Vassily Grossman, a Jewish journalist from the Ukraine was known for his coverage of how the Red Army fought against the invading Germans. He was among the first journalists to visit the remains of the killing center at Treblinka and his essay on the subject appeared in the Soviet literary journal Znamya (Banner) in November 1944.
Excerpts from “The Hell of Treblinka” by Vasily Grossman, 1944
To the east of Warsaw, along the Western Bug, lie sands and swamps, and thick evergreen and deciduous forests. These places are gloomy and deserted; there are few villages. Travelers try to avoid the narrow roads, where walking is difficult and cartwheels sink up to the axle in the deep sand.
Here, on the branch line to Siedlce, stands the remote station of Treblinka. It is a little over sixty kilometers from Warsaw and not far from the junction station of Malkinia, where the lines from Warsaw, Bialystok, Siedlce, and Lomza all meet. . . .
This miserable wilderness was the place chosen by some official, and approved by SS Reichsführer Himmler, for the construction of a vast executioner's block—an executioner's block such as the human race has never seen, from the time of primitive barbarism to our own cruel days. An executioner's block, probably, such as the entire universe has never seen. This was the site of the SS's main killing ground, which surpassed those of Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, and Auschwitz.*
There were two camps at Treblinka: Treblinka I, a penal camp for prisoners of various nationalities, chiefly Poles; and Treblinka II, the Jewish camp.
Treblinka I, a labor or penal camp, was located next to the quarry, not far from the edge of the forest. It was an ordinary camp, one of the hundreds and thousands of such camps that the Gestapo established in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. It appeared in 1941. Many different traits of the German character, distorted by the terrible mirror of Hitler's regime, find expression in this camp. Thus the delirious ravings occasioned by fever are an ugly, distorted reflection of what the patient thought and felt before he was ill. Thus the acts and thoughts of a madman are a distorted reflection of the acts and thoughts of a normal person. Thus a criminal commits an act of violence; his hammer blow to the bridge of his victim’s nose requires not only a subhuman cold-bloodedness but also the keen eye and firm grip of an experienced foundry worker.
Thrift, precision, calculation, and pedantic cleanliness are qualities common to many Germans, and they are not bad qualities in themselves. . . . In this Polish labor camp the SS acted as if they were doing something no more out of the ordinary than growing cauliflowers or potatoes. . . .
But those who lived in Treblinka I knew very well that there was indeed something more terrible—a hundred times more terrible—than this camp. In May 1942, three kilometers away from the labor camp, the Germans had begun the construction of a Jewish camp, a camp that was, in effect, one vast executioner's block. Construction proceeded rapidly, with more than a thousand workers involved. Nothing in this camp was adapted for life; everything was adapted for death. Himmler intended the existence of this camp to remain a profound secret; not a single person was to leave it alive. And not a single person—not even a field marshal—was allowed near it. Anyone who happened to come within a kilometer of the camp was shot without warning. German planes were forbidden to fly over the area. The victims brought by train along the spur from Treblinka village did not know what lay in wait for them until the very last moment. The guards who had accompanied the prisoners during the journey were not allowed into the camp; they were not allowed even to cross its outer perimeter. When the trains arrived, SS men took over from the previous guards. . . .
The fenced-off area of the camp proper, including the station platform, storerooms for the executed people's belongings, and other auxiliary premises, is extremely small: 780 by 600 meters [2,925 by 1,968 feet]. If for a moment one were to entertain the least doubt as to the fate of the millions transported here, if one were to suppose for a moment that the Germans did not murder them immediately after their arrival, then one would have to ask what has happened to them all. There were, after all, enough of them to populate a small state or a large European capital. The area of the camp is so small that, had the new arrivals stayed alive for even a few days, it would have been only a week and a half before there was no more space behind the barbed wire for this tide of people flowing in from Poland, from Belorussia, from the whole of Europe. For thirteen months—396 days—the trains left either empty or loaded with gravel. Not a single person brought by train to Treblinka II ever made the return journey. The terrible question has to be asked: "Cain, where are they? Where are the people you brought here?"
Fascism did not succeed in concealing its greatest crime—but this is not simply because there were thousands of involuntary witnesses to it. . . . Had Hitler won, he would have succeeded in covering up every trace of his crimes. He would have forced every witness to keep silent. Even if there had been not just thousands but tens of thousands of witnesses, not one of them would have said a word. And once again one cannot but pay homage to the men who—at a time of universal silence, when a world now so full of the clamor of victory was saying not a word—battled on in Stalingrad, by the steep bank of the Volga, against a German army to the rear of which lay gurgling, smoking rivers of innocent blood. It is the Red Army that stopped Himmler from keeping the secret of Treblinka.
Today the witnesses have spoken; the stones and the earth have cried out aloud. And today, before the eyes of humanity, before the conscience of the whole world, we can walk step by step around each circle of the Hell of Treblinka, in comparison with which Dante's Hell seems no more than an innocent game on the part of Satan. . . .
Who were the people brought here in trainloads? For the main part, Jews. Also some Poles and Gypsies. By the spring of 1942, almost the entire Jewish population of Poland, Germany, and the western regions of Belorussia had been rounded up into ghettoes. Millions of Jewish people—workers, craftsmen, doctors, professors, architects, engineers, teachers, artists, and members of other professions, along with their wives, daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers—had been rounded up into the ghettoes of Warsaw, Radom, Częstochowa, Lublin, Bialystok, Grodno, and dozens of smaller towns. In the Warsaw ghetto alone there were around half a million Jews. Confinement to the ghetto was evidently the first, preparatory stage of Hitler's plan for the extermination of the Jews.
The summer of 1942 . . . We know that Himmler came to Warsaw at this time and issued the necessary orders. Work on the construction of the vast executioner's block proceeded day and night. By July the first transports were already on their way to Treblinka from Warsaw and Częstochowa. People were told that they were being taken to the Ukraine, to work on farms there; they were allowed to take food and twenty kilograms of luggage. In many cases the Germans forced their victims to buy train tickets for the station of "Ober-Majdan," a code word for Treblinka. . . .
Soon the square would be filled by three to four thousand people, laden with bags and suitcases. Some were supporting the old and the sick. Mothers were holding little children in their arms; older children clung to their parents as they looked around inquisitively. There was something sinister and terrifying about this square that had been trodden by millions of human feet. People's sharp eyes were quick to notice alarming little signs. Lying here and there on the ground—which had evidently been swept only a few minutes before their arrival—were all kinds of abandoned objects: a bundle of clothing, some open suitcases, a few shaving brushes, some enameled saucepans. How had they got there? And why did the railway line end just beyond the station? Why was there only yellow grass and three-meter-high barbed wire? Where were the lines to Bialystok, Siedlce, Warsaw, and Wolkowice? And why was there such an odd smile on the faces of the new guards as they looked at the men adjusting their ties, at the respectable old ladies, at the boys in sailor suits, at the slim young girls still managing to look neat and tidy after the journey, at the young mothers lovingly adjusting the blankets wrapped around babies who were wrinkling their little faces?
All these Wachmänner in black uniforms and SS Unteroffiziere were similar, in their behavior and psychology, to cattle drivers at the entrance to a slaughterhouse. The SS and the Wachmänner did not see the newly arrived transport as being made up of living human beings, and they could not help smiling at the sight of manifestations of embarrassment, love, fear, and concern for the safety of loved ones or possessions. It amused them to see mothers straightening their children's jackets or scolding them for running a few yards away, to see men wiping their brows with a handkerchief and then lighting a cigarette, to see young girls tidying their hair, looking in pocket mirrors, and anxiously holding down their skirts if there was a gust of wind. They thought it funny that the old men should try to squat down on their little suitcases, that some should be carrying books under their arms, that the sick should moan and groan and have scarves tied around their necks. . . .
And once again during these brief moments the people who had come out into the square found themselves noticing all kinds of alarming and incomprehensible trifles.
What lay behind that huge six-meter-high wall covered with blankets and yellowing pine branches? Even the blankets were somehow frightening. Quilted, many-colored, silken or with calico covers, they looked all too similar to the blankets the newcomers had brought with them. How had these blankets got here? Who had brought them? And who were their owners? And why didn't they need their blankets any longer? And who were these men wearing light-blue armbands? Troubling suspicions came back to mind, frightening rumors that had been passed on in a whisper. But no, no, this was impossible. And the terrible thought was dismissed.
This sense of alarm always lasted a little while, perhaps two or three minutes, until everyone had made their way to the square. There was always a slight delay at this point; there were always cripples, the old, the sick, and the lame, people who could barely move their legs. But soon everybody was present.
An SS Unteroffizier instructs the newcomers in a loud, clear voice to leave their things in the square and make their way to the bathhouse, taking with them only identity documents, valuables, and toiletries. They want to ask all kinds of questions: Should they take their underwear? Is it really all right to undo their bundles? Aren't all their belongings going to get mixed up? Might they not disappear altogether? But some strange force makes them hurry on in silence, not looking back, not asking questions, toward an opening—an opening in a barbed-wire wall, six meters high, that has been threaded with branches. They walk past antitank hedgehogs, past thickets of barbed wire three times the height of a human being, past an antitank ditch three meters deep, past thin coils of steel wire strewn on the ground to trip a fugitive and catch him like a fly in a spider web, past another wall of barbed wire many meters high. And everyone is overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, a sense of doom. There is no way to escape, no way to turn back, no way to fight back: staring down at them from low squat wooden towers are the muzzles of heavy machine guns. Should they call out for help? But all around them are SS men and Wachmänner armed with submachine guns, hand grenades, and pistols. These men are power; they are power itself. Tanks, aircraft, lands, cities and sky, railways, the law, newspapers, radio—everything is in their hands. The whole world is silent, crushed, enslaved by a gang of bandits who have seized all power. London is silent, and so is New York. And only somewhere thousands of kilometers distant, on the banks of the Volga, is the Soviet artillery pounding away, obstinately proclaiming the determination of the Russian people to fight to the death for liberty, calling upon every nation to join in the battle. . . .
Not always, however, did things go so smoothly. Sometimes, when the prisoners knew where they were being taken, there were rebellions. Skrzeminski, a local peasant, twice saw people smash their way out of trains, knock down the guards, and run for the forest. On both occasions every last person was killed by machine-gun fire. The men had been carrying four children, aged four to six; they were shot too. Another peasant, Marianna Kobus, has described similar attempts at escape. Once, when she was working in the fields, she saw sixty people break out of a train and run toward the forest; all were shot before her eyes.
But the contingent of new arrivals has now reached a second square, inside the inner camp fence. On one side of this square stands a single huge barrack, and there are three more barracks to the right. Two of these are used for storing clothes, the third for storing footwear. Farther on, in the western section of the camp, are barracks for the SS, barracks for the Wachmänner, food stores, and a small farmyard. There are cars, trucks, and an armored vehicle. All in all, this seems like an ordinary camp, like Treblinka I. . . .
The main thing in the next stage of processing the new arrivals was to break their will. There was a never-ending sequence of abrupt commands—bellowed out in a manner in which the German army takes pride, a manner that is proof in itself of the Germans being a master race. Simultaneously hard and guttural, the letter r sounded like the crack of a whip.
After this, in the leaden silence, the crowd would hear words that the Scharführer repeated several times a day for month after month: "Men are to remain where they are. Women and children must go to the barracks on the left and undress."
This, according to the accounts of eyewitnesses, marked the start of heartrending scenes. Love—maternal, conjugal, or filial love—told people that they were seeing one another for the last time. Handshakes, kisses, blessings, tears, brief hurried words into which people put all their love, all their pain, all their tenderness, all their despair . . . The SS psychiatrists of death knew that all this must be cut short, that these feelings must be stifled at once. The psychiatrists of death knew the simple laws that operate in slaughterhouses all over the world, laws which, in Treblinka, were exploited by brute beasts in order to deal with human beings. This was a critical moment: the moment when daughters were separated from fathers, mothers from sons, grandmothers from grandsons, husbands from wives. . . .
The conveyor belt of Treblinka functioned in such a way that beasts were able methodically to deprive human beings of everything to which they have been entitled, since the beginning of time, by the holy law of life. . . .
Then came the last act of the human tragedy—a human being was now in the last circle of the Hell that was Treblinka.
The door of the concrete chamber slammed shut. The door was secured by every possible kind of fastening: by locks, by hooks, by a massive bolt. It was not a door that could be broken down.
Can we find within us the strength to imagine what the people in these chambers felt, what they experienced during their last minutes of life? All we know is that they cannot speak now . . . Covered by a last clammy mortal sweat, packed so tight that their bones cracked and their crushed rib cages were barely able to breathe, they stood pressed against one another, they stood as if they were a single human being. Someone, perhaps some wise old man, makes the effort to say, "Patience now—this is the end." Someone shouts out some terrible curse. A holy curse—surely this curse must be fulfilled? With a superhuman effort a mother tries to make a little more space for her child: may her child's dying breaths be eased, however infinitesimally, by a last act of maternal care. A young woman, her tongue going numb, asks, "Why am I being suffocated? Why can't I love and have children?" Heads spin. Throats choke. What are the pictures now passing before people's glassy dying eyes? Pictures of childhood? Of the happy days of peace? Of the last terrible journey? Of the mocking face of the SS man in that first square by the station: "Ah, so that's why he was laughing . . ." Consciousness dims. It is the moment of the last agony . . . No, what happened in that chamber cannot be imagined. The dead bodies stand there, gradually turning cold. It was the children, according to witnesses, who kept on breathing for longest. After twenty to twenty-five minutes Schmidt's assistants would glance through the peepholes. It was time to open the second doors, the doors to the platforms. Urged on by shouting SS men, prisoners in overalls set about unloading the chambers. Because of the sloping floor, many of the bodies simply tumbled out of their own accord. People who carried out this task have told me that the faces of the dead were very yellow and that around seventy percent of them were bleeding slightly from the nose and mouth; physiologists, no doubt, can explain this.
SS men examined the bodies, talking to one another as they did so. If anyone turned out to still be alive, if anyone groaned or stirred, they were finished off with a pistol shot. Then a team armed with dental pliers would extract all the platinum and gold teeth from the mouths of the murdered people waiting to be loaded onto the trolleys. The teeth were then sorted according to value, packed into boxes, and sent off to Germany. Had the SS found it in any way more convenient or advantageous to extract people's teeth while they were still alive, they would, of course, have done this without hesitation, just as they removed women's hair while they were still alive. But it was evidently easier and more convenient to extract people's teeth when they were dead.
The corpses were then loaded on the trolleys and pushed along the narrow-gauge tracks toward long grave pits. There they were laid out in rows, packed closely together. The huge pit was not filled in; it was still waiting. In the meantime, as soon as the work of unloading the chambers had begun, the Scharführer "on transport duty" would have received a short order by telephone. The Scharführer would then blow his whistle—a signal to the engine driver—and another twenty wagons would slowly be brought up to the platform of a make-believe railway station called Ober-Majdan. Another three or four thousand people carrying suitcases, bundles, and bags of food would get out and walk to the station square. Mothers were holding little children in their arms; elder children clung to their parents as they looked intently around. There was something sinister and terrifying about this square that had been trodden by millions of feet. And why did the railway line end just beyond the station? Why was there only yellow grass and three-meter-high barbed wire?
The processing of the new contingent was carefully timed; they set out along "The Road of No Return" just as the last corpses from the gas chambers were being taken toward the grave pits. The pit had not been filled in; it was still waiting.
A little later, the Scharführer would blow his whistle again—and another twenty wagons would slowly be brought up to the station platform. More thousands of people carrying suitcases, bundles, and bags of food would get out and walk to the station square and look around. There was something sinister and terrifying about this square that had been trodden by millions of feet.
And the camp commandant, sitting in his office amid heaps of papers and charts, would telephone the station in Treblinka village—and another sixty-car train escorted by SS men with submachine guns and automatic rifles would pull heavily out of a siding and crawl along a single track between rows of pines.
The vast excavators worked day and night, digging vast new pits, pits that were many hundreds of meters long and many dark meters deep, and the pits were waiting. Waiting—though not for long. . . .
Astonishingly, there really was one happy day in the living Hell of Treblinka.
The Germans, however, were mistaken: what brought the condemned this gift was not humility and obedience. On the contrary, this happy day dawned thanks to insane audacity—thanks to the insane audacity of people who had nothing to lose. All were expecting to die, and every day of their life was a day of suffering and torment. All had witnessed terrible crimes, and the Germans would have spared none of them; the gas chambers awaited them all. Most, in fact, were sent to the gas chambers after only a few days of work and were replaced by people from new contingents. Only a few dozen people lived for weeks and months, rather than for days and hours; these were skilled workers, carpenters, and stonemasons, and the bakers, tailors, and barbers who ministered to the Germans’ everyday needs. These people created an organizing committee for an uprising. It was, of course, only the already condemned, only people possessed by an all-consuming hatred and a fierce thirst for revenge, who could have conceived such an insane plan. They did not want to escape until they had destroyed Treblinka. And they destroyed it. Weapons—axes, knives, and truncheons—began to appear in the prisoners’ barracks. The risk they incurred, the price they paid to obtain each ax or knife, is hard to imagine. What cunning and skill, what astonishing patience, were required to hide these things in the barracks! Stocks of gasoline were laid in—to douse the camp buildings and set them ablaze. How did the conspirators achieve this? How did gasoline disappear, as if it had evaporated, from the camp stores? How indeed? Through superhuman effort—through great mental ingenuity, through determination and a terrifying audacity. A large tunnel was dug beneath the ammunition store. Audacity worked miracles; standing beside the conspirators was the God of courage. They took twenty hand grenades, a machine gun, rifles, and pistols and hid them in secret places. Every detail in their complex plan was carefully worked out. Each group of five had its specific assignment. Each mathematically precise assignment called for insane daring. One group was to storm the watchtowers, where the Wachmänner sat with their machine guns. A second group was to attack the sentries who patrolled the paths between the various camp squares. A third group was to attack the armored vehicles. A fourth was to cut the telephone lines. A fifth was to seize control of the barracks. A sixth would cut passages through the barbed wire. A seventh was to lay bridges across the antitank ditches. An eighth was to pour gasoline on the camp buildings and set them on fire. A ninth group would destroy whatever else could be destroyed. . . .
The uprising was planned for August 2. It began with a revolver shot. The banner of success fluttered over the holy cause. New flames soared into the sky—not the heavy flames and grease-laden smoke of burning corpses but bright wild flames of life. The camp buildings were ablaze, and to the rebels it seemed that a second sun was burning over Treblinka, that the sun had rent its body in two in celebration of the triumph of freedom and honor.
Shots rang out; machine-gun fire crackled from the watchtowers that the rebels had captured. Hand grenades rang out as triumphantly as if they were the bells of truth. The air shook from crashes and detonations; buildings collapsed; the buzzing of corpse flies was drowned out by the whistle of bullets. In the pure, clear air flashed axes red with blood. On August 2 the evil blood of the SS flowed onto the ground of the Hell that was Treblinka, and a radiant blue sky celebrated the moment of revenge. And a story as old as the world was repeated once more: creatures who had behaved as if they were representatives of a higher race; creatures who had shouted "Achtung! Mutzen ab!" to make people take off their hats; creatures who had bellowed, in their masterful voices "Alle r-r-r-raus unter-r-r-r!" to compel the inhabitants of Warsaw to leave their homes and walk to their deaths—these conquering beings, so confident of their own might when it had been a matter of slaughtering millions of women and children, turned out to be despicable, cringing reptiles as soon as it came to a life-and-death struggle. They begged for mercy. They lost their heads. They ran this way and that way like rats. They forgot about Treblinka's diabolically contrived defense system. They forgot about their all-annihilating firepower. They forgot their own weapons. But need I say more? Need anyone be in the least surprised by these things? . . .
As Treblinka blazed and the rebels, saying a silent farewell to the ashes of their fellows, were escaping through the barbed wire, SS and police units were rushed in from all directions to track them down. Hundreds of police dogs were sent after them. Airplanes were summoned. There was fighting in the forests, fighting in the marshes—and few of those who took part in the uprising are still alive. But what does that matter? They died fighting, with guns in their hands.
After August 2, Treblinka ceased to exist. The Germans burned the remaining corpses, dismantled the stone buildings, removed the barbed wire, and torched the wooden barracks not already burned down by the rebels. Part of the equipment of the house of death was blown up; part was taken away by train. The grills were destroyed, the excavators taken away, the vast pits filled in with earth. The station building was razed; last of all, the track was dismantled and the crossties removed. Lupines were sown on the site of the camp, and a settler by the name of Streben built himself a little house there. Now this house has gone; it too was burned down. What were the Germans trying to do? To hide the traces of the murder of millions in the Hell that was Treblinka? Did they really imagine this to be possible? Can silence be imposed on thousands of people who have witnessed transports bringing the condemned from every corner of Europe to a place of conveyor-belt execution? Did the Germans really think that they could hide the dead, the heavy flames, and the smoke that hung in the sky for eight months, visible day and night to the inhabitants of dozens of villages and hamlets? Did they really think that they could force the peasants of Wólka to forget the screams of the women and children—those terrible screams that continued for thirteen months and that ring in their ears to this day? Can the memory of such screams be torn from the heart? Did they really think they could force silence upon the peasants who for a whole year had been transporting human ash from the camp and scattering it on the roads?
Did they really think they could silence the still-living witnesses who had seen the Treblinka executioner's block in operation from its first days until August 2, 1943, the last day of its existence? Witnesses whose descriptions of each SS man and each of the Wachmänner precisely corroborate one another? . . . Himmler's minions are now telling the story of their crimes—a story so unreal that it seems like the product of insanity and delirium. A Soviet officer, wearing the green ribbon of the Defense of Stalingrad medal, takes down page after page of the murderers’ testimonies. At the door stands a sentry, wearing the same green Stalingrad ribbon on his chest. His lips are pressed tight together and there is a stern look on his gaunt weather-beaten face. This face is the face of justice—the people's justice. And is it not a remarkable symbol that one of the victorious armies from Stalingrad should have come to Treblinka, near Warsaw? It was not without reason that Himmler began to panic in February 1943; it was not without reason that he flew to Treblinka and gave orders for the construction of the grill pits followed by the obliteration of all traces of the camp. It was not without reason—but it was to no avail. The defenders of Stalingrad have now reached Treblinka; from the Volga to the Vistula turned out to be no distance at all. And now the very earth of Treblinka refuses to be an accomplice to the crimes the monsters committed. It is casting up the bones and belongings of those who were murdered; it is casting up everything that Hitler's people tried to bury within it. . . 1
- 1 : Excerpted from Vasily Grossman, “The Hell of Treblinka,” in Robert Chandler et al., ed. and trans., The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (New York: New York Review of Books, 2010), 116–162.