As the Red Army pushed westwards into Poland they surprised the SS who were stilling running the concentration camps and extermination camps in the area. They were under orders to kill off the remaining inmates, demolish the camps and obliterate all traces of what had happened. Through a mixture of incompetence and surprise this proved to be impossible in the time available. But there was still time to murder almost all of the remaining workers, workers who had been spared until now solely for the purpose running down and dismantling the camps.
Russian journalist Vasily Grossman arrived only days later and discovered what happened at Treblinka on 23 July 1944:
The camp was divided into rectangles. Barracks were built in absolutely straight lines. Birch trees were planted along the sand-covered paths. Asters and dahlias grew in the fertilised soil. Concrete pools were made for the water fowl, there were pools for washing with comfortable steps, outbuildings for the German personnel, a model bakery, a barber’s shop, garage, petrol station, warehouses.
The camp of Lublin—Majdanek and dozens of other labour camps where the Gestapo had planned a long and serious operation were organised according to the same formula, with little gardens, drinking fountains and concrete roads.
Camp No. 1 existed from the spring of 1941 until 23 July 1944. Surviving prisoners were annihilated when they could already hear an indistinct faraway rumble from Soviet artillery. In the early morning on the 23 July, guards and SS soldiers drank some schnapps for courage and began the liquidation of the camp. By the evening, all prisoners at the camp were killed and buried.
A carpenter from Warsaw, Max Levit, survived. He was wounded and lay under the corpses of his comrades until it was dark, and then he crawled into the forest. He told us how, when he was already lying in the trench, he heard the team of thirty boys from the camp sing the song ‘My Motherland is Vast’ just before the execution.
He heard how one of the boys shouted: ‘Stalin will avenge us!’ He heard how the leader of the boys, the camp favourite, red-haired Leib, who fell down into the trench after the salvo, lifted himself a little and asked: ‘Papa guard, you’ve missed. Please could you do it once again, one more time?’
But Grossman was to uncover much more than the last hours at Treblinka. Around 40 survivors and other witnesses from the local area were found and he was able to piece together a whole history of the murderous establishments at Treblinka. Treblinka I had operated ‘only’ as a ‘labour camp’, where forced labourers toiled in a quarry or cut wood in the forest. The murderous regime, which killed over half the prisoners who entered, was a grotesque mix of barbarism and sadism:
Now we know the whole story about German Ordnung at this labour camp…
We know about the work at the sand quarry, about those who did not fulfil the norm and were thrown into the pit from the cliff. We know about the food ration: 170 grams of bread and half a litre of slops which they called soup. We know about death from starvation, about the swollen people who were taken outside the barbed wire on wheelbarrows and shot.
We know about incredible orgies of the Germans, about how they raped girls and shot their forced lovers immediately afterwards, how a drunken German cut off a woman’s breast with a knife, how they threw people down from a top-floor window six metres from the ground, how a drunken company would take ten to fifteen prisoners from the barracks during the night and practise different methods of killing, without haste, shooting the doomed men in the heart, back of the head, eye, mouth, temple…
We know about the chief of the camp, the Dutch German Zan Eilen, a murderer, lover of good horses, a fast rider and lecher. We know about Stumpfe, who was seized by fits of involuntary laughter every time he killed one of the prisoners, or when an execution was carried out in his presence. He had the nickname ‘Laughing Death’…
We know about the one-eyed German from Odessa, Svidersky, whose nickname was ‘Master Hammer’. He was considered the unsurpassed specialist in ‘cold’ death, and it was he who had killed, in the course of several minutes, fifteen children aged from eight to thirteen, who had been declared unt for work.
We know about the thin SS man Preie who looked like a Gypsy, whose nickname was ‘Old Man’. He was gloomy and reticent. He worked off his boredom by sitting by the camp’s rubbish pit and waiting for prisoners who came secretly to eat potato peelings. He made them open their mouths and shot into their open mouths.
We know the name of professional murderers Schwarz and Ledeke. It was they who amused themselves by shooting at prisoners walking back from work at dusk. They killed twenty, thirty or forty people every day.
All these people had nothing human in them. Their distorted brains, hearts and souls, words and deeds, their habits were like a frightening caricature barely reminiscent of the features, thoughts, feelings, habits and deeds of normal Germans.
The order in the camp, and the documentation of murders, and love of monstrous jokes that somehow reminded one of those of drunken German soldiers, and the singing in chorus of sentimental songs among the puddles of blood, and the speeches with which they constantly addressed the doomed men, and their preaching, and religious sayings printed neatly on special pieces of paper — all these were the monstrous dragons and reptiles that developed from the embryo of traditional German chauvinism, arrogance, egoism, self-assurance, pedantic care for one’s own little nest, and the iron-cold indifference to the destiny of all that is living on the Earth, from the ferocious belief that German music, poetry, language, lawns, toilets, sky, buildings are the greatest in the Universe…
Grossman went on to record the the full horrors that later developed when Treblinka II was established as an extermination centre, an efficient killing machine that accounted for between 800,000 and 1,200,000 men women and children.
Grossman’s fully researched article did not appear until November 1944, it is regarded as one of his most eloquent and important works. It was so authoritative that it was part of the evidence accepted at the post war War Crimes Trials. Yet Grossman could barely cope with the enormity of what he had learnt, it would take him months to recover from the experience.