Treblinka: Photo Essay

In the summer, I took part in a research trip around Eastern Europe, organised by the Holocaust Educational Foundation at Northwestern University, USA. The trip involved visiting former Jewish communities in Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as visiting a number of concentration and death camps, and cleaning Jewish cemeteries. This is my second - long overdue - post related to that trip.

If you ask the average person if they have heard of camps like Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, chances are they will answer affirmatively. Mention a name such as Treblinka, however, and the likelihood of them knowing of its existence is significantly smaller. Yet Treblinka was one of the largest killing sites of the Holocaust, where between as many as 870,000 and 925,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers into which carbon monoxide was pumped (unlike the gas chambers in Auschwitz or Majdanek, where the pesticide Zyklon B was used).
There were, in fact, two camps at Treblinka. The first, Treblinka I, was a forced labour camp for both Jews and non-Jewish Poles, established in November 1941. In July 1942, about a kilometre away, the Nazis established Treblinka II, the extermination camp, and it was here that hundreds of thousands of innocent people met their death. Only a few prisoners were kept alive to form part of the Sonderkommando, those who were made to assist with the processing of victims, carrying out tasks such as sorting the clothes of the murdered or cutting off the hair of the women who were about to be gassed. Men, women and children were told to undress, after being deceived into believing that they would be taking a shower before being put to work. Naked, they were herded through a heavily-camouflaged pathway that led to the gas chambers. Survivors of Treblinka said that the building had a Star of David on the outside, to carry on the deception of the Jews being taken to a bath-house. Once those inside the gas chamber had been murdered, the bodies were initially buried around the site, but in late 1942 - early 1943, the order was given that all bodies had to be exhumed and burned on huge cremation pyres made of railway tracks. A prisoner revolt took plage in Treblinka II on 2nd August 1943; the extermination camp was dismantled toward the end of the year, and Treblinka I was closed in July 1944. For more information on the Treblinka camps, please visit the USHMM website.
Over the last several years, extensive archaeological investigations have been carried out at Treblinka, led by British forensic archaeologist Dr Caroline Sturdy-Colls. Their findings have formed an exhibition at the site, 'Finding Treblinka'; as well as thousands of personal items being recovered, the team discovered human remains and located the site of the first gas chamber, which the Nazis had desperately tried to bury with sand and debris. A 2012 article for the BBC explains this work further.

This was my first visit to Treblinka. We left for the camp from Warsaw, about a two-hour drive, on a very warm day in June. When we arrived, there was one other car in the car park; the information kiosk/bookshop looked closed. This was already a startling difference from visiting a place like Auschwitz, which is much more accessible from cities like Krakow and therefore always busy.
We started by visiting the new permanent exhibition, opened by Dr Sturdy-Colls and her team in August 2015. Display cases exhibited items such as keys, bowls, hair clips, combs and other personal objects, whilst wall panels and photographs explored the non-invasive technology used by the archaeologists whilst exploring the former camps. One can never be indifferent to the suffering of innocent victims when they are confronted with the possesions of those who believed they were being 'resettled' for work, possessions that could belong to anyone.

We then visited Treblinka II itself. Other than one couple, there was no one else around. Because the camp was fully dismantled, nothing remains of the original structures. Stone blocks have been laid down to symbolise the old railway tracks, leading up to the platform where Jews were unloaded from the cattle wagons. The camp stood in a heavily wooded area, ensuring seclusion and a degree of secrecy as to what was going on there. Nowadays, one could almost describe the surroundings as beautiful; you could easily take a walk through the woods and believe you were somewhere else. The site of the extermination camp, however, is almost fully covered by an enormous memorial, a symbolic cemetery of all those who perished at Treblinka, which was built in the 1960s. The centrepiece is an 8-foot tall obelisk, surrounded by smaller, jagged stones, many of them with names of towns from which Jews were deported to Treblinka.
As we walked further into the site, the serentiy was broken by a strange humming noise. It transpired that this was caused by thousands and thousands of insects, probably digger wasps, which had made nests in the sand all around the camp. The earth almost vibrated with the noise, and it was horribly disconcerting. In a place like that, it made me think of flies swarming around a cadaver, so I had an uneasy feeling almost from the beginning.
I walked around the memorial, reading the names on the stones and avoiding the nests of the insects. Soon I reached a long, black slab which represents a cremation pyre, and is thought to be one of the locations where the bodies were burned. As I turned around - keeping my eyes on the ground because of those damn insects - my eyes fell on something white that jutted out slightly from the surrounding sand. I carefully picked up this little shard to examine, and my suspicions were confirmed; I had discovered a small fragment of bone. Turning it over, I could see the fragment was blackened and was charred at the edges. I am no medical expert, but I am sure that this was human. Two of my fellow researchers approached me, presumably seeing that I was looking at something, and both shared the same opinion.
At this point, I became emotional. It is one thing to study the Holocaust and read about what happened to people, quite another to stumble across physical evidence of the crimes. I was potentially holding in my hand part of a victim of the Holocaust who would never been afforded a proper burial. I had been told that fragments of bone and personal items sometimes still emerge from the earth, particularly after rain or the winter season, but nothing prepared me for seeing this myself. I felt the only response I could have to this was to bury the fragment under a nearby tree; a very small, symbolic burial, if nothing else.
After this experience, in all honesty, I just felt I wanted to leave. I was worried that I would see something else, and suddenly felt that I had no right to be walking on this ground, where remains could be anywhere. A lovely summer's day had turned very cold, and I wondered how Dr Sturdy-Colls and the others had felt when they discovered so many human remains around the site. It may sound like I am over-dramatising this experience, but I honestly don't know how else to describe my feelings and thoughts. I was genuinely shocked and very upset.
We had the opportunity to walk the kilometre to Treblinka I, but at that point most of us just wanted to sit and collect our thoughts. That may sound horribly selfish and uncaring, and at this point I do somewhat regret not making the visit, but perhaps this was meant for another occasion. My first visit to Treblinka - doubtless there will be others in the future - was not comfortable and not pleasant (although one should never be able to describe a visit to such a place as either of those things), but it was hugely important. The Holocaust can sometimes feel like a distant past, somewhat untouchable, but my experience at the former extermination camp really brought it back to me. There should be no place on earth that the remains of human beings lie scattered and fragmented, and if history dictates that there must be such places, it is imperative to remember that such fragments were once people; individuals with lives, hopes and ambitions.

I have included a few photographs of my visit below.

The museum at the Treblinka site, housing the new permanent exhibition

Personal possessions belonging to victims, found during archaeological investigations at the camp

A model of Treblinka II, based on survivor testimony and drawings

Stone slabs symbolising the former railway tracks into the camp

The approach to the memorial

A panorama of the memorial

The main obelisk

A stone dedicated to Janusz Korczak, the only stone dedicated to an individual at Treblinka

The symbolic 'cremation pyre'