SS-Obersturmbannführer Irmfried Eberl, an Austrian physician who had previously been employed in the euthanasia facilities in Brandenburg and Bernburg in connection with Aktion T-4 – the systematic murder of the disabled – was in charge of Treblinka II initially. He had no experience whatsoever in managing the immense organization Treblinka II was and that soon became clear.
On July 22, 1942, the Warsaw ghetto was liquidated. From that day on until September 5, approximately 265,000 Jew were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka. About a week after the arrival of the first transports, Eberl wrote in a letter to his wife:
- "I know I have written little in the past but I could not do otherwise as the last weeks of Warsaw caused an unbelievable mayhem. Here in Treblinka a pace has set in which is simply breathtaking. If I could split myself in four and there were 100 hours in a day, then even that would not be sufficient."
In addition, tens of thousands of Jews from the Radon and Lublin districts were deported to Auschwitz from August 1942 onwards. Eberl was far from up to the immense task of organizing the extermination of such large numbers of people. Moreover, the gas chamber broke down regularly and the mass graves were insufficient for the influx of corpses. For lack of better, the SS started to shoot Jews in the reception area. The consequences soon became visible: trains containing new victims stood waiting on the platform and rotting corpses were scattered all over the camp. The situation was chaotic enough to cause Odilo Globocnik to stop the deportations to Treblinka II temporarily at the end of August 1942.
Eberl was held accountable for this chaos. He was relieved of his function and replaced by SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl (Bio Stangl) who had earned his salt as commander of another extermination camp, Sobibor. Kurt Franz was his assistant. Stangl told about his arrival in Treblinka:
- "I drove up there with an SS driver. We could already smell it miles away. The road ran alongside the railway tracks. When we were 15 or 20 minutes away from Treblinka, we saw bodies lying alongside the tracks, first two or three, later on more and when we arrived at the station, there were hundreds of them – they just lay there – obviously for days in that heat. At the station was a train full of Jews, some dead, others still alive .. that train looked like as if it had already been there for days too. Treblinka was the most horrendous of what I have seen in the entire Third Reich. It was the Hell of Dante. The stench was indescribable. Hundreds, no thousands of bodies were lying around, decomposing, rotting."
This situation was also described by SS-Scharführer Franz Suchomel.
Stangl quickly set things straight. In order to cope with the flood of deportees, he had new gas chambers built in early October 1942 which had to cope with the future transports from Warsaw and the Radom district.
Apart from Stangl, who was commander until August 1943 when his assistant Kurt Franz succeeded him, some 20 to 30 German and Austrian SS men worked in the camp. Most of them had learned their trade in the euthanasia program. In addition, 90 to 150 so-called Trawniki men were employed in the camp; these Polish or Ukrainian civilians had been recruited for this work and had been trained in the SS camp of Trawniki. One of the most notorious among them was Ivan Marchenko, better known as Ivan the Terrible. He was one of the men responsible for the operation of the gas chambers.
Finally, the German guards forced 700 to 1,000 Jews to assist in the extermination process. They were selected from the incoming transports and deployed for all sorts of tasks. They cut branches to be attached to the fences as camouflage, they helped the prisoners undress, classified valuable goods, cleaned and emptied the gas chambers and helped cremate the corpses. Initially, they also were gassed after a short while and replaced by Jews from newly arrived transports but from September 1942 onwards, Stangl opted for more permanent Arbeitskommandos.
Distinction must be made between the Jews working in the Totenlager and those deployed in other parts of the camp. The life expectancy of the Arbeitsjuden in the Totenlager seldom exceeded two months. The other workers fared "better": they had their own barracks and were employed as masons, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, kitchen staff and gold smiths. The SS men selected these people themselves but that did not mean they were out of danger. Richard Glazar, one of the surviving Arbeitsjuden testifies about this:
- "The entire Treblinka period can be divided in four phases. The first was the period when Eberl was in charge (before Glazar himself arrived, Edit.) The second, with Stangl in command but in the beginning of his rule, was still one of extreme arbitrariness in which an SS man could select someone for work and an hour later he could already be dead; "sent away" by another SS man. Phase three, in the spring of 1943, was relatively stable: the number of transports had decreased and the SS had learned that their relatively safe job away from the front depended on efficient camps and so they began to spare valuable workers. [ ..] There was some horrible kind of mutual interest among murderers and victims: staying alive. Finally, there was phase four, two to three months prior to the uprising of August 1943, a period of growing unsafety for the Germans while the Russians were approaching and the SS began to recognize that the outside world would come to know what had happened in Treblinka and that they were in fact individuals all bearing their own guilt.
- Sometimes six trains arrived and 20,000 people were sent to their death. Initially mostly Jews from Warsaw and the west with their riches – huge amounts of food, money and jewelry. It is unbelievable what and how much they all ate. I recall a boy, 16 years of age who said, a few weeks after his arrival, he had never fared better in his life than in Treblinka.
It is remarkable how not only the surviving Arbeitsjuden but the guards as well, drew a distinction between transports from the west and those from the east. With the east they meant countries such as the Baltic states and the Soviet Union whereas by the west, countries such as Czechoslovakia and Greece were meant. Jews from the west were much better off. They often carried lots of food and clothing which the Arbeitsjuden gratefully put to their own use. The origin of the transports was important to the guards as well. Werner Heyde, responsible for the euthanasia program Aktion T-4, recognized the possibility that western Jews could find out the truth behind the transports and offer resistance. Hence he considered it important to mislead them until the last moment when resistance was no longer possible. With Jews from the east, precautions were of less importance as they simply expected terror, as they had already often been confronted with pogroms and anti-Jewish activities during their lives. Therefore they were treated more aggressively on arrival in the camp than transports from the west. Richard Glazar, himself originating from Prague, about his arrival in Treblinka:
- "We were all standing at the windows looking out. I saw a green hedge, barracks and heard something that sounded like a farm tractor. I was in high heaven. [..] There was loud shouting, not too loud, nobody mistreated us. I followed the crowd: "men to the right, women and children to the left," so we were told. One of the SS men, - I learned his name later, Küttner – told us in a friendly voice we were going to a disinfection bath and subsequently to work.
We were not dressed in striped uniforms, filthy, devoured by vermin or almost starved to death like most prisoners in concentration camps. My own group, the Czechs and the Hofjuden were dressed very well. There was no shortage of clothing. I usually wore riding pants, a velvet coat, brown boots, a shirt, a silk tie and a sweater when it was cold. It was no coincidence that the Arbeitsjuden did their best to look well. You were very concerned about how you looked. It was extremely important to look neat at roll call. [..] The effect of looking neat did always help – it even imbued respect. But the fact you looked neat could be considered bragging or toadyism and result in a penalty or even death. In the end we understood that maximum safety lay in looking as much as possible – not too much though – like the SS men themselves."