Creative Nonfiction: A Cord of Amber

By Lawrence Winkler

‘Why me? - That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? - Yes. - Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.’

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five


 I hadn’t planned on being Mr. Pilgrim. I was minding my own business, loving my wife and my dog, working my plot of land, tending to my patients, and filling in their forms for the rest of our lives. I was navigating through time and space, convinced that Einstein was wrong about this one, for if anyone in the known universe had free will, it was me.

The call that came through was unexpected and unwelcome. Would I like to participate in an advisory panel meeting to review the results of a recent clinical trial conducted by a well-known pharmaceutical concern.

 ‘Where’s the meeting?’ I asked.

 ‘Warsaw.’ It was late October. I wondered what kind of schlemiel would jump on a plane to Poland for a freezing fall weekend of insipid industrial interaction.

 ‘Why not someplace warm?’ I asked.

 ‘It’s in Warsaw.’

 Perhaps it had something to do with the sheer hubris of the invitation or the late autumnal ennui that paid its annual visit to my practice. Poland was the only country in Eastern Europe I hadn’t set foot in on my five-year hitchhiking circumnavigation of the planet thirty years earlier.

 ‘Keep track of any incidental expenses.’ Droned the disembodiment of my decision. There was a whiff of free will in the ozone.

 Which is how I found myself in a Lufthansa business class seat on my way to the epicentre of nowhere on the Vistula. Because of its reputation as the doormat for every thug in European history, it was difficult to conceive of Poland as a real country. Because its capital had been blasted to smithereens in the last global conflict, it only existed as a completely rebuilt amusement park of its former grandeur. A visit to Warsaw would remind me of my exploration of China after the Cultural Revolution. On most of these impromptu jolly junkets, I usually found some tiny treasure to bring home to Robyn to reassure her of my continued affection and remark my space in her firmament. This one would pose a challenge.

 I landed in an Elie Wiesel night, darkness that haunted the convoluted cab ride through silent streets until we pulled up to the entrance of my hotel. Most of the other Jews who had arrived and left Warsaw in the previous century had been squashed into boxcars and oblivion, a cemetery rather than a celebration. I considered my good fortune.

 The light from the wall sconces and massive chandeliers in the lobby collided with the polished floor tiles to produce a dazzling optical overload. High ceilings echoed and swallowed sound and muffled any serious attempt at speech. An antiseptic aroma from bygone Soviet solutions lingered in between. Vertical marble slabs alternated with white plaster bas-relief on salmon-coloured walls. The clerk at reception handed me a key.

 I had a free day of free will on my free excursion to the epicentre of nowhere on the Vistula.    My intuition had been correct. There wasn’t much left of the Schöne Zeiten Good Times. There were New Town signs that I was wandering into the cutting edge of Baltic neocultural sophistication—ads for cage fighting and Nazi-helmeted punk rock and Alkohole 24H and Blowjob, Season 1 and a gender studies program Copernicus wearing lipstick and a shop named ‘Snobissimo’ and a provocative woman showing cleavage on a Subway sidewalk sandwich board Sub of the Day codziene nowy hit za 7 zl. There were entire building façades of cartoon pigs and roosters and a kaleidoscopic coloured garbage truck called ‘Transformers.’

 An elderly woman was feeding hundreds of pigeons below inquisitive ravens like the hooded crows of Jerusalem perched on rooftop parapets. The trees were bare in an empty park beside the Nożyk Synagogue. It was the only one to survive the war and only because the German Wehrmacht had used it as a horse stable. I stopped at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its lit amber flame, and wondered why there was no lit amber flame for all the missing yellow stars.

 A window display in an upmarket shoe store caught my attention. I entered to try on a pair of finely made lace-up brogues and asked the proprietress what they cost. My quick conversion calculation came out at about ninety dollars.

 ‘I’ll take them.’ I said and watched, as she boxed and wrapped them and rang in the sale on her register. When I handed her my zlotys, her expression told me I had misplace a zero. They were $900. I left in a hurry, like a sheep and wondered. Who the hell buys $900 shoes in Warsaw?

Near the commemorative plaque honouring Marie Curie, a bride and groom posed for photos on stilts. I checked their footwear. Nope.

 But it was another plaque on a thick brick remnant that trapped me in the amber of another time. In the period from November 15, 1940 to November 20, 1941, this wall marked the limit of the ghetto. And then it hit me like a Zen koan.

 In 1938, the Jewish population of Warsaw numbered 270,000 people. On September 13, 1939, fifty German planes attacked the city centre, killed 30,000 people, and destroyed ten percent of the buildings. The siege continued for 16 days until the advancing Wehrmacht, the Einsatzgruppe EG IV and the Einsatzkommandos rolled into town.

 In October, the Nazis mobilized Jews as forced laborers to clear bomb damage and perform other hard labor. They appointed a Judenrat Jewish Council, a committee of 24 people responsible for carrying out German orders, headed by an engineer Ältester named Adam Czerniaków, who chose a policy of collaboration in the hope of saving lives.

 In late November, the bank accounts of Polish Jews were blocked and all Jewish establishments were ordered to display a Jewish star on doors and windows. A month later, all Jews were forbidden from using public transit and those more than ten years old were compelled to wear a white armband.

 On January 26, 1940, Jews were banned from holding communal prayers due to ‘the risk of spreading epidemics.’ Food stamps were introduced by the German authorities, and measures intensified to liquidate all Jewish communities in the vicinity of Warsaw.

On April 1, 1940, ghetto wall construction started, 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire, the work supervised by the Judenrat. The Nazis ordered the relocation of 138,000 Warsaw Jews from the suburbs.

 In September, 1940, the unarmed Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst Jewish Ghetto Police was formed with 3,000 men, to enforce law and order and carry out German ad hoc regulations. They were supervised by Polish police, with the armed German Sip security police and the SS watching everyone.

 On October 16, 1940, the creation of the ghetto was announced by the German Governor-General, Hans Frank, to isolate the Jews from the outside world and to facilitate their exploitation and abuse. 

 On November 15, 1940, the Germans closed the Warsaw Ghetto to the outside world. Escapees were shot on sight. German policemen held victory parties on days when large numbers of prisoners were shot at the ghetto fence. As the captive population decreased by outbreaks of infectious diseases, mass hunger, and regular executions, the ghetto borders changed, and its area was reduced.

 In January of 1941, the ‘attritionist’ Nazi Kommisar Waldemar Schön, orchestrated a künstliche Hungersnot ‘artificial famine,’ eliminating virtually all food and medical supplies to the ghetto. The daily food ration for Jews was restricted to 184 calories, compared to 2,613 calories for Germans.

 By August 1941, the rations had dropped to 177 calories per person, in the form of dry bread, flour and potatoes of the lowest quality, groats, turnips, and a small monthly supplement of margarine, sugar, and meat. The black-market economy thrived, supplying 80% of the ghetto’s food.

 Everyone took part in smuggling and illegal trade, and private workshops were created to manufacture goods to be sold secretly on the ‘Aryan’ side of the city. Foodstuffs were often smuggled by children, who crossed the Ghetto wall by the hundreds in any way possible, sometimes several times a day, returning with goods that could weigh as much as they did.

Hospitals, 250 public soup kitchens that served 100,000 meals per day, orphanages, refugee centers and recreation facilities were established, as well as a secret school system, libraries, classes for the children and even a symphony orchestra.

 Around 10,000 people—rich industrialists, Judenrat council leaders, Jewish police officers, profiteering smugglers, nightclub owners and high-end prostitutes—spent their time in over sixty cafes and nightclubs, dancing among the corpses, in stark contrast to the economic inequalities of community life.

 Nature lived only in memory for most people in the Ghetto. There were no parks, birds, or greenery. They suffered the loss like a phantom-limb pain, an amputation that scrambled the body’s rhythms, starved the senses, and made basic ideas about the world impossible for children to fathom. They grieved the loss of common things, events and gestures, and the right to go on living with the sense of purpose and self-worth of an ordinary life.

 Most likely there was never a definitive decision to murder all the Jews of Poland in death facilities. But the absence of a victory over the USSR in 1942 shifted the gears of genocide into overdrive.

 On 20 January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference held near Berlin, new plans were outlined for the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish Question. It was codenamed Aktion Reinhard, to differentiate it from the Einsatzgruppen mass killing operations in Nazi-occupied territories, in which half a million Jews had already been annihilated in the Holocaust by Bullets. Nazi plans to kill Polish Jews from across the General Government were overseen in occupied Poland by Odilo Globocnik, a deputy of Heinrich Himmler in Berlin. We shall solve this problem, and afterwards Warsaw as the Capital and the pool of intelligentsia of that nation will be destroyed.

 In the Spring of 1942, the Stickerei Abteilung Division still employed 3,000 workers making shoes, leather products, sweaters, and socks for the Wehrmacht. Others made furs and wool sweaters. Fifteen thousand Ghetto Jews worked for Walter C. Többens from Hamburg, a convicted war criminal who later transferred his surviving slaves to the nearby Trawniki concentration camp.

 At its height, 460,000 Jews, 30% of the general population of the capital, were imprisoned in an area of 1.3 square miles, with 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager rations. In less than a year, the number of refugees in Warsaw exceeded 90,000. The supply of food was inadequate, living conditions were cramped and unsanitary, and the Jews had no way to earn money. Starvation and typhus and lack of medicine led to soaring mortality rates. Children sang for their supper in the confined streets and received... nothing. 100,000 Ghetto inmates had already died of hunger-related diseases and starvation in less than twenty months even before what happened next, happened next.

 Ghetto Jews were rounded up, street by street, and marched to the Umschlagplatz assembly point holding area. Under the guise of ‘Resettlement in the East,’ mass deportations began in the Summer of 1942.

 When the Germans ordered him to increase the contingent of people to be deported, the Warsaw ghetto boss, Adam Czerniakow, realizing he could not save even the children, took cyanide. I am powerless. My heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. My act will prove to everyone what is the right thing to do.

 But even at this stage, many Jews clung to the hope that only some would die. Many Jews yielded to dreams of food when the Germans deliberately associated nourishment with deportations. Jews were promised bread and jam and a claim that they were being deported to the East to bring in the harvest of amber waves of grain in Ukraine if they reported for deportation.

 Precisely because the Germans themselves were always uncertain as to whether they were more desperate for food or for labor, Jews could always persuade themselves that some of their number would be spared. The very fact of selection, meant ‘a division between the productive and the nonproductive’ that ‘broke down morale.’ The hope of the individual for survival worked against the solidarity of the community. The Jewish policemen assigned quotas of Jews to deliver to the trains, the fulfillment of which became their source of hope for themselves and their families and their alienation from others. That’s your problem. My problem is to bring ten people.

 More than half a million Warsaw Jews were initially sent to a nearby facility during Großaktion Warschau from July to September.

 Treblinka was not a concentration camp, Konzentrationlager, or K.L., not what happens when you cross three disciplinary institutions that all societies possess—the prison, the army, and the factory. Prisoners were treated simultaneously as inmates to be corrected, enemies to be combatted, and workers to be exploited. When these forms of dehumanization were combined and amplified to the maximum by ideology and war.

 With Belzec and Sobibór, Treblinka was one (and the last) of three secret extermination camps equipped with gas chambers disguised as shower rooms, for ‘processing entire train transports, in which more than one and a half million Jews were annihilated. They were never part of the K.L. system. They had almost no inmates since the Jews sent there seldom lived longer than a few hours. Unlike Auschwitz, they were designed to be impermanent and ephemeral, without crematoria. The camp operated between 22 July 1942 and 19 October 1943, the deadliest phase of the Final Solution. Between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed in its gas chambers, more than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz.

 Treblinka was a mass massacre machine, built in a forest 50 miles northeast of Warsaw.

 Before World War II, it was a gravel mining enterprise to produce concrete, owned and operated by the Polish industrialist Marian Łopuszyński and connected to major cities in central Poland by the Małkinia–Sokołów Podlaski railway junction and the Treblinka village station. Treblinka was well-connected but isolated enough, halfway between some of the largest Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, including the ghettos in Warsaw and Białystok. The Warsaw Ghetto had 500,000 Jewish inmates, and Białystok had about 60,000.

 When the German SS took over, the quarry was already equipped with heavy machinery.

 Treblinka was divided into two separate camps 2 kilometres apart. Two engineering firms, the Schönbronn Company of Leipzig and the Warsaw branch of Schmidt–Münstermann, oversaw their construction, redeveloped with a crawler excavator, new gas chambers made of brick and cement mortar, and mass cremation pyres. The perimeter was enlarged to provide a buffer zone, making it impossible to approach the camp from the outside. The number of trains caused panic among the residents of nearby settlements, but they would have been killed if caught near the tracks.

 Treblinka I opened on 1 September 1941 as an Arbeitslager forced-labour camp, A new barracks and barbed wire fencing 2 metres tall were erected in late 1941. The workforce of 2,000 prisoners consisted of civilians sent to the camp en masse for real or imagined offences and sentenced to hard labour by the Gestapo office in Sokołów. There were German, Czech and French Jews among them, as well as Poles captured in łapankas, farmers unable to deliver food requisitions, hostages trapped by chance, and people who attempted to harbour Jews outside the Jewish ghettos or who performed restricted actions without permits. The average prisoner sentence was six months, but many had this privilege extended indefinitely. From December 1943 the inmates no longer carried specific sentences.

 They worked 14-hour shifts in the gravel quarry and later harvested wood from the nearby forest as fuel for the open-air crematoria in Treblinka II. Women mainly worked in the sorting barracks, where they repaired and cleaned military clothing delivered by freight trains. There were no work uniforms, and inmates who lost their $900 shoes were forced to go barefoot or scavenge them from dead prisoners. Water was rationed, and punishments were regularly delivered at rollcalls. Of the twenty thousand people who passed through Treblinka I during its three-year existence, half died there from summary executions, exhaustion, hunger, and disease.

 Treblinka I’s commandant, Theodor van Eupen, ran the camp with several SS men and a hundred Hiwi guards. He often killed prisoners by ‘taking shots at them, as if they were partridges.’   A feared overseer, Franz Schwarz, executed prisoners with a pickaxe or hammer.

 Treblinka II was the sharp end, the Vernichtungslager extermination camp. A small number of Jewish men not killed immediately upon arrival became slave-labour units called Sonderkommandos, forced to bury victims in mass graves. These bodies were exhumed in 1943 and cremated on large open-air pyres along with those of new victims.

 The head of construction, Richard Thomalla, brought in German Jews because they spoke German, two groups of 238 unfortunates from 17 to 35 years of age expelled from Berlin and Hanover and imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. Construction began on 10 April 1942 and the new railway ramp was ready by June 1942.  The entire 42-acre death camp was surrounded by two rows of barbed-wire fencing 2.5 metres tall. woven with pine tree branches to obstruct the view of the skulduggery inside. It was divided into three parts:

 Camp 1 was the Wohnlager administrative and separate German SS and Ukrainian residential compounds where the guards lived, strategically positioned for control of all entrances; it had a telephone line. Side roads were lined with gravel. The main gate for road traffic was erected on the north side. Barracks were built with supplies delivered from Warsaw. There was a kitchen, a bakery, and dining rooms; furnished with items of high-quality stolen from Jewish ghettos. There were also separate barracks for the Polish and Ukrainian serving, cleaning and kitchen women and two barracks behind an inner fence for the Jewish work commandos. Smaller rooms were built as laundry, tailors, and cobblers, and for woodworking and medical aid.

 Camp 2, the Auffanglager lower camp, was the long and narrow railway unloading ramp surrounded by barbed wire, to receive incoming prisoner transports. A new building had been erected on the platform, disguised as a transit camp railway station for deportations further east complete with a fake station wooden clock with painted wooden hands, ticket window, and rail terminal signs.

 Behind a second fence 100 metres from the track, two large barracks were used for undressing, with a cashier’s booth that collected money and jewellery for ‘safekeeping.’ Jews who resisted were taken away or beaten to death by the guards. The area where the women and children were shorn of their hair was on the other side of the path from the men. All buildings in the lower camp, including the barber barracks, contained the piled-up clothing and belongings of the prisoners. Behind the station building was a Sorting Square where all baggage was collected.

 It was flanked by a small barracks surrounded by barbed wire where the sick, old, wounded and ‘difficult’ prisoners were taken and secretly shot, a fake infirmary called the ‘Lazaret,’ painted with a Red Cross emblem. Directly behind the building was an open excavation pit 23 feet deep. Old worn-out clothes and identity papers deposited by new arrivals at the undressing area were also disposed of here.

 Camp 3, the upper camp, was the main killing zone location of gas chambers, screened from the railway tracks by an earthen bank, built elongated in shape by a mechanical digger. On the other sides, the zone was camouflaged from new arrivals with tree branches woven into barbed wire fences.

 From the undressing barracks, a fenced-off path of sand led through a forested area into the gas (ch)ambers. It was cynically called die Himmelstraße Road to Heaven or der Schlauch The Tube.

 For the first eight months of the camp’s operation, an excavator dug burial ditches on both sides of the gas chambers, 160 feet long, 82 feet wide, and 33 feet deep. In early 1943, they were replaced with cremation pyres a hundred feet long, with rails laid across the pits on concrete blocks. The 300 prisoners who operated the upper camp lived in separate barracks behind the gas chambers.

 All labour was carried out under threat of death by a thousand Jewish prisoners organised into specialised Sonderkommando units. Each squad had a different coloured triangle. which made it impossible for new arrivals to blend in with members of the work details.

 The Kommando Blau blue unit managed the rail ramp, unlocked the freight cars, met the new arrivals, carried out those who had died en route, removed bundles, and cleaned the wagon floors.

 The Kommando Rot red unit, the largest squad, unpacked and sorted the belongings of victims after they had been ‘processed,’ delivered their belongings to the storage barracks. The Kommando Gelb yellow unit separated the items by quality, removed the yellow Stars of David from all outer garments, and extracted money sewn into the linings. The Desinfektionskommando unit sanitized the belongings, including sacks of hair from ‘processed’ women. The Goldjuden ‘gold Jews’ unit collected and counted banknotes and evaluated the gold and jewellery.

 The Totenjuden ‘Jews of death’ unit were the group of 300 men who lived and worked across from the gas chambers. For the first six months they took the corpses away for burial after gold teeth had been extracted. Once cremation began in early 1943, they took the corpses to the pits, refuelled the pyres, crushed the remaining bones with mallets, and collected the ashes for disposal.    Each trainload consisted of an average of sixty heavily guarded wagons. divided into three sets of twenty at the layover yard. Each set was processed within the first two hours of backing onto the ramp and prepared to be exchanged for the next set of twenty wagons.

 The Holzfällerkommando woodcutter unit cut and chopped firewood, and the Tarnungskommando disguise unit camouflaged the structures of the camp. A final work detail was responsible for cleaning the common areas.

 Sonderkommando Jews were forced to memorize ‘The Treblinka Song’ by nightfall of their first day in the camp. The music was written in a happy way, as though the deaths were a joyful process.

Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous, at the world... The squads march to work... All that matters to us now is Treblinka... It is our destiny... That’s why we’ve become one with Treblinka in no time at all... We know only the word of our Commander... We know only obedience and duty... We want to serve, to go on serving until a little luck smiles on us again... Hurray! Artur Gold, a Jewish composer from Warsaw, arranged the theme to the Treblinka song for the 10-piece prisoner orchestra which he conducted, and played it in the SS mess hall at the Wohnlager on German orders.

 Members of all work units were continuously beaten by the guards and often shot. Replacements were selected from the new arrivals. Going to work bloodied and bruised would lead to execution. If a prisoner was beaten and sustained black eyes, open wounds, or severe swelling, he was called a klepsydra, Polish for ‘obituary,’ by the other prisoners. He was shot that evening at roll call or the next day if his bruised cheeks began to swell up. Many Sonderkommando prisoners hung themselves at night. Twenty suicides per day occurred in the Totenjuden barracks.    The work crews –unable to eat or sleep from fear and anxiety – were entirely replaced every few days; except for the most resilient, members of the old work detail were sent to their deaths.

 The mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July 1942 with the first shipment of 6,000 people. The gas chambers started operation the following morning. For the next eight weeks, deportations from Warsaw continued daily via two shuttle trains, each transport of 60 wagons carrying 6000 people crying for water, 100 people to a cattle car. No other trains were allowed to stop at the Treblinka station. The first daily trains rolled into the camp early in the morning, after an overnight wait at a layover yard; and the second, in mid-afternoon. The decoupled locomotive went back to the Treblinka station or to the layover yard in Małkinia for the next load. Trains that arrived later in the day had to wait overnight at Treblinka, Małkinia, or Wólka Okrąglik.

 The traffic on Polish railway lines was extremely dense. More than 400 German military trains passed through every 24 hours on top of internal traffic. The Holocaust trains were routinely delayed en route; some transports took many days to arrive. Hundreds of prisoners died from exhaustion, suffocation, and thirst while in transit in the overcrowded wagons. In the Biała Podlaska transport of 6,000 Jews travelling only 78 miles, 90 per cent were already dead when the sealed doors were opened.

 Between July 23 and September 21 of 1942, with new gas chambers which could kill 3,000 people in just 90 minutes, Grossaktion Warschau sent at least a quarter million Warsaw Ghetto inmates to be murdered in Treblinka during. Two percent had already been killed in on-the-spot roundups.

 In the last two weeks of the Aktion ending on September 21, 1942, 48,000 Warsaw Jews were deported to their deaths. The last transport of 2,200 ghetto victims included the Jewish police involved with deportations, and their families.

 Between October 1942 and March 1943, Treblinka received transports of 20,000 foreign Jews from Czechoslovakia and Greece. They had train tickets and arrived in passenger carriages with considerable luggage, travel foods and drinks, all of which were taken by the SS to the food storage barracks. The provisions included smoked mutton, speciality breads, wine, cheese, fruit, tea, coffee, and sweets. Unlike Warsaw Ghetto Jews arriving in Holocaust trains, foreign Jews received a warm welcome upon arrival from an SS man in a white lab coat, after which they were killed like the others.

 From September 1942 on, Jews were greeted with a brief verbal announcement. The deportees were told that they had arrived at a transit point on the way to Ukraine and needed to shower and have their clothes disinfected before receiving work uniforms and new orders.

 Victims were pulled from the carriages onto the platform by Kommando Blau, led through the gate amidst chaos and screaming, and separated by gender behind the gate; women were pushed into the undressing barracks and barber on the left, and men were sent to the right. All were ordered to tie their shoes together and strip. Some kept their own towels.

 Because women had their hair cut off, it took longer to prepare them for the gas chambers. The hair was used in the manufacture of socks for U-boat crews and hair-felt footwear for the Deutsche Reichsbahn.

 After undressing, the newly arrived Jews were beaten with whips to drive them towards the gas chambers; the hesitant were brutalized. To minimize resistance, men were always gassed first, while women and children waited outside the gas chambers for their turn. In winter, small children waited so long in the cold that their feet froze and stuck to the icy ground. Hearing the suffering from inside the chambers, and awareness of what awaited them caused panic, distress, and involuntary defecation. Guards would snatch children from their mothers’ arms and either tear the child in half, or grab it by the legs, smash its head against a wall and throw the body away.

 Like the worst imaginable day at the beach, naked barefoot starving and suffering prisoners were harried and chased and beaten towards their death. Schneller... schneller... schneller... The sand was raked between transports, to further deceive.

 The six gas chambers were entirely closed off with tall wooden fencing made of vertical boards. They had double walls insulated by earth packed down in between. Interior walls and ceilings were lined with roofing paper. Floors were covered with tin-plated sheet metal, as was the roof. Solid wooden doors had been insulated with rubber and bolted from the outside by heavy crossbars, under large Stars of David, to further confuse.

 Like Tokyo subway enforcers at rush hour, the chosen were forcibly crushed into the chambers. Infants were thrown on top of the compressed captives and the doors locked shut.

 Victims were gassed with the exhaust fumes from a Red Army tank engine housed in a room with a generator that supplied the camp with electricity. The tank engine exhaust pipe ran just below the ground and opened into all three gas chambers. The fumes could be seen seeping out. It was economical.

 The chambers became silent after 12 minutes and were closed for 20 minutes. When the doors on the other side were opened, due to the severe overcrowding, the bodies were standing and kneeling rather than lying down. Dead mothers embraced the bodies of their children. Gaunt cheeks were painted pink by the carboxyhemoglobin conversion from carbon monoxide poisoning,      The dead let out a last gasp of air when extracted from the chambers. Victims who showed signs of life during the disposal of the corpses were ignored, all removed by dozens of Sonderkommandos, placed onto carts, and wheeled away. Arms and legs sometimes fell off when straps around them were dragged with too much enthusiasm. In any given 14-hour workday, 15,000 people were killed.

 The Germans awoke to the political danger associated with the mass burial of corpses in April 1943, after discovering the mass graves of Polish officers the Soviets executed at Katyn. They issued secret orders to exhume the corpses and burn them. The cremations began after Himmler’s visit to Treblinka in late February 1943.

 Large cremation pits with railroad rails laid as grates on blocks of concrete were excavated at Camp 3. The corpses dug up from the first six months of operation were piled on the enormous pyres along with the new ones, splashed with petrol, and burned. The bodies of women were used for kindling while Germans toasted with brandy and the choicest liqueurs, ate, caroused, and warmed themselves by the fire. It was a harrowing sight. The bloated bellies of pregnant women exploded from boiling amniotic fluid. Children were tossed into the flames alive.

 The heat radiating from the open-air pits was maddening. The bodies burned for five hours, without affecting the bones. Refuelled from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. in 5-hour intervals, the pyres operated 24 hours a day, incinerating 12,000 bodies at a time. The ashes were mixed with sand and spread over an area of 5.4 acres.

 The entire facility was operated by 20 German and Austrian members of the SS-Totenkopfverbände and 80 Wachmänner watchmen guards trained at a special SS facility in the Trawniki concentration camp near Lublin; The guards were ethnic German Volksdeutsche from the east and Ukrainians, with some Russians, Tatars, Moldovans, Latvians, and Central Asians who had served in the Red Army. They served under three consecutive commandants in the 16-month long operation of the camp:

 The first, Irmfried Eberl, was an ambitious Austrian psychiatrist who organized so many transports in his race to exceed the extermination record of the other camps, that workers could no longer handle disembarkation and gassing of deportees. The early machinery frequently broke down from overuse, forcing the SS to shoot blindly into the thousands of Jews assembled for suffocation. The labourers did not have enough time to bury them, and the mass graves were overflowing. Whole mountains of bodies lay on the platform. The stench from their putrefaction could be smelled 10 kilometers away. When Odilo Globocnik and Christian Wirth made a surprise visit to Treblinka on 26 August 1942, Eberl was dismissed on the spot.

 His successor, Franz Stangl, stepped out of his car knee-deep into money—notes, currency, precious stones, jewelry, clothes, packages, and suitcases. Around the perimeter of the camp were tents and open fires with groups of Ukrainian guards and Warsaw whores weaving, drunk and dancing, and singing and playing music.

 Stangl, nicknamed the ‘White Death’ by prisoners, carried a whip and wore a white uniform. He reorganised and even ‘beautified’ the camp, paving paths and lining them with flowers.

The last commandant of Treblinka, Kurt Franz, was a special villain. The prisoners named him lalke, which meant ‘doll’ in Yiddish, for his innocent babyface. The rest of him, however, was anything but.

 Franz enjoyed shooting at prisoners or those still in the rail cars with his hunting rifle. He selected bearded men from new transports and asked them if they believed in God. When the men replied ‘yes,’ babyface told each man to hold up a bottle as a target.

 ‘If your God indeed exists, I will hit the bottle.’ He’d say. ‘And if He does not exist, I will hit you.’ Then he shot them with his pistol.

 Franz put his boxing training to sadistic utility by using the heads of Jewish deportees as punching bags. The men would have to hold their heads straight as Franz grabbed his targets’ lapels and struck them with the other hand. After such ‘training sessions’ the victims were often unrecognizable. On occasion he would ‘challenge’ a Jew to an obligatory boxing match and gave the prisoner a boxing glove, while hiding a small pistol in the glove he kept for himself. Once the gloves were on and they had assumed the starting stance, Franz shot the prisoner dead. He would whip inmates to death for minor infractions with complete calm.

 Franz rode his horse through the camp with pleasure and self-confidence. Barry, his big St. Bernard, followed behind, awaiting the command to bite off the genitals or maul beyond any recognition, any man who had attracted his attention.

 ‘Mensch, faß den hund!’ He ordered, in an intentional perverse role reversal. Man, grab that dog!

 Kurt Franz set up a small zoo next to his horse stables, with two foxes, two peacocks and a roe deer. The name of the photo album he maintained against orders was macabre. Schöne Zeiten. Good Times.

 If the commandants were brutal, their henchmen were worse. You can’t tell the players without a program:

 Fritz ‘Kiwe’ Küttner oversaw the whipping of naked prisoners at the evening roll call. Josef Hirtreiter took pleasure in murdering the babies and little children of naked women waiting to be gassed by swinging them by the feet and smashing their heads against the boxcars.

August Miete, nicknamed the ‘Angel of Death,’ oversaw the Lazaret fake infirmary. He took away the sick, crippled, wounded en route, children of sick women, children who arrived alone, elderly, and difficult prisoners and shot them point blank in the nape of the neck with a 9 mm pistol at the edge of a burial pit seven metres deep where the corpses were smouldering. Dressed as a medic, Miete ‘cured each one with a single pill.’ He also sought out victims whom Kurt Franz had injured with his hunting rifle or boxing gloves or whips, and those from the nearby ‘selection’ square. His deputy, Willi ‘Frankenstein’ Mentz, or the ‘Gunman of Treblinka,’ killed thousands in the same manner wearing a white doctor’s coat. None of these monsters properly paid for their heinous crimes after the war. 

 When the top-ranking officers went home, they requested a private locomotive at the Treblinka station to transport their personal ‘gifts’ to Małkinia for a connecting train. They left the camp in cars with no incriminating evidence on their person, and later transferred the goods to the other transport.

 Between 22 August and 21 September 1942 alone, 243 wagons of were sent containing 3.5 tons of gold, 20 tons of silver, 1.5 tones of platinum, 130 diamond solitaires, 2,500 brilliant carats, 13,500 diamond carats, and 251 pounds of pearls.

 A Sonderkommando uprising launched on the hot summer day of 2 August 1943 killed several Trawniki guards. Of the 200 prisoners who escaped the camp, half survived the subsequent chase. But the camp had fulfilled its mission and was no longer needed.

 On 19 October 1943, Operation Reinhard was terminated by a letter from Odilo Globocnik. The following day, the large group of Jewish Arbeitskommandos who had dismantled the camp structures over the previous few weeks were loaded on a transport to Sobibór and gassed the following day.

 They had used the bricks disassembled from the gas chambers to erect a farmhouse on the site of the camp’s former bakery. A Hiwi guard called Oswald Strebel, a Ukrainian ethnic German, was installed in the farmhouse with his family and instructed to visitors that he had been farming there for decades. He set fire to the building and fled to avoid capture ahead of the Soviet advance.

 When the Soviets entered Treblinka on August 16, 1944, the amber waves of grain that fed the SS had been burned and the extermination zone had been levelled, ploughed over, and planted with lupins. All that remained of a million executions were small pieces of bone in the soil, human teeth, scraps of paper and fabric, broken dishes, jars, shaving brushes, rusted pots and pans, cups of all sizes, mangled shoes, and lumps of human hair. The two-kilometre road leading to the camp was pitch black from the 20 daily carts of human ashes strewn by the remaining prisoners When the war ended, locals started walked the Black Road in search of man-made melted gold nuggets.

 By April 1942, the captives back in the Warsaw Ghetto had accepted the fantastical claims of German ‘resettlement’ genocide eighty kilometres away. Treblinka was on the lips of every remaining Jew. Those remaining decided to go underground, resist further deportations, and smuggle in weapons, ammunition, and supplies. They barricaded themselves in bunkers and built dozens of fighting posts.

 Within hours of German SS and police units attempting to resume mass deportations on January 18, 1943, 600 Jews were shot, and 5,000 others removed from their residences.  But Jewish fighters, armed with handguns and Molotov cocktails, had infiltrated a column being forced to the Umschlagplatz and broke ranks to fight their German escorts. Most died in the battle that became known as the January revolt.

 What became known as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising started on the eve of Passover of April 19, 1943, when 2,000 Waffen-SS soldiers under the field command of Jürgen Stroop systematically burned and blew up the ghetto, block by block, rounding up or murdering anybody they could capture., Over 50,000 people were killed on the spot or deported to the death camps, and the Great Synagogue of Warsaw demolished on May 16.

 A modern graffiti scrawl on one of the old ghetto walls seemed debased. Free Homes for People. It had once held the Homes for Free People.

 It was already dark in the October Warsaw late afternoon. I was drawn to the luminous honey-yellow light emanating from the display window in a New Town shop down a side street. It was an assemblage of amber, the translucent fossilized tree resin, the ancient Greek ēlektron tears of the ‘beaming sun,’ and its ability to bear a charge of static electricity when rubbed, from the Baltic Sea’s southern shores. Pieces of amber often contain the bodies of trapped plants or animals caught in the secreted resin. Who in life was disregarded, became precious by death. The bee enclosed through amber shown seems buried in juice which was his own. An Amber Road trade route connected the Baltic with the Mediterranean. The Nazis dismantled and stole the 18th century six-ton half billion-dollar candlelit Amber Room from the Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg. Chinese medicine used amber to ‘tranquilize the mind.’

 In the Warsaw Ghetto, there had been a little antique shop in Śliska Street, with unwanted things in the window, so incompatible with the surrounding harsh reality. There was a small display with several old plates, two silver sugar bowls, a Turkish shawl, an ivory miniature, a chessboard with figures, and a cord of amber....

 Not like this Baltic boutique, refulgent with amber necklaces and paperweights and bracelets and time pieces and pen holders and porcinis and other ornaments. Amber traffic light. Amber alert. Inside I found a pair of amber earrings, a tiny treasure to bring home to Robyn to reassure her of my continued affection and remark my space in her firmament.

 Later that evening, my hosts took me out on the Stare Miasto to a good restaurant with a menu of game meat. The food was better than my appetite. I left early to walk back in the fog. The amber beams of an old Mercedes pierced the gloom in the chill of the October night. Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason.

 Language is the amber in which a thousand precious and subtle thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. After the meeting next day, on my return Lufthansa flight that evening, just for one of those moments, I was sure that the German pilot’s announcement was made in fluent Yiddish.

 In December 2012, a controversial statue of a kneeling and praying Adolf Hitler was installed in a courtyard of the Warsaw Ghetto. The artwork by Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, entitled ‘HIM,’ received mixed reactions worldwide. Many felt that it was unnecessarily offensive, while others, such as Poland’s chief rabbi, called it thought-provoking, even ‘educational.’ If such prayers had worked, Hitler would have been stopped at the Polish border by an army of angels with swords of fire.






Lawrence Winkler is a retired physician, traveler, and natural philosopher. His métier has morphed from medicine to manuscript. He lives with Robyn on Vancouver Island and in New Zealand, tending their gardens and vineyards, and dreams. His writings have previously been published in The Montreal Review.



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