Franciszek Zabecki was the stationmaster at Treblinka village
station, and a member of the Polish underground. He had been placed at
Treblinka by the underground originally to report on the movement of troops
and equipment. He was thus the only trained observer to be on the spot
throughout the entire existence of the Treblinka extermination camp.
"The first inkling we had that something more was being planned in Treblinka
was in May 1942, when some SS men arrived with a man called Ernst Grauss
who – we found out from the German railway workers – was the chief surveyor at the
German District HQ.
"They spent the day looking around and the very next day all fit male Jews in the
neighbourhood – about a hundred of them – were brought in and started work on clearing the land.
At the same time they shipped in a first lot of Ukrainian guards.
"It was said that it was to be another labour camp, a camp for Jews
who would work on damming the River Bug, a military installation, a
staging or control area for a new secret military weapon. And finally, German
railway workers said it was going to be an extermination camp. But nobody believed them – except me.
On 22 July 1942
he recalled receiving a telegram stating that
"the running of a shuttle service from Warsaw
with settlers" was to commence. The trains would be made up of sixty covered goods wagons;
after unloading the trains were to be sent back to Warsaw
"Our astonishment was immense
," Zabecki commented.
"We wondered what sort of settlers they were, where they
were going to live and what they were going to do? We connected this news with
the mysterious building in the forest.
"The first train to arrive on 23 July 1942
made its presence known from a long way off, not only by the rumble of the wheels on the
bridge over the River Bug, but by the
frequent shots from the rifles and automatic weapons of the train guards.
As had been advised, "the
train was made up of sixty covered wagons, crammed with people. There were old
people, young people, men, women, children and infants in quilts. The doors of the
wagons were bolted, the air gaps had a grating of barbed wire. Several SS men, with
automatic weapons ready to shoot, stood on the foot-boards of the wagons on both
sides of the trains and even lay on the roofs. It was a hot day; people in the wagons
were fainting. The SS guards with rolled-up sleeves looked like butchers, who after
murdering their victims washed their blood–stained hands and got ready for more killing.
Without a word, we understood the tragedy, since 'settling' people coming to work would
not have required such a strict guard, whereas these people were being transported
like dangerous criminals.
After the transport arrived, some fiendish spirit got into the SS men; they drew their pistols,
put them away, and took them out again, as if they wanted to shoot and kill straight away; they
approached the wagons, silencing those who were shrieking and wailing, and again they
swore and screamed. Shouting 'Tempo! Schnell', and 'At the double quickly!' to the German
railwaymen who had come from Sokolow Podlaski, they went off to the
camp, to take over their victims there 'properly'. On the wagons we could see chalk marks
giving the number of people in the wagon, viz: 120, 150, 180 and 200 people. We worked
out later that the total number of people in the train must have been about eight to ten thousand.
The 'settlers' were strangely huddled together in the wagons. All of them had to stand, without
sufficient air and without access to toilet facilities. It was like travelling in hot ovens. The
high temperature, lack of air, and the hot weather created conditions that not even healthy,
young, strong organisms could stand. Moans, shouts, weeping, calls for water or for a
doctor issued from the wagons. And protests: 'How can people be treated so inhumanely?
When will they let us leave the wagons altogether?' Through some air gaps terrified people
looked out, asking hopefully: 'How far is it to the agricultural estates where we’re going to work?'
Twenty wagons were uncoupled from the train, and a shunting engine began to push them
along the spur-line into the camp. A short while later it returned empty. This procedure was
repeated twice more, until all sixty wagons had been shunted into the camp, and out again.
Empty they returned to Warsaw for more 'settlers'.
|Zabecki at Work - 1943
Thereafter, trains arrived every day. Within two weeks people began to try to escape,
sometimes as many as one hundred out of one transport. At least three times whole cars
arrived empty and the guards were executed.
"You must imagine what it was like living here,"
"Every day, as of the early morning, these hours of horror when the
trains arrived, and all the time – after the very first days – this odour, this dark foggy cloud
that hung over us, that covered the sky in that hot and beautiful summer, even on the most
brilliant days – not a rain-cloud promising relief from the heat, but an almost sulphuric
darkness bringing with it this pestilential smell.
Zabecki witnessed many acts of savagery at the Treblinka station. Four of
these concerned Jews who had tried to escape:
"I saw a policeman catch two young Jewish boys. He did not
shut them in a wagon, since he was afraid to open the door in case others escaped. I was
on the platform, letting a military transport go through. I asked him to let them go. The assassin
did not even budge. He ordered the bigger boy to sit down on the ground and take the
smaller one on his knee, then he shot them both with one bullet. Turning to me, he said:
'You’re lucky, that was the last bullet'. Round the huge stomach of the murderer there was a
belt with a clasp on which I could see the inscription, 'God with us'.
The second incident took place after a train, arriving late in the evening, had been kept
overnight at Treblinka station. On the following morning a Ukrainian Guard
"... promised a Jewess that he would let her and her child go if
she put a large bribe in his hand. The Jewess gave the Ukrainian the money and her four year
old child through the air gap, and afterwards with the Ukrainian’s help, she also got out
of the wagon through the air gap. The Jewess walked away from the train, holding her child
by the hand; as soon as she walked down the railway embankment the Ukrainian shot her.
The mother rolled down into a field, pulling the child after her. The child clutched the mother’s
neck. Jews looking out of the wagons called out and yelled, and the child turned back up the
embankment again and under the wagons to the other side of the train. Another Ukrainian
killed the child with one blow of a rifle butt on its head.
A third incident, witnessed by Zabecki, also took place at Treblinka station:
"One mother threw a small child wrapped up in a pillow from the
wagon, shouting: 'Take it, that’s some money to look after it.' In no time an SS man ran up,
unwrapped the pillow, seized the child by its feet and smashed its head against a wheel
of the wagon. This took place in full view of the mother, who was howling with pain.
|At the Quarters' Door - 1943
A fourth incident involved Willi Klinzmann
, one of the two German railwaymen who supervised
the shunting work at the station:
"There was an SS man from the camp in
Klinzmann’s flat. A frightened, battered Jewess who
had managed to get out of a wagon came into the station building. She probably thought
she would be safe here. Crossing the threshold of the dark corridor close by the door
of the German railwaymen’s quarters, she uttered a loud groan and a sigh.
Willi rushed out into the corridor, and seeing the
woman he shouted: 'Bist du Jüdin?' ('Are you a Jewess?'). The SS man rushed
out after Willi. The frightened Jewess exclaimed: 'Ach mein
Gott!' ('Oh My God!'), escaped to the waiting room next to the traffic supervisor’s office,
and fell down exhausted near the wall. Both the Germans grabbed the woman lying there.
They wanted her to get up and go out with them. The Jewess lay motionless. It was already
late evening. As I went out to see to a military transport passing through the station, I shone
my lamp on the woman lying there. I noticed she was pregnant, and in the last months of
pregnancy at that. The Jewess did not react to the German’s calls uttering groans as if in labour.
Then Klinzmann and the SS man from the camp began to take
turns at kicking the Jewess at random and laughing.
After dispatching the train, I had to go into the office again through the waiting room, but I
could not do it. In the waiting-room a human being, helpless, defenceless, - a sick, pregnant
woman – had been murdered. The impact from the hobnailed boots was so relentless that
one of the Germans, aiming at her head, had hit too high, right into the wall. I had to go into the
office and pass close to the murderers, since the departure of a train to
Wolka Okraglik had to be attended to. My entrance made the
criminals stop. In their frenzy they had forgotten where they were, and somebody plucked
up courage to break in and stop them in their duty of liquidating 'an enemy of Hitlerism'.
They reached for their pistols. Willi drunk, mumbled
'Fahrdienstleiter' (Traffic Supervisor). I closed the door behind me. The butchers
renewed the kicking. The Jewess was no longer groaning. She was no longer alive.
|At Treblinka Station - 1943
At the beginning of the second week of August 1942
Treblinka railway station, Zabecki witnessed an incident, otherwise unrecorded. A Polish partisan,
, from a nearby village, had reached the station after
being forced to flee across the River Bug. He was on his way south, armed, in search
of another partisan group, and intended to travel south on the regular train to
. At an adjoining platform were carriages waiting
to be shunted on to the death camp spur. Zabecki recalled:
"Trzcinski went up to a wagon,
suddenly unfastened his coat, and gave a young Jew a grenade, asking him to throw
it among the Germans. The Jew took the grenade, and Trzcinski
jumped into the moving passenger train and departed.
Zabecki later learned that the Jew threw the grenade in the death camp at a group of
Ukrainians standing besides the Germans on the unloading ramp. One Ukrainian was
seriously wounded. The revenge of the Germans and Ukrainians was terrible.
"The young men were beaten with sticks until they lost
consciousness. All of them died.
Zabecki noted that so terrible were the scenes at Treblinka station, that from
no more passenger trains stopped there,
as hitherto: only military trains, and deportation trains being divided up
and shunted into the death camp.
He recalled that beyond the railway lines, and parallel to them, ran a concrete road,
beyond which was an excavation overgrown with bushes. Fugitives, seeing this thicket,
often hid there before fleeing further away. But, 'more often than not', they died there from
wounds received as they had jumped from the train: injuries from falling, or shots from the
guards. The SS men knew about this, and scoured the thicket with a dog.
As Zabecki’s own allotment was not far from the thicket he witnessed a tragedy on
, as a train of deportees stood in the station, waiting
to be shunted forward. Several had managed to break out of the trains and, being shot
at all the while, had made for the thicket:
"One of the SS men who had arrived at the station that day –
he was Kurt Franz, deputy commandant of the camp
– came out with his dog along the road. The dog, scenting something, pulled the SS man
after it into the thicket. A Jewess was lying there with a baby; probably she was already dead.
The baby, a few months old, was crying and nestling against its mother’s bosom.
The dog let off the lead, tracked them down, but at a certain distance it crouched on the
ground. It looked as if it was getting ready to jump, to bite them and tear them to pieces.
However, after a time it began to cringe and whimper dolefully, and approached the people lying
on the ground; crouching it licked the baby on its hands, face and head.
The SS man came up to the scene with his gun in his hand. He sensed the dog’s weakness.
The dog began to wag its tail, turning its head towards the boots of the SS man. The German
swore violently and flogged the dog with his stick. The dog looked up and fled. Several times
the German kicked the dead woman, and then began to kick the baby and trample on its head.
Later he walked through the bushes, whistling for his dog. The dog did not seem to hear,
although it was not far away; it ran through the bushes whimpering softly; it appeared to be
looking for the people. After a time the SS man came out on to the road, and the dog ran
up to its master. The German then began to beat it mercilessly with a whip. The dog howled,
barked, even jumped up to the German’s chest as if it were rabid, but the blows with the
whip got the better of it. On the masters command it lay down.
The German went a few paces away, and ordered the dog to stand. The dog obeyed the
order perfectly. It carefully licked the boots, undoubtedly spattered with the baby’s blood,
under its muzzle. Satisfied the SS man began to shoot and set the dog on other Jews who
were still escaping from the wagons standing in the station.
Although much has been said about the brutality of the Ukrainian guards, in Zabecki’s opinion,
the Lithuanians, who mostly guarded the trains, were much worse:
"They really were sadists; they used to shoot at people, blind,
through the windows of the cars, when they begged for doctors, water and to be allowed to
relieve themselves. They did it as a sport – they laughed and joked and bet while they did it.
Amongst the Ukrainians there were several who we knew wanted to get away. But you see,
that too was dangerous; they were in just as much danger as everybody else."
In fact, nobody was safe. One of Zabecki’s colleagues who was helping him to count cars,
Tadeuz Kancakowski, was seen by the Germans putting
a note with figures on a spike; two German civilians came and took him to
Malkinia. He was sent to
Majdanek, and perished there.
The only surviving witness who was present at Treblinka from the very first day that the
extermination camp began operations until the very last was in no doubt about the number
" Zabecki stated, "the others
guess. There were no German papers on which to base these estimates except those I rescued
and hid – and they are inconclusive. But I stood there in that station day after day and counted
the figures chalked on each carriage. I have added them up over and over and over. The number
of people killed in Treblinka was 1,200.000, and there is no doubt about it whatsoever.
On 6 August 1944
, when the front was very close to Treblinka
and the railway station was already closed to traffic and even to railway workers, Franciszek Zabecki,
knowing that the station building would be destroyed, smuggled out of there some of the railway
documentation concerning the traffic of transports to the death camp. A few minutes later, when
Zabecki was in the surrounding fields, the building of the railway station was destroyed by the
Germans. Several days later, neighbouring villages around Treblinka were burned by the
and the local population were forced to escape to a different region. On
16 August 1944
, Treblinka was liberated by the Soviets.
In September 1944
, Zabecki went back to his work at the railway
station in Treblinka. In autumn 1945
the Main Commission for the
Investigation of Nazi Crimes from Warsaw
organized an investigation in Treblinka. The investigators were under the supervision of
, a famous Polish
judge and a specialist concerning Nazi crimes in Poland (for example, he was the supervisor
of the investigation into
KZ Majdanek). During an interview conducted by
, Zabecki decided to give to
the judge the originals of the documents which he had taken from the Treblinka station.
Shortly after the war the original documentation was deposited at the
court and copies were taken to the
Main Commission Office in Warsaw
, where they remain to this day.
20 years later, in 1965
, Zabecki was invited to
as a witness in the first trial
of former SS men from Treblinka: Kurt Franz, August Miete,
Arthur Matthes, Willi Mentz, Gustav Münzberger, Otto Stadie, Franz Suchomel,
Erwin Lambert, Otto Rum and Otto Horn
. Prior to his journey to Germany, Zabecki
had many doubts about going there. He was concerned about the reception of his memoirs
from the “other side”, but he wanted to bear witness to all of the crimes he had seen. During the
first confrontation with former SS men he could not recognize any of them:
“The judge asked me if I knew the accused, if I recognized
them and what were their names. Horrible. In the main it had been twenty-two years since I
had last seen them. I saw the younger men of that time. Now they were old men, some of them
grey haired, others bald, their faces wrinkled. Also important was the fact that as younger
men they had been in uniform. Now they were in civilian clothing. I stood because I
wanted to see them better. We stood for a time opposite one another. I looked at everybody.
I looked into their eyes for a few seconds before they looked away; in these short
seconds I was the object of their hate-ridden, yet at the same time, interested scrutiny. I
felt that they tried with difficult to recognize who it was from the Polish railway workers
who stood before them.
When the judge started to call the accused by name, Zabecki immediately recognized them.
During the trial he was asked for details connected with the transports and for the documentation
that he had saved. In the course of this visit to Germany, Zabecki also met
first time in his life, to
whom he gave an interview in Polish. He was also interviewed by German and English journalists.
His second visit to Germany was in connection with the trial of former SD men from
responsible for the liquidation of the
ghetto there, as well as mass crimes committed against Polish inhabitants during the occupation.
The trial was held in 1966
. The accused were
, former commandant of the Security
Police and SD in Bialystok
, Lothar Heimbach,
Heinz Errelis and Richard Dibus
. At that time Zabecki testified about the schedule of transports from
to Treblinka. He also explained about how he had saved the
documentation from the railway station in Treblinka and why he had kept records about the transports:
“I was a member of the Home Army and supplying evidence
about the transports was my duty. The messages about the crimes in Treblinka were sent to London.
, Zabecki travelled to Frankfurt am Main
where the trial of Adolf Beckerle
, former Nazi ambassador to
Bulgaria, and Fritz von Hahn
, an official from the Judenreferat
in the Nazi Foreign Ministry, had been scheduled. Among the documents which Zabecki had
saved were telegrams about transports from Salonika and Bulgaria. Concerning the question
“from what source did the witness know that among the deportees were also Jews from foreign countries?”
"The Jews from foreign countries arrived in passenger trains
and had bought tickets for the journey. The train staff collected the tickets and gave them to
us at the railway station. The tickets were the best proof of the country the deportees were from.
Sometimes a passenger would ask the Polish railway workers how far it was to the factories in
Treblinka, because his whole family was there already. One passenger decided to go to the bar
while his transport stood at a station en-route, and the train with the deportees left without him.
He used the normal train service and arrived at Treblinka, wanting to be with his family.
During our conversation he told me where he was from and I informed him in detail about the
“factories” in Treblinka. He escaped immediately. There were several such incidents.
Every train had a list of wagons. On these lists was the departure station of the transport.
As a result of this trial von Hahn
was sentenced on 8
years imprisonment. Beckerle
was released because
of ill health and was never sentenced.
The last time Zabecki appeared as a witness at a trial was at the proceedings against
. At the trial Zabecki provided a detailed statement, not
only about the transports and the camp, but also about his activity in connection with the gathering
of information for the Home Army. He also mentioned eng. Kaczkowski
“Eng. Kaczkowski was
very well known to me at that time. He cooperated with me in completing our knowledge about the
transports. After his arrest every trace of him was lost. Eng. Kaczkowski’s
colleagues told us that he was deported to some concentration camp.
In providing his evidence, Zabecki was asked if Stangl
had visited the railway station in Treblinka. He confirmed this fact and also described how
had visited local villages when Ukrainian guardsmen
escaped from the camp. This was a very important moment for the court, because prior to
Zabecki’s evidence, Stangl
had denied that he was the
commandant of Treblinka and had stated that he was not in the camp at the time of the mass
murders. During this trial Zabecki had a second occasion to meet
. He also had a very long
conversation with Berek Rojzman
, a survivor from Treblinka.
Revolt in Treblinka and the Liquidation of the Camp - by Franciszek Zabecki
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy
, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London, 1986.
Sereny, Gitta. Into That Darkness – From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder
, Pimlico, London, 1995.
Zabecki, Franciszek. Wspomnienia dawne i nowe
, Warszawa, 1977.
© ARC 2005