Treblinka - 77 years since Nazi death camp began operations

Nearly a million Jews and 2,000 Romani’s were murdered between July 1942 and October 1943.

The train tracks that lead to the Treblinka death camp (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
The train tracks that lead to the Treblinka death camp
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Fifteen months. That’s all it took for the Nazis to murder some 870,000 Jews at the Treblinka death camp in Poland.
Seventy-seven years ago, on July 23, 1942, Treblinka, which was located in a forest north-east of Warsaw began its operations as a death camp and continued operating until October 1943.
According to Yad Vashem, “the first Jewish transports reached Treblinka on July 23 and this included Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.”
It was one of three death camps specifically established by the Nazis in Poland as part of Operation Reinhard – the codename for the Nazis’ secret mass murder plan of Polish Jewry – along with Sobibor and Belzec. The other three death camps that were not part of Operation Reinhard were Chełmno, Majdanek and Auschwitz.
Treblinka was the second-largest and one of the fastest killing machines the Nazis developed to gas Jews. Whereas 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945, it took just over a year to murder close to a million Jews at Treblinka, along with several thousand Romanis.
“In all, approximately 738,000 Jews from the Generalgouvernement [Nazi-occupied Poland] perished at Treblinka, as well as 107,000 Jews from the Bialystok district,” Yad Vashem explained. “Thousands of Jews from outside Poland were also brought to Treblinka; these included Jews from Slovakia, Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, and some who had previously been interned at Theresienstadt. Altogether 29,000 Jews from outside Poland were murdered at Treblinka.”
At least 19 members of the Pitel family, who resided in a small town in eastern Poland, were gassed to death in Treblinka, including children and toddlers. In 1938, 26 members of the family gathered for a photograph to bid their son, grandson, brother and uncle Yerachmiel Yosef farewell as he immigrated to Mandate Palestine.
Born and raised in Parczew, eastern Poland, Yerachmiel Yosef was one of 10 children born to Chaim and Ester Pitel.
The family photograph, which was donated to Yad Vashem by Yerachmiel’s children, was uploaded onto the website and it has been made interactive. Clicking on each face gives readers a short biography of the family members as well as extended family members, and their death at Treblinka or in one case, Warsaw.
Although killed by a neighbor in Parczew during the Holocaust, Yerachmiel’s oldest brother Mosze Baruch’s entire family – wife and five children – were among about 5,000 Jews who were deported to Treblinka from the Parczew Ghetto over a few weeks. This number also included their parents Chaim and Ester, and some of Yerachmiel’s sister, brothers, nieces and nephews.
Treblinka was divided into three parts: Camp I was the administrative compound where the guards lived, Camp II was the receiving area where incoming transports of prisoners were offloaded, and Camp III was where the gassing took place. The gas chambers were made to look like showers. It took just half an hour to murder the Jews packed into the chamber.
Treblinka I included a work camp where several thousand inmates were forced to work in a large quarry, and later also harvested wood from the nearby forest as fuel for Treblinka II’s open-air crematoria.
Gassing at the camp stopped in October 1943 as the Red Army was advancing and the operation was nearing its end.
Plans to erase all evidence of mass murder at the site were put in place, which included dismantling the camp, plowing it and planting over it. Once completed, those who took part were shot by the Germans.
In August 1943, the Sonderkommandos – Jewish prisoners forced to assist in cremating the bodies – revolted after they found out that the camp was to be liquidated.
About 300 Jews managed to escape during the chaos, but at least half were caught and killed. The revolt lasted 30 minutes, and the Sonderkommandos managed to set several buildings alight.