart, back of the head, eye, mouth, temple . . . We know about the chief of the camp, the Dutch German Zan Eilen,2 a murderer, lover of good horses, a fast rider and lecher. We know about Stumpfe, who was seized by fits of involuntary laughter every time he killed one of the prisoners, or when an execution was carried out in his presence. He had the nickname ‘Laughing Death’ . . . We know about the one-eyed German from Odessa, Svidersky, whose nickname was ‘Master Hammer’. He was considered the unsurpassed specialist in ‘cold’ death, and it was he who had killed, in the course of several minutes, fifteen children aged from eight to thirteen, who had been declared unfit for work. We know about the thin SS man Preie who looked like a Gypsy, whose nickname was ‘Old Man’. He was gloomy and reticent. He worked off his boredom by sitting by the camp’s rubbish pit and waiting for prisoners who came secretly to eat potato peelings. He made them open their mouths and shot into their open mouths. We know the name of professional murderers Schwarz and Ledeke. It was they who amused themselves by shooting at prisoners walking back from work at dusk. They killed twenty, thirty or forty people every day. All these people had nothing human in them. Their distorted brains, hearts and souls, words and deeds, their habits were like a frightening caricature barely reminiscent of the features, thoughts, feelings, habits and deeds of normal Germans.

The order in the camp, and the documentation of murders, and love of monstrous jokes that somehow reminded one of those of drunken German soldiers, and the singing in chorus of sentimental songs among the puddles of blood, and the speeches with which they constantly addressed the doomed men, and their preaching, and religious sayings printed neatly on special pieces of paper – all these were the monstrous dragons and reptiles that developed from the embryo of traditional German chauvinism, arrogance, egoism, self-assurance, pedantic care for one’s own little nest, and the iron-cold indifference to the destiny of all that is living on the Earth, from the ferocious belief that German music, poetry, language, lawns, toilets, sky, buildings are the greatest in the Universe . . .

But those living in Camp No. 1 knew well that there was something a hundred times more terrible than their camp. In May 1942, Germans began to construct another camp, an executioner’s block.

The construction proceeded rapidly. More than a thousand workers were involved. According to Himmler’s plan, the building of this camp had to be kept top secret, and not a single soul should be given a chance to leave it alive . . . Guards opened fire without warning if someone passed the camp by accident a kilometre away . . . The victims who were brought in trains on a special railway line did not know what their fate would be until the last moment. Even guards who accompanied the trains were forbidden to enter the area within the second fence of the camp . . .

When the carriages were fully unloaded, the Kommandantur of the camp would telephone for a new train, and the empty train would go further along the railway to the quarry, where the carriages were loaded with sand [for the return journey]. The advantage of Treblinka’s location became clear: trains full of victims came from all directions, from the west, east, north, and south.

The trains had come over a period of thirteen months. There were sixty carriages in each train, and there was a number written on each carriage: 150, 180 or 200. This was the number of people in the carriage. People working on the railroad and peasants kept a secret count of these trains. Peasants from the village of Wulka (the closest one to the camp) . . . said to me that there were days when six trains passed on the Sedletz line alone, and there was almost not a single day when at least one train did not pass. And the Sedletz line was only one of those which supplied Treblinka.

The camp itself, with its perimeter, warehouses for the executed people’s belongings, the platform and other auxiliary premises, covers a very small area, just eighty metres by six hundred. And if one would have the slightest doubt about the fate of the millions3of people who had been brought here, one could have reflected that if these people had not been killed by Germans straight upon arrival, then where would they have lived? These people could have been an entire population of a small country or a small European capital city. The area of the camp is so small that if the people who were brought here would have continued to live even a few days after their arrival, there would not be enough room behind the barbed wire for the tide of people flowing in from all over Europe, from Poland and Belorussia. For thirteen months, 396 days, the trains left loaded with sand or empty, not a single man from all those who reached Camp No. 2 ever returned . . . Cain, where are they, those whom you brought here?

The summer of 1942, the period of the fascists’ great military successes, was declared a good time to carry out the second part of the scheme of physical annihilation . . . In July, the first trains started coming to Treblinka from Warsaw and Chenstohova. People were told that they were being taken to the Ukraine to work in agriculture. They were allowed to take twenty kilograms of luggage and food. In many cases, Germans had forced their victims to buy railway tickets to the station of Ober-Maidan, which was the cover name the German authorities had given to Treblinka. The point of giving Treblinka this name was that rumours about the terrible place had soon started to circulate all over Poland, and the SS men stopped using the word Treblinka when putting people on trains. However, the way people were treated on the trains left no doubt about the future fate of the passengers. At least 150, but usually 180–200 people were forced into a single freight car. During the journey, which lasted sometimes two or three days, prisoners were given no water. People were suffering so much from thirst that they drank their own urine. Guards charged one hundred zloty for a mouthful of water, and usually just took the money giving people no water in return. The people were squashed against one another, and sometimes had to stand up all the way. A number of old people with heart problems would usually die before the end of the journey, particularly during the hot days of summer. As the doors were kept shut all the time until the end of the journey, the corpses would begin to decay, poisoning the air in the wagon . . . If one of the passengers lit a match during the night, guards would start shooting at the side of the freight car . . .

Trains from other European countries arrived at Treblinka in a very different manner.4 The people in them had never heard of Treblinka, and believed until the last minute that they were going there to work . . . These trains from European countries arrived with no guards, and with the usual staff. There were sleeping cars and restaurant cars in them. Passengers had big trunks and suitcases, as well as substantial supplies of food. The passengers’ children ran out at the stations they passed and asked whether it was still a long way to Ober-Maidan . . .

It is hard to tell whether it is less terrible to go towards one’s own death in the state of terrible suffering, knowing that one was getting closer and closer to one’s death, or to be absolutely unaware, glance from a window of a comfortable passenger car right at the moment when people from the station at Treblinka are telephoning the camp to pass on details about the train which has just arrived and the number of people in it.

Apparently, in order to achieve the final deception for people arriving from Europe, the railroad dead-end siding was made to look like a passenger station. On the plaform at which another twenty carriages would be unloaded stood a station building with a ticket office, baggage room and a restaurant hall. There were arrows everywhere, indicating ‘To Bialystok’, ‘To Baranovichi’, ‘To Volokovysk’, etc. By the time the train arrived, there would be a band playing in the station building, and all the musicians were dressed well. A porter in railway uniform took tickets from the passengers and let them pass on to the square.

Three or four thousand people loaded with sacks and suitcases would go out into this square supporting the old and sick. Mothers were holding babies in their arms, older children kept close to their parents looking inquisitively at the square. There was something sinister and horrible in this square whose earth had been trampled by millions of human feet. The strained eyes of the people were quick to catch alarming little things. There were some objects abandoned on the ground, which had been swept hastily, apparently a few minutes before the party emerged – a bundle of clothes, an open case, a shaving brush, enamel saucepans. How did they get here? And why, right where the platform ends, is there no more railway and only yellow grass growing behind a three-metre-high wire fence? Where is the railway leading to Bialystok, to Sedlez, Warsaw, Volokovysk? And the new guards grin in such a strange way surveying the men adjusting their ties, neat old ladies, boys wearing navy shirts, thin girls who had managed to keep their clothes tidy throughout this journey, young mothers adjusting lovingly the blankets in which their babies are wrapped, the babies who are wrinkling their faces . . . What is there, behind this huge, six-metre-high wall, which is densely covered with yellowing pine branches and with bedding? These coverlets, too, are alarming: they are all different colours, padded, silk or satin. They are reminiscent of the eiderdowns that they, the newcomers, have brought with them. How did this bedding get here? Who brought it with them? And where are their owners? Why don’t they need them any longer? And who are these people with light blue armbands? One remembers all the thoughts that have come into one’s head recently, all the fears, all the rumours that were told in a whisper. No, no, this can’t be true. And one drives the terrible thoughts away. People have a few moments to dwell on their fears in the square, until all the newcomers are assembled in it. There are always delays. In each transport there are the crippled, the limping, and old and sick people, who can hardly move their feet. But finally everyone is in the square.

An SS Unteroffizier suggests in a loud and distinct voice that the newcomers leave their luggage in the square and go to the bathhouse, with just their personal documents, valuables and the smallest possible bags with what they need for washing. Dozens of questions appear immediately in the heads of people standing in the square: whether they can take fresh underwear with them, whether they can unpack their bundles, whether the luggage of different people piled in the square might get mixed up or lost? But some strange force makes them walk, hastily and silently, asking no questions, not looking back, to the gate in a six-metre-high wall of wire camouflaged with branches.

They pass anti-tank hedgehogs, the fence of barbed wire three times the height of a man, a three-metre-wide anti-tank moat, more wire, this time thin, thrown on the ground in concertina rolls, in which the feet of a runner would get stuck like a fly’s legs in a spiderweb, and another wall of barbed wire, many metres high. And a terrible feeling of doom, of being completely helpless comes over them: it’s impossible to run away, or turn back, or fight. The barrels of large-calibre machine guns are looking at them from the low wooden towers. Call for help? But there are SS men and guards all around, with sub-machine guns, hand grenades and pistols. They are the power. In their hands are tanks and aircraft, lands, cities, the sky, railways, the law, newpapers, radio. The whole world is silent, suppressed, enslaved by a brown gang of bandits which has seized power. London is silent and New York, too. And only somewhere on a bank of the Volga, many thousands of kilometres away, the Soviet artillery is roaring.

Meanwhile, in the square, in front of the railway station, a group of workers with sky-blue armbands is silently and efficiently unpacking the bundles, opening baskets and suitcases, unfastening the straps on the bags. The belongings of the newcomers are being sorted out and evaluated. They throw on the ground someone’s carefully arranged sewing kits, balls of threads, children’s underwear, undershirts, sheets, jumpers, little knives, shaving sets, bundles of letters, photographs, thimbles, bottles of perfume, mirrors, caps, valenki made from quilts for the cold weather, women’s shoes, stockings, lace, pyjamas, packs of butter, coffee, jars with cocoa, prayer shawls, candleholders, books, rusks, violins, children’s blocks. One needs skill to be able to sort out all these thousands of objects within minutes and appraise them. Some are selected to be sent to Germany. Others – the second-rate, the old and the repaired – have to be burned. A worker who’d make a mistake, like putting an old cardboard suitcase into a heap of leather ones selected to be sent to Germany, or throwing a pair of stockings from Paris, with a factory label on them, into a heap of old mended socks, would get into serious trouble. A worker could make only one mistake.

Forty SS men and sixty Wachmänner were working ‘on the transport’.5 This was how they referred to the first stage which I have just described: receiving a train, unloading people at the ‘railway station’ and getting them into the square, and watching the workers who sorted and evaluated the luggage. While doing this job, the workers often secretly shovelled into their mouths pieces of bread, sugar and sweets which they found in the bags with food. This was not allowed. It was, however, permitted to wash hands and faces with eau de Cologne and perfumes after they’d finished their work, as water was in scarce supply, and only Germans and guards could use it to wash. And while the people, who were still alive, were preparing for the bathhouse, their luggage would have already been sorted, valuable things taken to the warehouse, and heaps of letters, photographs of new-born babies, brothers, fiancées, yellowed wedding announcements, all these thousands of precious objects, infinitely important for their owners, but only rubbish for the owners of Treblinka, were piled in heaps and carried to huge holes, where already lay hundreds of thousands of such letters, postcards, visiting cards, photographs, pieces of paper with children’s scribbles on them. The square was swept hastily and was ready to receive a new delivery of people sentenced to death.

But things did not always go as well as I have just described. Rebellions sometimes broke out in cases when people knew about their destination. A local peasant, Skrzeminski, twice saw how people broke out of trains, knocked down the guards and rushed towards the forest. They were all killed to the last man. In one of these cases, the men were carrying four children, aged from four to six. The children, too, were killed. A peasant woman, Maria Kobus, told about similar cases. Once, she saw how sixty people who had reached the forest were killed.

But the new batch of prisoners have already reached the second square, inside the camp’s fences. There is a huge barrack in this square, and another three on the right. Two of them are warehouses for clothes, the third one for shoes. Further on, in the western part of the camp, there are barracks for SS men, for guards, warehouses for food and a farmyard. Cars and an armed vehicle are standing in the yard. It all looks like an ordinary camp, just like Camp No. 1. In the south-east corner of the farmyard, there’s a space fenced off with tree branches, with a booth at its front, on which is written ‘Sanitorium’. Here, all frail and very sick people are separated from the crowd. A doctor in a white apron with a Red Cross bandage on his left sleeve comes out to meet them. I will tell you below in more detail about what happened at the sanitorium. There, Germans used their Walther automatic pistols to spare old people from the burden of all possible diseases.

The key to the second phase of handling the newcomers was the suppression of their will by constantly giving them short and rapid orders. These commands were given in that tone of voice, of which the German Army is so proud: the tone which proved that Germans belonged to the race of lords. The ‘r’, at the same time guttural and hard, sounded like a whip. ‘Achtung!’ carried over the crowd. In the leaden silence, the Scharführer’s6 voice pronounced the words, which he had learned by heart, repeating them several times a day for several months: ‘Men stay here! Women and children undress in the barracks on the left!’

This was when the terrible scenes usually started, according to witnesses. That great maternal, marital, filial love told people that they were seeing each other for the last time. Handshakes, kisses, blessings, tears, brief words uttered by husky voices – people put into them all their love, all the pain, all the tenderness, all the despair. The SS psychiatrists of death knew that they had to cut these feelings off immediately, extinguish them. The psychiatrists of death knew the simple laws that prove true at all slaughterhouses of the world. This moment of separating daughters and fathers, mothers and sons, grandchildren and their grandmothers, husbands and wives was one of the most crucial. And again, ‘Achtung! Achtung!’ resounds above the crowd. This is just the right moment to confuse people’s minds once more, to sprinkle them with hope, telling them the regulations of death that pass for those of life. The same voice trumpets word after word:

‘Women and children must take their shoes off when entering the barracks. Stockings must be put into shoes. Children’s stockings into their sandals, boots and shoes. Be tidy.’ And immediately the next order: ‘Going to the bathhouse, you must have your documents, money, a towel and soap. I repeat . . .’

Inside the women’s barracks was a hairdresser’s. Naked women’s hair was cut with clippers. Wigs were removed from the heads of old women. A terrible psychological phenomenon: according to the hairdressers, for the women, this death haircut was the most convincing proof of being taken to the banya. Girls felt their hair with their hands and sometimes asked: ‘Could you cut it again here? It is not even.’ Women usually relaxed after their hair was cut, and almost all emerged from the barracks with a piece of soap and a folded towel. Some young women cried, mourning their beautiful long plaits. What were the haircuts for? In order to deceive them? No, Germany needed this hair. The hair was a raw material. I’ve asked many people, what did Germans do with these heaps of hair cut from the heads of the living dead? All the witnesses told me that the huge heaps of black, blonde hair, curls and plaits were disinfected, pressed into sacks and sent to Germany. All the witnesses confirmed that the hair was sent in the sacks to Germany. How was it used? No one could answer this question. Only Kon stated in his written evidence that the hair was used by the navy for stuffing mattresses or making hawsers for submarines. I think that this answer requires additional clarification.

Men undressed in the yard. Usually, Germans selected 150–300 strong men from the first lot to arrive in the morning. They were used to bury corpses and were generally killed on the second day. Men had to undress very quickly and tidily, leaving their shoes and socks in order, folding their underwear, jackets and trousers. Clothes and shoes were sorted by the second team of workers, who wore red armbands that distinguished them from those working ‘on the transport’.

Clothing and shoes considered suitable for dispatch to Germany were immediately taken to the warehouse. All metal and fabric labels had to be removed from them carefully. The remaining things were burned or buried in the ground. The feeling of anxiety grew every minute. There was a strange, disquieting smell, which was at times overpowered by the smell of chlorine. Huge quantities of importunate flies seemed strange, too. Where were they all coming from, here, among pines and the trampled earth? People were breathing noisily, afraid, shuddering, peering at every insignificant little object that they thought could explain, help understand, lift slightly the curtain of secret about the fate that lay ahead for them. And why are gigantic excavators rattling so loudly there, further to the south?

A new procedure would then begin. Naked people were led to the cash office and asked to submit their documents and valuables. And once again, a frightening, hypnotising voice would shout: ‘Achtung! Achtung!’ . . . Concealing valuables was punishable by death . . . ‘Achtung! Achtung!’ A Scharführer was sitting in a little booth knocked up from timber. SS men and Wachmänner were standing next to him. By the booth stood wooden boxes, into which the valuables had to be thrown: a box for banknotes, a box for coins, a box for watches, rings, earrings and brooches, for bracelets. And documents, which no one on earth any longer needed, were thrown on the ground – these were the documents of naked people who would be lying in the earth an hour later. But gold and valuables were subject to a careful sorting – dozens of jewellers determined the pureness of metal, value of jewels, water of the diamonds. And an amazing thing was that the swine utilised everything, even paper and fabric – anything which could be useful to anyone, was important and useful to these swine. Only the most precious thing in the world, a human life, was trampled by their boots.

Here, at the cash office, came the turning point. The tormenting of people with lies ended; the torture of not knowing, a fever that threw them within minutes from hope to despair, from visions of life to visions of death . . . And when the time came for the last stage of robbing the living dead, the Germans changed their style of treating their victims abruptly. They tore rings off their victims’ fingers, tore earrings out of their earlobes. At this stage, the conveyor executioner’s block required a new principle for functioning efficiently. This is why the word ‘Achtung!’ was replaced by another one, flapping, hissing: ‘Schneller! Schneller! Schneller!’ Quick, hurry up! Run into the non-existence!

We know from the cruel reality of recent years that a naked person immediately loses the strength to resist, to struggle against his fate. When stripped, a person immediately loses the strength of the instinct to live and one accepts one’s destiny like a fate. A person who used to have an intransigent thirst for life becomes passive and indifferent. But to reassure themselves, the SS men applied additionally at this final stage of the conveyor execution work the method of monstrous stupefaction, of sending people into the state of complete psychological, spiritual shock. How did they do that? By applying a senseless, illogical cruelty, suddenly, sharply. Naked people who had lost everything, but still were a thousand times more human than the beasts in German uniform were still breathing, watching, thinking, their hearts were still beating. The guards knocked pieces of soap and towels out of their hands and lined them up in rows, five people in each. ‘Hände hoch! Marsch! Schneller! Schneller! Schneller!

They stepped into a straight alley, with flowers and fir trees planted along it. It was 120 metres long and two metres wide and led to the place of execution. There was wire on both sides of this alley, and guards in black uniforms and SS men in grey ones were standing there shoulder to shoulder. The road was sprinkled with white sand, and those who were walking in front with their hands up could see the fresh prints of bare feet in this loose sand: small women’s feet, very small children’s ones, those left by old people’s feet. These ephemeral footprints in the sand were all that was left of thousands of people who had walked here recently, just like the four thousand that were walking now, like the other thousands who would walk here two hours later, who were now waiting for their turn at the railway branch in the forest. People who’d left their footprints had walked here just like those who walked here yesterday, and ten days ago, and a hundred days ago, like they would walk tomorrow, and fifty days later, like people did throughout the thirteen hellish months of Treblinka’s existence.

The Germans called this alley ‘The Road of No Return’. A little man, who was making faces all the time and whose family name was Sukhomil, shouted with grimaces, in a deliberately broken German: ‘Children, children! Schneller, schneller! The water’s getting cold in the bathhouse. Schneller, Kinder, schneller!’ And he exploded with laughter, squatted, danced. People, their hands still raised, walked in silence between the two lines of guards, under the blows of sticks, sub-machine-gun butts, rubber truncheons. Children had to run to keep up with the adults. Speaking about this last, sorrowful passage, all witnesses mentioned the atrocities of one humanlike creature, an SS man called Zepf. He specialised in killing children. This beast, who possessed a massive physical strength, would suddenly seize a child out of the crowd, and either hit the child’s head against the ground waving the child like a cudgel, or tear the child in two halves.

Zepf’s work was important. It added to the psychological shock of the doomed people, and showed how the illogical cruelty was able to crush people’s will and consciousness. He was a useful screw in the great machine of the fascist state.

And we should all be terrified, but not by the nature that gives birth to such degenerates. There are lots of monstrosities in the organic world – Cyclops, creatures with two heads, as well as the corresponding terrible spiritual monstrosities and perversities. It is another thing that is terrible: these creatures that had to be isolated and studied like psychiatric phenomena were living in a certain country as active and useful citizens.

The journey from the ‘cash office’ to the place of execution took sixty to seventy seconds. People, urged on by the blows and deafened by the shouts ‘Schneller! Schneller!’, reached the third square and stopped for a moment, startled. In front of them was a beautiful stone building decorated with wood, looking like an ancient temple. Five wide stone steps led to the low, but very wide, massive, beautiful ornate door. There were flowers growing by the entrance, and flowerpots stood there. But all around there was chaos, one could see piles of freshly dug earth everyhere. A vast excavator was throwing out tons of sandy yellow soil, grinding its steel jaws, and the dust it raised was hanging between the earth and the sun. The rattling of the machine digging from morning till evening, the enormous trench graves, mixed with a mad barking of dozens of Alsatian guard dogs.

There were narrow-gauge railway lines on both sides of the death building, along which men in baggy overalls brought dumper trucks. The wide door of the death house opened slowly, and two assistants of the chief, whose name was Schmidt, appeared by the entrance. They were sadists and maniacs, one of them tall, about thirty years old, with broad shoulders, a dark-skinned excited face and black hair, the other one younger, short, with brown hair and waxy, yellow cheeks. We know the names and surnames of these traitors to mankind. The tall one was holding a massive, metre-long gas tube in his hand, the other one was armed with a sabre.

At this moment, the SS men would unleash the trained dogs, who threw themselves on the crowd and tore the naked bodies with their teeth. SS men were beating people with sub-machine-gun butts, urging on petrified women, and shouting wildly: ‘Schneller! Schneller!’ Schmidt’s assistants at the entrance to the building drove people through the open doors into the gas chambers.

By this time, one of Treblinka’s commandants, Kurt Franz, would appear by the building with his dog, Barry, on a leash. He had specially trained his dog to jump at the doomed people and tear their private parts. Kurt Franz had made a good career at the camp. Having started as a junior SS Unteroffizier, he was promoted to the relatively high rank of Untersturmführer.7

Stories of the living dead of Treblinka, who had until the last minute kept not just the image of humans but the human soul as well, shake one to the bottom of one’s heart and make it impossible to sleep. The stories of women trying to save their sons and committing magnificent doomed feats, of young mothers who hid their babies in heaps of blankets. I’ve heard the stories of ten-year-old girls, who comforted their sobbing parents with a heavenly wisdom, about a boy who shouted when entering the gas chamber: ‘Russia will take revenge! Mama, don’t cry!’

I was told about dozens of doomed people who began to struggle. I was told about a young man who stabbed an SS officer with a knife, about a young man who had been brought here from the rebellious Warsaw ghetto. He had miraculously managed to hide a grenade from the Germans and threw it into the crowd of executioners when he was already naked. We were told about the battle between a group of rebels and guards and the SS that lasted all night. Shots and explosions of grenades were resounding until the morning, and when the sun rose, the whole square was covered with the bodies of dead rebels . . . We were told about the tall girl who snatched a carbine from the hands of a Wachmann on ‘The Road of No Return’ and fought back. The tortures and execution she was subjected to were terrible. Her name is unknown, and nobody can pay it the respect it deserves.

Inhabitants of the village of Wulka, the one closest to Treblinka, tell that sometimes the screams of women who were being killed were so terrible that the whole village would lose their heads and rush to the forest, in order to escape from these shrill screams that carried through tree trunks, the sky and the earth. Then, the screams would suddenly stop, and there was a silence before a new series of screams, as terrible as the ones before, shrill, boring through the bones, through the skulls and the souls of those who heard them. This happened three or four times every day.

I asked one of the captured butchers, Sh., about these screams. He explained that women started to scream at the moment when the dogs were unleashed and the whole group of prisoners were urged into the house of death. ‘They could see their death coming, and beside that it was very crowded there. They were beaten terribly, and dogs were tearing their bodies.’

A sudden silence came when the doors of the gas chambers were closed, and the screams started again when a new batch of prisoners was brought to the building. This happened two, three, four, sometimes five times a day. This was a special conveyor belt to the executioners’ block.

It took some time for Treblinka to be developed into the industrial complex which I have described here. It grew gradually, developing new workshops. At first, three small gas chambers were built. While their construction was still going on, several trains arrived, and the prisoners they brought had to be killed with cold steel – axes, hammers and bludgeons – as the chambers were not ready yet, and the SS men didn’t want to start shooting because the noise would reveal Treblinka’s purpose. The first three concrete chambers were five metres by five metres and 190 centimetres high. Each of them had two doors: one to let the people in by, and the other one to pull out the corpses. This second door was very wide, about 2.5 metres. These three chambers were built side by side on the same foundation.

The three chambers, however, did not have sufficient capacity to satisfy Berlin. Immediately after they began operating, construction commenced on the building which I described above. Treblinka’s leaders were very satisfied and proud to have outstripped by such a margin all of the Gestapo’s death-factory capacity. Seven hundred prisoners worked for five weeks to build the new death factory. When the construction was in full swing, an expert arrived from Berlin with his crew to install the chambers. The ten new chambers were located symmetrically on both sides of a broad concrete corridor . . . Each of them had two doors . . . The doors for corpses opened on to special platforms which were constructed on both sides of the building. Lines of narrow-gauge railway led to the platforms. The corpses were heaped on to the platforms and immediately loaded on to railway cars and taken to the huge moat-graves, which colossal excavators were digging day and night. The floor in the chambers sloped from the corridor down towards the platforms. This made the work of unloading the chambers considerably quicker (corpses were unloaded from the old chambers in a primitive fashion: carried on stretchers or hauled by straps). The new chambers were each seven metres by eight metres. The total floor area of the new chambers was now 460 square metres, and the total area of all gas chambers in Treblinka reached 635 square metres.

At this stage, Grossman worked through his calculations on the number of people killed in each batch, and extrapolated his figures to estimate that three million had been killed in ten months.

Will we be able to find in ourselves enough courage to reflect on what our people were feeling, what they were going through during their last moments in those chambers? We know that they were silent . . . In the terribly crowded state, which was bone-crushing, their chests were unable to breathe, they were standing squashed against one another, with the last sticky death-sweat pouring down, they were standing there as one body.

What pictures flashed in the glazed dying eyes? Those of childhood, of the happy peaceful days, or those of the last harsh journey? The grinning face of the SS soldier in the first square in front of the railway station? ‘So this is why he was laughing.’ The consciousness is waning, the minute of the terrible last suffering has come . . . No, it is impossible to imagine . . . The dead bodies were standing, gradually cooling down. Witnesses said that children were able to breathe for a longer time than the grown-ups. Schmidt’s assistants looked into the peepholes twenty to twenty-five minutes later. The time came to open the door of chambers leading to the platforms. Prisoners in overalls would start the unloading. As the floor sloped towards the platforms, the bodies fell out by themselves. People who were unloading the chambers told me that the faces of dead people were very yellow, and a little blood ran from the noses and mouths of about 70 per cent of them. Physiologists can explain this.

The corpses were examined by SS men. If someone was discovered to be still alive, was moaning or moved, this person was shot with a pistol. Then the crews armed with dentist’s tongs would set to work wrenching platinum and gold teeth out of dead people’s mouths. The teeth were then sorted according to their value, packed into boxes and sent to Germany. Apparently, it was easier to wrench out the teeth of dead people than of those still alive.

The corpses were loaded on to the cars and taken to the enormous moat-graves. There, they were laid down in rows, closely, side by side. The moat would be left unfilled with earth, waiting . . . And meanwhile, when workers would have just begun unloading the gas chamber, the ‘transport’ Scharführer would receive a short order by telephone. The Scharführer would then blow a whistle, a signal for the engine driver, and another twenty carriages were slowly drawn to the platform with its simulation of a railway station called ‘Ober-Maidan’ . . . The excavators were working, roaring, digging day and night new moats, hundreds of metres long. And the moats stood there unfilled, waiting. They did not have to wait long.

Himmler’s victims.

Himmler visited Treblinka early in 1943 at the end of the winter. He inspected the camp and one of the people who saw him there said that he went up to a huge pit and looked into it for a long time without speaking. The Reichsführer SS flew away the same day in his personal plane. Just before leaving, Himmler gave the commanders of the camp an order that confused everyone: Hauptsturmführer Baron von Perein, and his deputy, Korol, and Captain Franz were immediately to begin burning the buried corpses, and burn them all, to the last corpse, to take ash and cinder out of the camp and disperse them in fields and roads. There were already millions of corpses in the earth by that time, and this task seemed extremely difficult and complicated. The order was also given not to bury the dead any longer, but to burn them at once. Why did Himmler fly there for this inspection and personally give this categorical order? There could only be one possible explanation for this: the Red Army’s victory at Stalingrad.

At first, the burning did not go very well. The corpses did not want to burn. It was noticed, however, that women’s corpses burned better than men’s, and the workers tried to use them to make men’s corpses burn better. Large amounts of petrol and oil were used to burn the corpses, but this was expensive, and did not work very well. It all seemed like a blind alley. But a solution was soon found. A thickset man of about fifty arrived, a specialist and expert.

Construction of furnaces began under his guidance. These were furnaces of a special type. An excavator dug a trench which was 250–300 metres long, 20–25 metres wide and 5 metres deep. Ferroconcrete columns were installed on the bottom of the moat in three rows at equal distance from one another. They provided the foundation for steel beams along the rectangular pit. Rails were placed on these beams at a distance of five to seven centimetres from one another. This was the structure of the gigantic bars of the cyclopic furnaces. A new narrow-gauge railway was built which led from the moat-graves to the moat-furnace. Another furnace was built soon, and then a third one of the same size. Onto each furnace-grill, 3,500–4,000 corpses were loaded simultaneously.8

People who took part in burning the corpses say that the furnaces were reminiscent of gigantic volcanoes. A terrible heat burned the faces of the workers, flames flew eight to ten metres into the air, pillars of thick and greasy smoke reached the sky and hung in the air in a heavy immobile cloud. At night, local people from surrounding villages saw these flames from anything up to forty kilometres away. They rose taller than the pine forest around the camp. The smell of burned human meat filled the whole surrounding area. When the wind blew towards the Polish camp three kilometres away, the people there were suffocated with a terrible stench. Some eight hundred prisoners were kept busy burning corpses. This monstrous workshop operated day and night for eight months and couldn’t cope with the millions of buried human corpses, as new transports kept coming all the time.

Trains arrived from Bulgaria, and the SS and Wachmänner were happy about them, as the tricked people, who had no idea of their fate, had brought many valuables, and lots of tasty things, including white bread. After them, trains began to arrive from Grodno and Bialystok, then, from the rebellious Warsaw ghetto. A group of Gypsies came from Bessarabia, about two hundred men and eight hundred women and children. The Gypsies came on foot, with strings of horse-driven carts following them. They too had been tricked. They arrived escorted by only two guards, who themselves had absolutely no idea that they had brought people to die. Witnesses say that Gypsy women clasped their hands when they saw the beautiful building of the gas chamber, and never suspected what their fate would be. The Germans found this particularly amusing.

Terrible torments awaited those who arrived from the Warsaw ghetto. Women and children were separated from the crowd and taken to the places where corpses were burned instead of to the gas chambers. Mothers who went mad with terror were forced to lead their children between the glowing furnace bars on which thousands of dead bodies were writhing in flames and smoke, where corpses were squirming and jerking in the heat as if they had became alive again, where stomachs of dead pregnant women cracked from the heat, and unborn babies burned on the open wombs of the mothers. This sight could render even the strongest person insane.

It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask: ‘Why write about this, why remember all that?’ It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it. Everyone who would turn away, who would shut his eyes and walk past would insult the memory of the dead. Everyone who does not know the truth about this would never be able to understand with what sort of enemy, with what sort of monster, our Red Army started on its own mortal combat.

The SS men began to feel bored in Treblinka. The procession of the doomed people to gas chambers had ceased to excite them. It became routine. When the burning of corpses started, the SS men spent hours by the furnaces, the new sight amused them. The expert who had come from Germany was walking among the furnaces from morning till night, always excited and talkative. People say that no one ever saw him frowning or even serious, the smile never left his face. When corpses fell onto the furnace bars, he used to say of them: ‘Innocent, innocent.’ This was his favourite catchphrase.

Sometimes the SS men organised a kind of picnic by the furnaces: they would sit down on the lee side, drink wine, eat and watch the flames. The sick quarters were also re-equipped. A round trench was dug with furnace bars installed on its bottom, on which the corpses were burning. Low little benches were made that stood around the trench, as if it were a stadium. They stood so close to the edge that those who sat on them were sitting right above the trench. Sick people and frail old people were brought here, and then ‘medical assistants’ would make them sit on benches facing the bonfire of human bodies. When they had had enough of this sight, the cannibals shot at the grey heads and the bent backs of people sitting down. Those killed and wounded would fall into the bonfire.

We have never had a high regard for unsubtle German humour, but hardly anyone on this planet could have imagined what the SS humour in Treblinka was like, what the SS amused themselves with, and what jokes were made. They organised football matches for the doomed men, organised a chorus of the doomed, dances of the doomed . . . There was even a special hymn, ‘Treblinka’, written for them, which included the following words:

Für uns gibt heute nur Treblinka

Die unser Schiksal ist . . .’9

People with blood pouring from their wounds were forced to learn idiotic German sentimental songs just a few minutes before they died:

Ich bruch das Blumelein

und schenkte es dem schönste

geliebste Madelein . . .10

The chief commandant of the camp selected several children from one of the transports, killed their parents, dressed the children in the best clothes, gave them lots of sweets, played with them, and then gave orders to kill them a few days later when he became bored with this game. One of the main amusements were the night rapes and torture of beautiful young women and girls, who were selected from each transport of prisoners. In the morning, the rapists themselves would take them to the gas chamber.

All the witnesses remember one feature which SS men in Treblinka had in common: they loved theoretical constructions, philosophising. They all indulged in making speeches in front of the prisoners. They boasted and explained the great significance for the future of what was taking place in Treblinka. They were all deeply and sincerely convinced of the importance and rightness of their work.

They did gymnastics – they passionately cared for their own health and the convenience of their everyday life. They made gardens and flower beds around their barracks. They went for holidays in Germany several times a year, because their chiefs thought that their work was very bad for their health and wanted to protect them. Back at home, they would walk around with their heads up, proudly.

The summer of 1943 was unusually hot in this place. There was no rain, no cloud, no wind for many weeks. The work on burning the corpses went on at full speed. The furnaces had been glowing for six months day and night, but only a little more than a half of the corpses had been burned. Prisoners who had to burn the corpses couldn’t stand the terrible moral torment, and fifteen to twenty of them committed suicide every day. Many of them sought death, deliberately violating the regulations.

‘It was a luxury to get a bullet,’ said Kosezky, a doctor who escaped from the camp. People said to me that it was many times more terrible to live in Treblinka than to die there. The cinder and ash from the burned corpses were loaded on to railway cars and taken outside the camp’s fencing. Peasants from the village of Wulka, whom the Germans had conscripted, put the cinder and ash on carts and dispersed them along the road going past the death camp to the Polish punishment camp. Child prisoners with spades distributed the ashes evenly on the road. Sometimes they found in it golden coins and melted gold teeth. The children were called ‘children from the black road’. The road became black from the ash, like a crêpe bandage. The wheels of vehicles made a special rustling sound on it, and when I was driven on this road, I could hear this mournful rustle, soft like a shy complaint . . .

In the song ‘Treblinka’, which the Germans forced the eight hundred men who worked burning the corpses to sing, there were words appealing to the prisoners to be obedient, and promising them in return a ‘little, little happiness, of which they would catch a glimpse for just one minute’.

There was one happy day in the hell of Treblinka . . . The prisoners planned an uprising. They had nothing to lose. They all had been sentenced to death. Every day of their present existence was a day of suffering and torture. Germans would have had no mercy for them, witnesses of terrible crimes, they would all end up in one of the gas chambers and be replaced by new men. Only a few dozen men survived in Treblinka for weeks or months, instead of days. These were qualified specialists – carpenters, stonemasons, tailors, hairdressers. They were the ones who formed a committee for the uprising. They didn’t want to escape until they had destroyed Treblinka.

A suffocating heatwave settled at the end of July. When graves were opened, steam began to rise from them as if they were gigantic boilers. A monstrous stench and heat were killing people – the emaciated men carrying the corpses sometimes fell dead on the furnace bars. Billions of heavy flies who had had too much to eat were crawling on the ground and humming in the air.

A decision was made to start the uprising on 2 August. The signal was to be a revolver shot.11 New flames soared into the sky, this time not the heavy greasy flames of the burning corpses, but the bright, hot and violent flames of a fire. The camp buildings were burning . . . A thunder of shots was heard, machine guns started to fire from captured, rebel towers. The air was shaken with rattling and cracking, the whistling of bullets became louder than the humming of carrion flies. Axes stained with red blood began to flicker in the air. On 2 August, the evil blood of SS men poured on to the soil of the hellish Treblinka . . . They were all confused, they forgot about the system of Treblinka’s defence that had been prepared so devilishly well, forgot about the deadly fire that had been organised in advance, forgot about their weapons.

While Treblinka was ablaze and the rebels broke through the fences, saying a silent goodbye to the ashes of their people, SS and police units were rushed in from all directions to hunt them down. Hundreds of police dogs were sent after them. German aircraft were sent up. Battles went on in the forest and in the marshes. Very few of the rebels survived, but what difference does it make? They died fighting, with weapons in their hands.12

Treblinka ceased to exist after 2 August. The Germans finished burning the remaining corpses, destroyed stone buildings, removed wire, burned the wooden barracks that had not been burned by the rebels. The installations of the death factory were blown up or loaded onto railway wagons and taken away. Excavators were either blown up or taken away, the numberless pits were filled with earth, the railway station was destroyed to the last brick, the railway line was disassembled and the sleepers removed. Lupins were sown on the territory of the camp, and Streben, a settler, built his little house there. Now, even this house does not exist, it has been burned.13

What did the Germans intend to achieve by all this? To conceal the murder? But how on earth would that be possible? Himmler has no power any longer over his accomplices: they lower their heads, their trembling fingers play with the edge of their jackets, and they recount in muffled, monotonous voices the story of their crimes, which sounds insane and delirious, incredible. A Soviet officer, with the green ribbon of the Stalingrad medal is writing the murderers’ evidence down, page after page. A guard is standing at the door, his lips pressed together. He, too, has the Stalingrad medal on his chest, and his dark thin face is stern.

We enter the camp and walk on the ground of Treblinka. Little pods of lupins burst open from the slightest touch, or burst open themselves with a light tinkle; millions of little seeds fall on the ground. The sound of the falling seeds, the tinkling of the opening pods, blend together into a single melody, sad and quiet. It seems as if it is a funeral ringing of little bells coming to us right from the depth of the earth, barely heard, mournful, broad, calm.

The earth is throwing out crushed bones, teeth, clothes, papers. It does not want to keep secrets. And the objects are climbing out from the earth, from its unhealing wounds. Here they are, half ruined by decay, shirts of the murdered people, their trousers, shoes, cigarette cases which have grown green, little wheels from watches, penknives, shaving brushes, candleholders, a child’s shoes with red pompons, towels with Ukrainian embroidery, lace underwear, scissors, thimbles, corsets, bandages. And a little further on, heaps of plates and dishes have made their way to the surface. And further on – it is as if someone’s hand is pushing them up into the light, from the bottomless bulging earth – emerge the things that the Germans had tried to bury, Soviet passports, notebooks with Bulgarian writing in them, photographs of children from Warsaw and Vienna, letters scribbled by children, a book of poetry, a prayer copied on a yellowed piece of paper, food ration cards from Germany . . . And everywhere there are hundreds of little scent bottles, green, pink, blue . . . A terrible smell of putrefaction hangs over everything, the smell that neither fire, nor sun, rains, snow and winds could dispel. And hundreds of little forest flies are crawling on the half-rotted things, papers and photographs.

We walk on and on across the bottomless unsteady land of Treblinka, and then suddenly we stop. Some yellow hair, wavy, fine and light, glowing like brass, is trampled into the earth, and blonde curls next to it, and then heavy black plaits on the light-coloured sand, and then more and more. Apparently, these are the contents of one – just one sack of hair – which hadn’t been taken away. Everything is true. The last, lunatic hope that everything was only a dream is ruined. And lupin pods are tinkling, tinkling, little seeds are falling, as if a ringing of countless little bells is coming from under the ground. And one feels as if one’s heart could stop right now, seized with such sorrow, such grief, that a human being cannot possibly stand it.

Not surprisingly, Grossman himself found it very hard to stand. He collapsed from nervous exhaustion, stress and nausea on his return to Moscow in August. Ehrenburg invited round the French journalist Jean Cathala to give him details of what had emerged from the liberation of Majdanek and Treblinka. Grossman was apparently too ill to leave his bed and join them.

1 Treblinka is a little over twenty kilometres south-east of Ostrów Mazowiecka, a town northwest of Warsaw on the road to Bialystok. The camp lies half a dozen kilometres from the River Bug. The other two Aktion-Reinhard camps were Sobibor and Belzec.

2 Grossman here is referring still to Treblinka I. The first camp commandant of Treblinka II was Obersturmführer Imfried Eberl and he was replaced in August 1942 by Obersturmführer Franz Stangl. Kurt Franz was the deputy commandant.

3 Grossman, basing his estimate on the numbers of trains he had heard about and their size, produced the calculation that around three million people must have been killed here. Subsequent research has shown the figure to be between 750,000 and 880,000. The reason why Grossman’s estimate was excessive is probably quite simple. He was right about the sixty carriages per train, but he does not seem to have discovered that because the station platform by the extermination camp was so short, the trains used to halt some way off, and only a section at a time was shunted to the platform. Thus it was not five trains of sixty carriages per day, but generally a single train split up into five sections.

4 It is estimated by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre that some 876,000 people were murdered at Treblinka II. This figure includes 738,000 Jews from the Generalgouvernement, beginning with the Warsaw ghetto; 107,000 from Bialystok; 29,000 Jews from elsewhere in Europe; and 2,000 Gypsies.

5 Most reports seem to suggest that Treblinka functioned on the basis of around twenty-five SS personnel and a hundred Ukrainian Wachmänner auxiliary guards, but some of the ones mentioned here by Grossman could have been train guards not based at Treblinka. Grossman could not reveal the fact that the Wachmänner were Ukrainian. That is why he speaks of ‘SS men’ and ‘policemen’. The workers were selected Jewish prisoners who would last a few weeks before being killed themselves.

6 SS rank roughly equivalent to that of staff sergeant.

7 Untersturmführer in the SS was equivalent to lieutenant in the army. Kurt Franz was in fact Stangl’s deputy.

8 These were nicknamed the ‘roasts’.

9 ‘For us there is now only Treblinkav which is our fate . . .’

10 ‘I pluck the little flower / and give it to the loveliest / most adored young girl . . .’

11 The revolt was mainly organised by Zelo Bloch, a Jewish lieutenant from the Czech Army. The uprising began early, because an SS guard became suspicious. He was shot but this triggered the general action before most of the weapons had been removed from the armoury, to which the rebels had managed to obtain a duplicate key.

12 It is estimated that about 750 prisoners managed to escape through the wire, but only seventy of them lived to see liberation a year later.

13 The family brought in to make the place look like a farm was Ukrainian.

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