Thursday, March 20, 2008

Gold Rush in Treblinka

An article that appeared on 7 January 2008 in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, also available online, addresses a little-known issue related to the mass murder at Treblinka extermination camp: the participation of non-Jewish Poles in the plunder of the victims’ belongings during the camp’s operation and the search for treasures on the former extermination camp’s area after the camp had been dismantled. The authors of this article, Piotr Głuchowski und Marcin Kowalski, describe these phenomena under the title “Gold Rush in Treblinka”.

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The article was translated into German by our reader and guest blogger, Dr. phil. Joachim Neander. Dr. Neander’s translation, which can be read in my post on the HC forum of 03/11/12 23:14:41 [Broken link replaced on 12.03.2012 - RM], was in turn translated into English by me, and Dr. Neander kindly reviewed my translation and checked it against the original Polish text. Said translation can be read in my post on the HC forum of 03/11/12 23:20:15 [Broken link replaced on 12.03.2012 - RM].

The article contains some inaccuracies.

One is the statement, apparently based on information provided by the former director of the Treblinka camp museum, Tadeusz Kiryluk, that Ivan Demianiuk doubtlessly was a guard at Treblinka. Actually, as becomes apparent from, among other sources, this review of the Demianiuk case, there is good evidence that Demianiuk served as an SS-guard in various Nazi concentration or extermination camps, including Sobibor and Flossenbürg, but there’s no solid evidence that he ever served in any capacity at Treblinka. The man that Demianiuk had been accused of being identical with, a particularly sadistic Treblinka guard known as “Ivan the Terrible”, turned out to have actually been another Ukrainian by the name of Ivan Marchenko.

Also inaccurate is the placing in 1947 of the site investigation by the Main Commission for Investigation of Nazi Crimes and of Rachel(a) Auerbach’s observations regarding the activity of grave pilferers. Actually the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland published its findings regarding the Treblinka Extermination Camp in 1946, its description of the Treblinka site being obviously based on an investigation conducted in November 1945 by Examining Judge Lukaszkiewicz, which is mentioned in my article Polish investigations of the Treblinka killing site were a complete failure …. According to an excerpt from Yitzhak Arad’s book Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, quoted in the same article, Rachel(a) Auerbach visited Treblinka on November 7, 1945, “as part of a delegation of the Polish State Committee for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes on Polish Soil”; the recollection of her impressions quoted by Arad matches her statements about the “jackals and hyenas in human shape” that are quoted in the Gazeta Wyborcza article. November 7, 1945 is the date given by Auerbach herself in her book In the Fields of Treblinka, an English translation of which is part of the collection The Death Camp Treblinka. A Documentary, edited by Alexander Donat (1979 Waidon Press, Inc., New York City).

The information that the labor camp Treblinka I was inspected by the Red Cross also seems to be of dubious accuracy, at least at first sight. For, notwithstanding the camouflaging of the Treblinka II death camp behind a wire fence interwoven with branches (and also trees, according to the Gazeta Wyborcza article), how could Red Cross delegates inspecting a labor camp just two kilometers south of the Treblinka II extermination camp have failed to notice the stench of the corpses that, as Prof. Browning points out in his expert opinion submitted at the Irving-Lipstadt trial, led to a documented complaint by the local Wehrmacht commander of a town (Ostrow) 20 kilometers away from Treblinka, if Treblinka I was inspected in the summer or autumn of 1942, at the height of killing operations in Treblinka II? And how could a Red Cross delegation visiting Treblinka I in the spring or summer of 1943, when the incineration of the corpses in Treblinka II was in full swing, have failed to notice the smoke rising from that camp and the smell of burning flesh? On the other hand, the Treblinka I labor camp was established in late 1941, whereas Treblinka II only started operating in late July 1942, and Treblinka I continued operating until July 1944, about seven months after the winding-up of Treblinka II was completed. This means that Red Cross delegations visiting Treblinka I before the end of July 1942 or after the end of November 1943 could not have noticed signs of an extermination camp that did not yet exist or no longer existed at the time of their inspection.

Last but not least, it should be pointed out that the number of victims of Treblinka II mentioned in the Gazeta Wyborcza article, ca. 900,000, corresponds to the high range of estimates about the number of Jews murdered in this extermination camp. On page 14 of Alexander Donat’s above-mentioned collection, various estimates are listed as follows:

According to the official German court expert, the director of the Munich Institute for Contemporary History Dr. Helmut Krausnick, at least 700,000 - including the 329,000 Jews from Warsaw - died there. At the second Treblinka trial, another expert, Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler, raised this figure to 900,000 victims. The official Polish figure as given by Z. Łukaszkiewicz is 800,000; Rachel Auerbach puts it at 1,074,000. Franciszek Ząbecki, a Pole who was traffic controller at the Treblinka railroad station and on behalf of the Polish Home Army (AK) kept a daily record of all train transports, insisted that it could not possibly have been less than 1,200,000, “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” The most convincing evidence was given to me personally by Samuel Rajzman, the senior of the Treblinka survivors: he had been eyewitness to an SS party celebrating the one-millionth arrival in Treblinka. That party was held long before the end of the camp’s operations.


Raul Hilberg, in The Destruction of the European Jews, estimated the number of Treblinka’s victims at “up to 750,000”. In its above-mentioned report, the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland wrote that “the number of victims murdered at Treblinka amounts to at least 731,600”. A recently discovered piece of evidence, the report sent on 11 January 1943 by SS-Sturmbannführer Höfle in Lublin to SS-Obersturmbannführer Heim of the BdS office in Krakow, mentions exactly 713,555 Jews delivered at Treblinka until 31.12.1942, i.e. during the most active period of the camp’s operation. Thus the most probable estimates seem to be those made by Łukaszkiewicz, Hilberg and the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, whereas Krausnick’s estimate is a little too low and the upper-range estimates of Scheffler, Auerbach and Zabecki are too high. Given the variety of estimates, it would have been advisable for the authors of the Gazeta Wyborcza article – and for their apparent source, the present director of the Treblinka camp museum – to mention a range of figures rather than a single figure.

Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, the Gazeta Wyborcza article is highly informative for the evidence it presents about the intensive scavenging activities on the site of Treblinka II extermination camp following its dismantling. Besides statements by inhabitants of nearby villages interviewed by the article’s authors and Rachel(a) Auerbach’s writings, this evidence includes

• Two reports from the Siedlce Section of the NSZ Task Force for Special Actions" [NSZ = Narodowe Siły Zbrojne - National Armed Forces, right-wing nationalist, anti-communist Polish partisan organization] about the raising of contributions from local inhabitants who ravished the graves in Treblinka – the partisans obviously considered these pilferers a promising source of funds;

• A vivid description of the site and the pilfering by a member of an investigative delegation from Warsaw, Karol Ogrodowczyk;

• An activity report by militia commandant of Kosów Lacki about (futile) measures taken by his unit against the pilferers;

• A photograph from an action against the pilferers undertaken by a militia unit from Ostrowa Mazowieckie:

In one of the huts in Wólka we got to see a unique photo of this action - perhaps the only one that survived. No one had so far published it. A scene in the open field: soldiers armed with machine pistols are standing around a group of villagers. The women with headscarves and long skirts, as if on harvest. Only there are spades instead of sickles in their hands. The men with berets and jackets, with spades. Piled up in front of them are skulls and limb bones. No consternation is to be seen on the faces. Those arrested know that they have nothing to fear.




This and other evidence to the soil disturbances that took place on the Treblinka site long after the extermination camp had been dismantled (pits “about 10 meters deep”, according to Ogrodowczyk, one looking like “the construction pit of a several-story building” on a photograph shown to the article’s authors by Polish historian Martyna Rusiniak) adds a further touch of absurdity to the claims of a certain “Revisionist” by the name of Richard Krege, whose alleged methodology was also unfavorably commented by an expert in GPR technology, Lawrence B. Conyers (see post dated Tue Nov 13, 2007 2:12 am by “wet blanket” on the “Atheist Parents” discussion forum). A statement by former Treblinka camp museum director Tadeusz Kiryluk, quoted in the Gazeta Wyborcza article, shows that Mr. Krege, if he did what he claims to have done, was not the only one to run around with a GPR on the Treblinka site. It also suggests that, if Krege’s activity was noticed by staff of the Treblinka memorial, the fellow must have been taken for a technically advanced pilferer looking for gold from the Jews murdered at Treblinka:

"When did you see the last grave robbers?" - "I cannot say exactly. But those arriving last had metal detectors with them. It must have been in the 1990s. I once addressed one with such a device. He insisted in showing me how this radar works. They have ever better ones, these corpse pilferers. Formerly they only peeped when there was metal, now there are radar devices that one can look underneath the earth with. They are computerized."


The Gazeta Wyborcza journalist’s interviews with local inhabitants show that the Treblinka “gold rush” is an uncomfortable, shameful subject that contemporaries and their descendants are still reluctant to talk about. This understandable embarrassment, in the context of a current controversy in Poland about the role played by non-Jewish Poles in the extermination of Poland’s Jews by the Nazis (see the last section of the article, regarding Polish-American scholar Jan Gross’s book “Fear”) shows most strongly in the comments of a villager, who requested anonymity, about the above-mentioned photograph:

"The people have learned the difference between almonds and diamonds," says the house owner whom we show the photo. For a long time he studies the faces on the photograph. He doesn't want to reveal who he recognized, but he admits: "These are no anonymous people". Several times he repeats that, were we to mention his name in the "Gazeta", the neighbors would set fire to his house.


Shameful pilfering of the Treblinka mass graves – what Auerbach appropriately described as the behavior of “jackals and hyenas in human shape” – was not restricted to Polish civilians, however. Soviet troops also took part in it:

In the autumn of 1944 Ukrainian and Russian guards appeared again, but this time in Stalin's service. With their arrival the peasant digging became an enterprise. From Ceranów airport, 10 km away, the Soviets brought along mines and blind bombs. The explosive charge was lowered into a mass grave, a Soviet fellow detonated it, and the Jewish corpses flew through the air.

When three years later representatives of the Main Commission for Investigation of Nazi Crimes showed up, the disgraceful hustle and bustle was in full swing. Commission member Rachela Auerbach noted: "With spades and other tools pilferers and marauders dig, search, rummage ... they carry unexploded artillery shells and bombs here - jackals and hyenas in human shape. They drill holes into the blood-drenched earth mixed with the ashes of burned Jews ..."

Bearing censorship in mind, Auerbach of course couldn't say that the Soviets organized and supervised the shameful activity. She didn't make clear who the "marauders" were.


The vivid image of Jewish corpses flying through the air is somewhat inaccurate insofar as most of what flew through the air when explosives were detonated in the Treblinka mass graves must have been the ashes and bone fragments to which the greater part of the victims’ corpses had been reduced by incineration. On the other hand, the above-quoted passage confirms an assumption I stated in my article Polish investigations of the Treblinka killing site were a complete failure … , when I wrote the following:

One also wonders why Mattogno didn’t consider the much likelier possibility that these bomb craters resulted from the activity of robbery diggers, who may, for instance, have obtained such devices from a corrupt Soviet commander’s stock or even included members of Soviet artillery or engineer units who themselves took part in the "Treblinka gold rush", equipped with the necessary hardware to make big holes and thus facilitate the search for valuables presumed to have been left behind by the victims of Treblinka.


A certain reluctance to mention the involvement of Soviet troops in the Treblinka “gold rush” seems to be present to this day, for whatever reason. At least this suspicion is raised by the explanation given by camp museum director Kopówka to the Gazeta Wyborcza journalists for the slots in the ground presently found in the Treblinka area:

"When we went around the memorial we found slots in the area," we say when bidding farewell to the director. "Judging by the trees growing inside them they must be several dozen years old. Are these pits from the diggings?" - "No ... those are from artillery shells. In 1944 the front line was here for some weeks."


Alex Bay’s research about military operations around Treblinka in 1944 doesn’t point to there having necessarily been any fighting in the Treblinka area, and the Luftwaffe air photo of September 1944, included in Bay’s Reconstruction of Treblinka, does not show the presence of craters made by artillery shells and bombs that would correspond to Kopówka’s claim. Explosions producing such craters must therefore have occurred after the September 1944 photograph.

Martyna Rusiniak, whose book about The extermination camp Treblinka II in collective memory is mentioned in the Gazeta Wyborcza article as due to appear the following month, disagrees with Kopówka in that she attributes a part of the pits in the Treblinka woods to the “hyenas”, especially to their “loud” excavations involving the use of explosives. I expect Mrs. Rusiniak’s book to contain further interesting details about Treblinka extermination camp and the Gold Rush in Treblinka.

I thank Dr. Neander for reviewing this blog article’s draft and pointing out some necessary corrections.

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