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Treblinka: What Many Do Not Know

Posted by Elizabeth Harper, Thursday 23rd February, 2017

opinion volunteer blog

26-foot granite memorial stone, which was designed to resemble a tombstone at the former Treblinka extermination camp

Memorial at the former Treblinka site © Staffordshire University

It is our duty to remember. In the words of Elie Wiesel: “To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.” This is why I wanted volunteer for The Wiener Library alongside my undergraduate degree in History at the University of East Anglia. Whilst the Holocaust as a topic receives much academic interest, it seems as though the general populace is typically exposed to the ‘popular’ narrative of the catastrophe. The death camp Treblinka, for example, is relatively unknown, especially when compared to the infamous Auschwitz. Much of the history of the Holocaust is presented under the shadow of Auschwitz, the infamous extermination camp. I consider it important that knowledge about the wider history of the Holocaust is made available and accessible. Our knowledge allows for memory of the tragedy to continue and for the victims to not be forgotten.

Operation Reinhard

Operation Reinhard was the plan of the Nazis to murder approximately two million Jews, which brought about the construction of Treblinka II, Sobibor and Belzec extermination camps. Treblinka I was already functioning as a forced labour camp when Operation Reinhard was embarked upon in autumn 1941. Franz Stangl, the second commandant of Treblinka, claimed in an interview with Gitta Sereny, that “Treblinka was the most awful thing and worse than Sobibor” (Sereny, 82). Despite the horrors of Treblinka, amongst the many thousands of camps and subcamps, it is not often spoken about when remembering the Holocaust and is frequently overshadowed by the infamy of Auschwitz.

New gas chambers were built in September 1942 to prepare for the influx of victims at Treblinka. When Stangl became commandant he reorganised the camp into a more competent death machine. Beforehand, commandant Irmfried Eberl would allow more trainloads to arrive than the camp could handle, creating chaos. Former SS Guard Franz Suchomel claimed that under the management of Stangl, “Treblinka was a primitive but efficient line of death” (Lanzmann, Shoah). A common assumption amongst the general populace is that all extermination camps used Zyklon B gas, however in the case of Treblinka, carbon monoxide from engine exhaust fumes were used. Suchomel himself was hesitant to accept a position at Treblinka. He had previously been told that his sole purpose would be to guard a workshop on the site. He later said that his first impression of Treblinka was catastrophic. He arrived during the time of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto meaning that death was immediate, unavoidable and overwhelming. Suchomel was later imprisoned for seven years in consequence to the Treblinka Trial that began in 1964.

Treblinka - The Village

Unlike the typical characteristics of the Nazi extermination camps, Treblinka lay within the village of Treblinka itself, which is situated in Eastern Poland. In Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film ‘Shoah’, he meets the villagers that were present at the time of the camp’s operation and continued to live there thereafter. Farmers working in their fields were just 100 yards away from the camp's perimeters and would frequently hear screams of victims. Whilst initially they found this disturbing, they became familiar with it, as it happened so regularly and consistently. The locals were able to  see much of what was happening on the site that was situated just over a small hill, however they daren’t stare for fear of being shot themselves. These villagers explained their attempts, when SS guards weren’t looking during the arrival of trainloads, to give the Jewish people water and warn them about what was to come with hand gestures.  

We Should Not Forget

Auschwitz is often viewed as the most horrific site for Nazi crimes due to the sheer amount of lives lost there. However, this should not overlook or diminish the memory of other camps such as Treblinka; the crimes committed at Treblinka are just as incomprehensible. Stangl claimed that typically by 8am, 5000 people had arrived and the selection process began. From September to mid-November 1942, 438,000 people’s lives were claimed by the regime at this camp alone. Samuel Willenberg, survivor of Treblinka who sadly passed away February this year, described the brutality of the last camp commandant, Kurt Franz, who notoriously shot anyone wearing glasses.

Willenberg was also a part of the prisoner revolt of Treblinka. 2 August 1943 was agreed upon to be the Day of Resistance, and whilst this shows that there was some degree of preparation, the prisoners weren’t able to prepare extensively. As camp operations were steadily and visibly coming to an end with less transits arriving everyday, remaining prisoners feared they would soon meet their deaths. Witness testimony by Kalman Teigman at the Eichmann Trial in 1961, described the vital role child prisoners played in attaining the weapons and smuggling the armaments out of the store room in sacks. It seems the essence of the decided plan was to create chaos to create a cover, which would allow some to escape. The revolt officially began when a grenade was thrown at an SS guard and from then further explosions were detonated. Scenes of chaos erupted and Stangl demanded that a manhunt take place. Amidst the chaos, dozens of Jews were able to escape through the fences and into the adjacent forest. After his successful escape, Willenberg served in the Polish People’s Army. Soon after the revolt, the camp was completely demolished, leaving wasteland.

Treblinka is often overlooked because a majority of it was destroyed before WWII ended. The world seems more interested in camps which were left relatively intact such as Auschwitz, and to an extent, this is understandable. It is much easier to imagine the horrors that occurred when people are able to view the barracks, the chambers and the railways tracks. It is also important, however, to commemorate and remember those camps demolished before they could be liberated. Willenberg, in an interview with the BBC, had asked that we never forget Treblinka. It is our duty to remember. We must remember these ‘other’ camps, such as Treblinka, in order to enhance and support basic understanding of the Nazi regime’s extermination efforts and to comprehend its vastness. The extensive dominance of the Nazi regime over Europe during WWII can be seen by the many concentration and extermination camps which represent an extensive death network. Treblinka’s destruction makes the site’s narrative more intriguing and important to remember. Holocaust education and memory should be inclusive of the entire narrative, not just of that which is perceived a ‘popular’ subject.

Works Cited:

“Death Camp Treblinka: Survivor Stories Documentary.” YouTube, uploaded by the BBC, 23 December, 2016.

Shoah. Directed by Claude Lanzmann,  New Yorker Films, 1985.

Sereny, Gitta. The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-1999. London: Penguin Press, 2000.


Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library has a wide range of sources focusing both on Treblinka specifically and the other Operation Reinhold camps more generally, some of which are listed below:

For more related sources try searching any of the following in our Collections Catalogue: Treblinka (Concentration Camp); personal narratives; Jewish resistance; Final Solution (Nazi terminology); escapees; Poland.

The Library also held an exhibition entitled “Finding Treblinka” in Summer 2016. Based on the work of forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy-Colls and accompanied by artistic responses curated by Michael Branthwaite, this exhibition sought to examine the history and architecture of the camps and the forensic archaeological process that helped reveal the camp’s history. Visit our dedicated Finding Treblinka page for more information and to watch curator chats.

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