On 13 September 1943, Abram Jakub Krzepicki managed to escape from the extermination camp in Treblinka. He told Rachela Auerbach, a journalist cooperating with Oneg Shabbat, about what he saw and experienced in the “corpse factory”.
“The train arrived through the special gate. It was made of wooden battens interwoven with barbed wire. The wire was camouflaged with green branches. The train stopped and the doors of all cars were immediately opened at the same time. We were in the slaughterhouse called Treblinka.” [4;72-72] He was one of approx. 5,000 Warsaw Jews brought in to be killed that day. His case was not an exception, and he was neither the first nor the last of hundreds of thousands of Jews whom the Germans planned to murder as part of “Grossaktion”; they sent victims to the Treblinka II extermination camp for this purpose only. Perhaps many prisoners had the idea of escaping as soon as the train rolled into the camp siding. But it was immediately knocked out of their heads with blows raining on them. The author of the quoted words managed to escape against all odds. It was a testimony to both his uniqueness and his ability to tell what he saw and experienced once he managed to get to Warsaw after his escape. At the turn of 1942/1943, Rachela Auerbach, a journalist cooperating with Oneg Shabbat, listened to and recorded his accounts which were full of raw emotions and charged with the closeness of experience.
“When I entered the camp and got off the train, I was knee-deep in money,” he described his first impressions of his “working” visit to Treblinka, “I was walking among banknotes, coins, expensive stones, jewels and clothes.” [2;135] After all, the “final solution to the Jewish question” had many faces. Regardless of the scale of criminal activities and objective (technical and logistical) problems or “competence” disputes (which occurred in the hierarchical Nazi system, starting from top officials to SS men directly implementing the “project” in the extermination camps), it was transformed into a failure-free system. [3;501] Was it based on ideological aspects justifying the sense of annihilation of hundreds of thousands of people due to their nationality or origin alone? Or was the intention of grabbing literally everything, the entire Jewish property, the actual or perhaps the primary goal of the creators of the criminal machine? He mentioned “huge, even astronomical sums”. And he explained that “everyone wanted to take advantage, to take control [over them]”. [2;140] Gitta Serena, a journalist specialising in Holocaust-related matters, listened to his cold, unemotional accounts and recorded them at the turn of 1970/1971.
Various circumstances led to that. They reached the extermination camp on the same day, i.e. 26the August 1942. On one side there was Abram Jakub Krzepicki – a young Polish Jew, serving in the Polish Army during the September campaign. On the other, Franz Paul Stangl – an Austrian citizen of the Greater Germanic Reich and SS man, a police officer by profession, a criminal by vocation, future commandant of the Treblinka II extermination camp. The former was a victim, the latter – an executioner. One place, but seen from a different perspective. Created on the basis of a system that was criminal by nature…
Treblinka II was established as the last extermination camp. Just like in Sobibór and Bełżec, the process of mass murders was accompanied by the plundering of Jewish property. According to the common understanding and the official version proclaimed by the Nazi authorities, all goods were treated as the property of the “winners”: clothes, everyday objects, and valuables. Once their former owners were murdered, they were transported to Germany. Those were the things that Abram Jakub Krzepicki saw after arriving at the camp: “The first thing I noticed was a huge pile of rags. My heart was pounding. So many clothes, what happened to all those people?!”. [4;73] Myths about gold mixed with poor reality. The poor and the “rich” took everything that they still had and that was of any value on their last journey. Everything they had not managed to sell on the black market in the ghetto: remnants of their properties, family memorabilia, savings. Because as they did before in the ghetto, also on their way to the camp they believed that they would have a chance to survive. Didn’t they know it was a death camp? Or didn’t they want to admit that they were in such a hopeless situation?
Krzepicki repeatedly mentioned the riches he saw during his stay in the camp. If we counted gold wedding bands, rings, or certificates of ownership of workshops at Tłomackie Street, previously belonging to the Jews and robbed by the Germans, or if we assumed that each of the prisoners had a twenty-dollar note on them on their way to the place of extermination, would such data – if compared to the estimated numbers of the murdered Jews – be a testimony to their wealth or poverty? The clothes showed a lot. That is what he told about his work in Lumpenkommando, the team responsible for preparing everything that was left by the victims killed and that was to be transported to Germany: “These things sorted themselves according to the social class of their owners as more transports arrived at Treblinka. First, there were things of the poor, beggars, and the residents of the points [for refugees], then there were better things, once belonging to more affluent people. In the beginning, we sorted very dirty clothes and underwear infested with lice. Hungry vermin crawled all over us.” When they cleaned up half of the stockpile, they realised that they had just started tidying things once belonging to people from another social class: “We’ve reached more decent, better things. There were also things belonging to German Jews from Berlin and Vienna. They were transported to Warsaw before the “Grossaktion”. [4;92]
The “bathhouse” was another place where “wealth” was clearly visible: “On the floor there was money: banknotes, coins, Polish zloty, foreign currencies, securities. We were told to take everything as it comes and put it into piles in the yard by the track.” He also talked about the last form of rebellion among the prisoners a moment before death: “On the roads and paths in Treblinka, there were a lot of torn banknotes which the Jews destroyed and threw away when they understood what Treblinka was. It was their last protest and their last revenge before entering the gas chamber”. [4;83]. However, “dentists” and “boxes” were the most shocking and, at the same time, a terrifying symbol of Treblinka. The “dentists” were supposed to fill boxes with filling and bridges that had been pulled out seconds before, wedding bands, rings and chains. A few minutes after gassing, a moment before throwing the “junk” into the mass grave. Evidence of pettiness, greed and lust of executioners. Krzepicki said: “They take advantage of everything… If a murdered Jew was accidentally a well-known lawyer, an outstanding doctor or had a talent – he inherited a nicer pen, a more expensive shirt, a platinum crown instead of a gold one”. He assessed the existing situation unambiguously: “They all became millionaires in Treblinka.” [4;93,95]
This did not mean that they were the only ones who benefited from the crime. The inhabitants of the villages adjacent to Treblinka also joined in this process. They traded with prisoners working outside the camp, in the forests. Guards supervising the prisoners acted as intermediaries. This form of “cooperation” provided considerable benefits. Polish peasants and their supervisors received and prisoners food: “People want to make money from Treblinka. Extensive trade takes place – people would buy everything from a Treblinka prisoner: gold, securities”. [4;136] Polish peasants believed that those who managed to escape from the camp had to be rich. That is why Krzepicki – already a fugitive – often had a problem with getting any help from the Poles. He was also robbed by them. He met only one person who selflessly helped Jews: “It was the only example of a peasant helping a Jew I came across”. [4;159]. And it was thanks to him that he managed to get out of the circle of death. Another prisoner of Treblinka, Richard Glazar, wrote about such phenomena vividly: “The whole neighbourhood stands on its head, and somewhere in the middle, in the sand and forest, at the bend of the Bug river, there is Treblinka. The whole area sponges off this slaughterhouse contaminated with is parasitic along and wide, on this huge contaminated with dough”. [2;92]
Krzepicki had seen and experienced much before he managed to escape. It took from several to several dozen hours to reach Treblinka II. The minds and bodies of people transported in terrible conditions became more and more aware of their end as they were getting closer to their destination. Enslaved, they had to leave their past behind them when they were pushed into cattle cars. The future in their extremely suppressed consciousness was unpredictable. They lived – if it is even possible to use this word with reference to the conditions created by the Germans – only in the present. Very uncertain, including not days or hours, but only “here and now”: first in the car, then in the handling yard, in the undressing area and on the way to the place of execution, until the very end when they reached the last place in their life – the place of extermination. The first impressions explained what happened next: “The first thing I noticed was a huge pile of rags. My heart was pounding. So many clothes, what happened to all those people?!”. [4;73] Most of the convicts immediately knew the answer…
The Germans excelled in this: as part of and for the purpose of the implementation of their plans, they created and improved the “art” of mass killing. If the primary purpose of their actions was to kill, the means allowing them to achieve this purpose was the “child” of modern sociotechnology – terror. It was located in the closed zone of the extermination camp. The victims arriving there could see its real boundaries, set by Jewish prisoners not so long ago, through train car windows with bars and barbed wire. The convicts experienced its symbolic limits immediately after the train stopped. These limits were associated with the following aspects: pace – roll-call – selection.
Pace. It was an element permanently inscribed in the functioning of the camp, one of the basic principles of mental and physical destruction of prisoners. It was omnipresent. It was usually accompanied by a whip or another object used to inflict pain and sounded: “Faster! Faster!”. The pace of the events was – literally – murderous. From the moment they had to leave the terrible but still real world – train cars – in one move. They crossed an invisible border. And they entered, “Dante’s Inferno” as Franz Paul Stangl used to say. [1;135] They had to perform their tasks in haste, without rest, in fear. Everyone. Those who were about to be annihilated and a handful of those who were allowed by the Germans to stay temporarily: “From time to time, an SS man would walk along the ranks of people and deliver fast blows left, right, and centre. [4;92] The same command was a permanent part of life in the camp, it was constantly repeated: “Faster! Faster!”.
Those for whom the Germans did not plan to live long in this temporariness, sensed what awaited them soon. “Maybe it’s for better that this murderous job is done in such a hurry?” asked Abram Jakub Krzepicki. As a witness to such actions, he added: “It is possible that if the Germans had let people sentenced to death, who already sensed murderous enslavement instinctively through the uncanny nature of this place, live longer, their pain and fear would have been even greater. People do not have time to think thanks to the way it is done here. The Germans certainly did not want to end the suffering of their victims. They had one more goal: to prevent people who were about to die from trying to escape or rise in rebellion: “They should not have time to figure out what they will do to them. You have to confuse the people brought to the camp as much as possible and mix them up”. [4;106]
Roll-calls. After a period of anarchy (when Irmfried Eberl was the commandant – until the end of August), from the day Christian Wirth took temporary control of the camp (several days, until the first decade of September), they became an element permanently pressed into the rhythm of the camp. They were synonymous with German order: three times a day, usually two hours long. They were meant only to show the prisoners their objectivity. Prisoners had to stand at attention in lines. And if “an SS man was not very fond of someone” [4;84], they had to lie down on the ground. They would be punished with 25 lashes in front of the others. After that, they would have to return to the line – if they were still able to. Some were too weak, thirsty and emaciated to do so. Disheartened, they would sit back down on the ground and await further blows. Await their end.
Selections. They were a derivative of the pace imposed, as well as part of the roll-calls. The culmination of terror. They caused panic among the prisoners: “They hung over us like a sword”. From morning until dusk, they forced the prisoners to make special efforts so that they would not become the Germans’ next sacrifice: “In the morning, we got up even before the wake-up call; we cleaned ourselves to look our best. Never, not even in the best of times, have I shaved as often as in Treblinka. Every morning everyone shaved and washed their faces with cologne water from the Jews’ luggage. Some of them used powder and maybe even lipsticks. They pinched their cheeks to make them rosier. The stakes of this game was a few more days of life, maybe a few weeks?” [4;93-94] How long could you hope to cheat the reality at the camp when every moment could be your last?
Such efforts were of little use. Krzepicki and five hundred of his companions were sentenced by way of selection on 11 September 1942. After arriving for the evening roll-call once they had finished their work, they felt that their end was near. On that day a new transport arrived at the camp, which meant that the Germans would make an “exchange:” “They [the workers] stood ready for every job, order and humiliation, but the executioner no longer needed their work. They were used-up and worthless, their bodies and lives were no longer worth a penny. They were but scrap, rags, rubbish”. [4;126-128] However, things worked out differently. Was it just by chance or good fortune? Or maybe thanks to the strong will of Meir Berliner. It was on that day that he reversed the course of events when he attacked and mortally wounded Max Biała, an SS man, with a knife. He gave his life to avenge the death of his wife and child. For the prisoners, he became a hero. He was beaten to death right before their eyes. Chaos ensued on the roll-call square as the Germans panicked. They hid in the barracks and ordered their subordinate wachmanns to start a massacre. Shots fired blindly took the lives of dozens of people. Several hundred others survived. Including Krzepicki. (…)
Paweł Wieczorek– PhD. Specialty: Recent history. Cooperation: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Jewish Historical Institute and Social and Cultural Society of Jews (Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne Żydów) in Poland. Winner of the M. Bałaban Award for the Best PhD thesis (2014) under the Jewish Historical Institute. Participant of the international research project “Pogromy Żydów na ziemiach polskich w XIX i XX wieku”. (2013- 2016). Author of articles and books. Research interests: Polish-Jewish relations after 1945, Jewish social and political movements, national and ethnic minorities in Poland, Cold War, totalitarianism. Teacher at the No 4 High School in Wałbrzych.
- Sereny, W stronę ciemności. Rozmowy z komendantem Treblinki, Warszawa 2002;
- Glazar, Przeżyć Treblinkę, [w:] „Karta. Kwartalnik historyczny”, red. Z.Gluza, nr 59, 2009;
- Friedlander, Czas eksterminacji, Warszawa 2010;
- A .J. Krzepicki, Człowiek uciekł z Treblinek… Rozmowy z powracającym, Warszawa 2017.
Photo: Railroad tracks leading to the gravel mine where the Treblinka 1 labour camp was located (public domain)