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Posted Thursday, March 8, 2007

I don't like Poland, as the following entries will betray.

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March 2, 2007 (Friday)
Budapest (Hungary) - Warsaw - Treblinka - Warsaw (Poland))

  AT four-thirty a.m. R. phones a wake-up call to me from downtown Budapest.

[7 a.m. flight to Warsaw, Poland]. I don't like Poland, as the following entries will betray. This is my first visit to the country. Forty years on, I still recall translating Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel's description of accompanying Adolf Hitler's first drive into Poland -- the filthy hovels, the unkempt Jews, the disheveled farms and villages. I wonder how much has changed.

Malkinia stationFrom Warsaw we drive straight to Treblinka; we take photos at Malkinia station first, then Treblinka. Malkinia is on the main railway line between Warsaw and Bialystok; it crosses the Bug twice, as the river -- about 150 yards wide yesterday -- bends and loops. At Malkinia the trains arriving in 1942 were held on sidings, sometimes for several days, until they could be processed just up the line at Treblinka. There are several grubby houses standing near Malkinia station, mostly post-war, and two indescribably filthy "bars".

Four kilometers outside the village of Treblinka (which is itself 3.5 km from Malkinia) we reach the forest where the Treblinka camps were built in 1942.

A railway spur originally forked off the main line that crosses the road from Malkinia southward to Siedlce, and plunged into the forest.

This little branch line itself has (incredibly) been removed some years ago, leaving just the railway bed vanishing uphill into the forest (see photo below). The main line has rusted over and is weedy and has evidently not been used recently, if at all. Some rotting, low-grade concrete posts block off the spur's track.

Raioroad spur to Treblinka

Further up the hill we find ourselves just above the snow line and the ground is wet and slushy. The wind moans and sighs through the tall, densely packed pines. The site itself is a long, narrow clearing in the forest, reminiscent of a logging camp in the Redwood forests of North America, about two miles long, and marked by hideous monolithic memorials of cheap cement and concrete, erected during the communist era.

The Germans had meticulously deleted everything of the war years when they abandoned the site in late 1943.

We walk along the cobbled way beside where the rail spur had seemingly ended, and I gain the uncomfortable feeling that the whole site has been so artefacted-over as to be worthless as a convincing memorial: stone obelisks mark the approximate perimeter of the former site, which is a good idea; but inside this perimeter there is a jumble of Stonehenge-type monuments and jagged stones scattered around to mark where the alleged gas chamber or chambers once stood.

The trains were divided into manageable chunks at Malkinia, and shunted (pushed) up the gradient into the forest; the victims arrived in Treblinka by goods train from Warsaw and by passenger trains from western Europe, and unloaded at the end of the spur -- now marked by about a hundred symbolic slabs like railway sleepers (US: railroad ties).

perimeter obelisks at Treblinka


THE weather today is dark and inclement, the drizzle never stops. We visit the camp museum. Alan and I are the only visitors today; the lady curator opens the kiosk to sell us a brochure. According to the site's literature, the deportees were unloaded from the train on a platform, unloaded brutally if from Poland, Christian Wirthwith dogs and shouts (if Jews) because SS Hauptsturmführer Christian Wirth, right, in charge of the camps, wanted célérité, célérité, vitesse.

The museum is rather bare; it has two rooms, with placards on the walls, some original posters about the labour camp, and a few items dug up in excavations: mostly battered kitchenware, two strands of wartime barbed wire (one would have expected a lot more), but nothing of wartime significance: no bones, bullets, or bayonets, for instance.

There are evidently no known photographs showing either of the Treblinka camps in operation, but there is one September 1944 aerial photo taken of the now abandoned site by the Luftwaffe, which seems worthy of closer study. It turns out to have been drawn in charcoal by a recent artist however. Useless as a source.

There are signs on the site asking people not to light candles except at the special areas, because of the fire risk; the forest is coniferous, there are carpets of pine needles, and in summer that must present a major fire hazard (which raises an obvious question -- to which there may be a simple answer -- about that element of the received Treblinka history which has the thousands of bodies buried hastily in 1942 being exhumed in 1943 and burned in open air pits).

The "death camp" began operation on July 25, 1942, according to the literature. (See the Ganzenmüller -- Karl Wolff correspondence). The deportees were unloaded from the train; the men were separated from the women, made to undress in a barracks building or in a yard, and the women undressed elsewhere, separated, -- the left hand side of yard for women, right hand side for men; after ca. October 1942, the women had their hair cut off for recycling; all were then forced into the "funnel" ---- Schlauch -- (also called the Himmelfahrtstrasse), separated by sex (for psychological and tactical reasons) and forced at a trot up the Schlauch.

This was a passage enclosed on either side by a barbed wire fence about two meters high, opaque with intertwined leaves, and with sand on the ground, all very reassuring, but at the end of the Schlauch, beyond a kink, was a wooden shed, replaced later with a wooden shed built on bricks and here, says the literature, the killing was done.

Photo: The memorial at Treblinka erected by the communist Polish government

memorial at Treblinka THE literature suggests that the victims were liquidated 150 to 200 in each chamber, in a shed with six chambers. There appears to be still a residual uncertainty about how the killing was done -- the actual medium used.

Some sources suggest a diesel engine produced lethal exhaust gases (technically problematical). Wirth suggested (to Adolf Eichmann?) that gasoline was used because it could be ordered with no questions being raised.

Mike Treganza wrote to Kurt Franz (deputy Kdt, owner of the Saint-Bernard dog called Barry, originally Stangl's; arrested 1959 and sentenced to life index, he died 1998) and Franz said to Mike from prison in a letter ca. 1980s he thought it was diesel, but never operated it himself) The literature is sure that some kind of exhaust gases were used. The victims had no will to live, so they did not revolt. The able-bodied Jews who had that morning been selected for work gangs -- i.e. to handle the body clearance -- were added to the victims by day's end.

Stangl arrived at the end of August 1942; he succeeded the incompetent Dr (med) Irmfried Eberl, born in 1910, suicide 1948. Wirth arrived at the end of August 1942, upset about reports of slow operations, perhaps from Kurt Franz, screaming abuse at Eberl (according to the trial record): "You swine, what are you playing at, you claim you can process x-thousand a day, when you can only do three or four thousand" -- or words to that effect. Trains were being backed up all down the line, around the Malkinia sidings. Wirth had to put a temporary stop to the Warsaw deportations. They were held at a location in Warsaw, which is unchanged today.

The bodies were pulled, two men per body (or carried with stretchers), to a pit that had been dug fifty to a hundred meters from the "gas chambers". Before the pit was dug, there was chaos. Franz Suchomel at his trial said that originally there was just a pile of bodies standing there which became more and more putrid, with blood, maggots and excrement, and "the Jews preferred to be shot rather than touch that mess. In the end the Germans had to do it." Several pits were then dug over a large area, and backfilled with soil as each new pit was dug.

In about February 1943 the SS began digging up the buried victims, as soon as the frost allowed, and burned the rotting bodies on open-air pyres (see however above).

There was a prisoner revolt on August 2, 1943. Escapes occurred from both the upper and lower camps (the lower was camp of the living, and the upper housed just those prisoners involved in body clearance).

In November 1943 the whole Treblinka operation camp was shut down and destroyed. Some prisoners were taken to Sobibór, where they helped erase all traces of the camp there and were then shot. (See 1963 or 1964 trial of one Kurt Frenzl??).

From November 1943 the SS built a Bauernhof, or farmhouse, on the Treblinka location where the trains entered the camp; this was the living area for the Ukrainian guards (they were SS other ranks from Trawniki) and a Ukrainian peasant, Streibel, a former guard, was installed as the tenant farmer on this farmhouse property. The object was to prevent the local population from unearthing any objects.

The literature says:

"What makes the death camp so unique ... is the fact that there was an attempt by the Nazis to cover the existence of the camp and its functions as the Russians were advancing. The fencing was dismantled, the mass graves filled in, earth mounds were levelled, the extermination and sorting yard were ploughed over, and lupins were planted to cover the telltale scarring of the ground. Also most of the structures that remained standing after the revolt were dismantled or utilised as a decoy in order to make the area appear as an ordinary farm."

So much for what the established literature tells us. The site remains do nothing either to confirm or to deny it. The Ukrainian farmer Streibel left before the Red Army arrived; he first burned the house down (a common practice among Ukrainians leaving a property) and the local peasants cannibalized what survived the fire. Nothing remains of the farmhouse, which is referred to in Heinrich Himmler's files too, I remember (see the book by Helmut Heiber: Reichsführer!); there are not even traces of its foundations.


BACK in Warsaw in the evening, after this 230 km drive out to Treblinka and back, we find a café with WiFi internet connection advertised; but the transmitter signal apparently does not reach the actual café. A friend who works in a bank reopens his office there for us to go online at 8:50 pm.

Jürgen G. has sent an email, urging me to skepticism. I reply: "Ich war heute in T., sehr enttäuscht darüber, wie die Stelle umgepflügt worden ist mit Schüleraufgaben, Denkmälern usw. Sogar die Bahnlinie ist aufgerissen und abmontiert worden.. . . Bin in einigen Tagen auch in A. und L. und S., um eigene Eindrücke zu sammeln." That is Auschwitz, Lublin, and Sobibór.         continue

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