Yankiel Wiernik Testimony

What I Saw in Treblinka Death Camp

Nuremberg War Crimes Trial Evidence

(Condensed from his publication One Year in Treblinka)

Dear Reader,

 For your sake I continue my miserable life which for me has lost all meaning.

Awake or asleep I see terrible visions of thousands of corpses calling for help, begging for life and mercy. I have lost all my family, I have myself led them to death and I have myself built the death chambers in which they were murdered. Today I am a lonely, homeless old man, without family, without friends, without a roof over my head…. I am afraid of everything I fear that what I have seen is marked on my face. Old and broken life is a heavy burden but I must live on to tell the world what I have seen, of German crimes and barbarism… that the generations to come may know and remember.

That is the purpose of my life.

It was in Warsaw August 23 1942 we could hear firing going on and suddenly the voice of a German policeman calling: “Alles Raus.” I was in the home of a neighbour. We were all forced to go into the street where many other Jews, men and women of all ages and children were already gathered. Scharführer Franz with a sadistic smile on his face, and his dog Barry, at his feet, was already busy sorting out people, one here one there. I’ll never forget his face. I was standing in line opposite my own home in Wolynska Street. Around us were German and Ukrainian guards, already dividing and quarrelling over loot taken from Jewish houses. We were ordered to proceed to Zamenhof Street whilst German photographers photographed the scene. None of us realised where we were being sent. When we came to the station, there were empty wagons waiting. We were ordered to enter them, 80 in each. I had left all my things at home; all I had on was trousers, shirt and slippers. The doors were slammed and then we realised that there was no return.We left Warsaw that day and under the most terrible conditions came to Malkinia. Here Ukrainians entered demanding that we should surrender everything to save our lives. Many gave rings and all other articles they had. I had nothing to give. In the morning the trains went on and we came to Treblinka. It was a very hot day, we were desperate for water. Peasants asked 100 zloty for a bottle. I had only ten zlotys and a picture of Marshal Pilsudski which I kept as a souvenir and would not with it, so I went without. Some Jews paid 500 zlotys for a pound of bread.

There were many dead in the wagons. After we had removed them the train went on to Treblinka camp proper. Here as we saw what was happening, all illusions disappeared. The whole square was covered with corpses, some clothed, others naked. Their faces, disfigured, swollen and black were terrible to look at and a shudder passed through us. There was blood everywhere, the blood of our parents and of our children who had come before us. We all felt so terribly helpless. Ukrainian guards with machine guns were everywhere. I noticed two sheds, on one was written: “All gold, silver, money and diamonds to be left here under penalty of death.” The second shed was for parcels. Women and children were ordered to proceed to the left, men to the right. The women and children were ordered immediately to undress. In the distance I saw men working. I slipped into their group and started to work with them. Towards evening another train full of Jews arrived from Miedzyrzec, 80% of them had died on the journey. We had to clear the corpses away. I asked a fellow worker: “What does it all mean?” He said: “Those who live today will not live tomorrow.”

The guards formed a group of about 500 Jews. From these Franz selected 100, the others were sent away, ordered to kneel down and I heard firing. We were driven to a barracks, beaten all the way, and there left for the night. Early next morning we heard “Austehen” Ukrainian guards were shouting round the barracks. We were told to form a line and Franz himself gave the order to the Ukrainians to beat us. We were all beaten mercilessly and although bleeding had to stand to “attention” otherwise we were beaten further. When they were tired of beating us, they formed us into working groups. My group was ordered to bury the dead. This was very heavy work, often we had to drag the bodies as far as 300 metres to the graves. As I was working I saw a naked Jewess, she was young and beautiful. She called to us, from a distance, but we could not hear. She was trying to hide a little child with a sheet. A German saw her, made her go into a grave and there shot them both. This was the first execution I witnessed.

Franz selects them for building

The work was terrible, many corpses were beginning to rot, but we had to go on, or we were beaten. We continued 50 men and one woman, working like this for four days. On August 28 Franz made a speech. He told us we must work conscientiously, if not, he would finish us off. “The German knows the art of mastering every situation. We carry on deportation in such a clever manner that not even the Jews themselves know what awaits them and actually push their way into the wagons.” The next day we were ordered to get up – not in German but in Polish. There was a less severe atmosphere and Franz told us that each must work at his own trade. He asked for builders, I stepped forward stating that I was a master builder. A group of 15 builders was formed and placed under five Ukrainians. One of them Kostenko, didn’t look very fierce. The second, Andreyev, a short stodgy man with a red face was a peaceful and good man. Mikoda, a third, small and thin, was a real sadist. The remaining two were armed guards.

We were taken to the forest and there ordered to make a clearing. Kostenko and Andreyev did not bother us too much, but Mikoda kept urging us on all the time with his whip. Actually none of the men were builders but they volunteered to escape burying the dead. At noon we went back to the barracks where we were given soup and stale bread. At 1 o’clock about 700 of us were gathered in the square to go to work when Franz came and asked with a smile: “Who knows German?” About fifty stepped forward. He formed them into a group. They were led away, we never saw them again.We were all of us hungry. People fainted from lack of food. Andreyev, because he saw that myself and another man knew our trade, gave us a piece of bread. Our work was secret, we did not know what we were constructing. Our numbers increased every day and two Germans came to supervise the construction.

Finds he is Constructing Gas Chambers

One morning I met two people from Warsaw whom I knew, one was Stas Rozanowicz, the other engineer Ebert who was with his son. They did not work long, the hand of the executioner soon fell on them. After a while I learned what it was we were constructing, it was a gas chamber. A shudder went up my spine. We had no alternative but to work on it. Actually I had not been working at the building trade for twenty-five years, but I still had my skill and could even instruct others. Eight days after another trainload of Jews arrived from Warsaw. The camp was divided in two sections the first, including the station, unloading platforms and a large square where the victims luggage was stored. Foreign Jews had the most luggage.

There was also in this section a so-called hospital where two men in white uniforms with Red Cross armlets were busy. These men were called “doctors.” They had to select the aged and sick from each new transport. These they placed on long benches with their faces towards a pit. Germans and Ukrainians then shot them in the neck from behind and the victims fell straight into the pit. They later piled them in stacks and burnt them. Near the station were the offices of the German and Ukrainian guards and the barracks for Jews employed in the camp, also ammunition stores. The second section comprised a small barracks, a wash-house, laboratory and thirteen gas chambers. It was surrounded by a high wall of barbed wire and closely guarded by Ukrainians from special observation points.

Two Ukrainian Sadists

When I arrived at Treblinka, there were already three gas chambers. During my year’s stay, ten more were built. These gas chambers were built in such a way that the gas could be fed into them from one source. Two Ukrainians who were employed in this section were terrible sadists, one, Ivan, would nail prisoners to the wall by the ears and laugh and joke about it. I nearly went mad when I saw the first group of women and children driven into these gas chambers. I wept and tore my hair. Most terrible of all was to look at these children walking by their mothers, unaware of the death awaiting them. But I could see the fear in their eyes and I heard some of them asking: “What is this for? What’s that? Why do we come here?” They got no answers only the dead stony faces of their elders. And they got more frightened and pressed themselves against their mothers. Then I saw the door open and standing by it Ivan with a thick piece of gas piping Nikolay Nizary, the other Ukrainian, and a terrible lament broke out among the victims. Some begged for mercy, some prayed to God. Never, never, will I forget the weeping I heard that day. There must have been between 400 and 500 people already in the chamber but still more were forced in by the guards, pushing and beating them. Dogs were set on them. Soon the doors slammed behind them and I could hear the engine begin to work. After about 25 minutes all were dead. Then Ivan and Nikolay opened a door at the other end of the building and the dead fell on to a specially prepared bridge from which we had to remove them to their graves.

10,000 Murdered Daily

We were all exhausted with this work. Beaten and kicked we had to continue. One man in every four fell dead. I was beaten several times and the Hauptman kicking me said:

If you didn’t happen to be a builder, I would kill you.

Later on he freed me from that work. The number of Jews murdered in this way daily was between 10,000 and 12,000. There were so many dead that we had to make special arrangements to carry the bodies to the graves. I was freed by the Hauptman, I was not allowed to go back to Section 1 but went to Section 2 and here I saw such a terrible sight that my blood froze in my veins. Passing along a railway line I saw thousands and thousands of Jewish corpses. They were those of fresh victims. Angry Ukrainians and Germans were issuing hoarse orders and beating Jewish workers with their rifle butts. Some of them were hanging by their feet whilst Ukrainians were whipping them mercilessly. Together with the moans and shrieks, the whole scene lit by the moon and floodlighting was unbelievably ghastly.

In Section 2 I met many of my acquaintances from Warsaw. They were changed beyond recognition. They soon disappeared. New faces came, they too disappeared. I began to look at every living Jew in the camp as though he were already dead. Among all this slaughter and torture, I never saw a single German show sympathy and regret. Furthermore they always selected from other nationals evil people they could use. They found for instance, four Jews, Moshek from near Sochaczew, Icek Kobyla from Warsaw, Chaskiel the thief, and Kuba, the procurer from Warsaw.For five weeks we worked at constructing these gas chambers. The work lasted from daybreak to nightfall, always under the whip and rifle butt. Woronkow would beat so mercilessly that every day he killed several workers. But physical suffering was nothing in comparison with the moral suffering. Every day new transports of Jews arrived. They were led through the field to the old gas chambers while we constructed the new ones. Many of our party saw among them their own children, their own wives, their own parents. Some unable to control themselves ran up to say “goodbye” and were shot.

After working for weeks on the gas chambers I was transferred to Section 1 where I built a hairdresser’s salon, in which Jewish women had their hair cut off before they were led to death. This hair the Germans collected carefully, I do not know for what purpose.I continued to live in Camp Number 2 and was taken every day to work in Camp Number 1 by Unterscharführer Hermann, tall, aged about fifty, looked after us. He was human and friendly, when he first came to Camp No.2 and saw the stacks of corpses from the gas chambers he was frightened. To us workers he was kind and many times brought us food from the German kitchens.

In the meantime transports continued to arrive daily. Always on the same pretext, that of being sent to take a bath, they were put in the gas chamberI saw them come to Camp No 1 and saw the women have their hair cut. Some I noticed were actually carrying towels and soap in the belief that they were to take a bath. But they were driven forth naked to Camp No.2 where they and their children were left often waiting for hours in the freezing cold, because the gas chambers were still full of corpses. I saw little children with their feet frozen to the ground. They cried for help. The Ukrainians and Germans answered by beating them mercilessly. The German, named Sepp was particularly brutal to children. Whenever he saw a mother with a child he was sure to beat and often killed it. I saw him push a woman with a child. She begged for mercy. He caught the child and took its legs and practically tore it apart. I saw him smash a child’s head against the wall.

The procedure to the gas chambers was the same for men. Very often the machinery for pumping in the gas did not function properly, particularly in the new chambers, and the agony of the victims was prolonged for hours. Sometimes when the chambers were open many were still living and were finished off by revolver, others were just thrown out with the dead. The arrival of transports kept increasing daily. Some Jews from foreign countries arrived well dressed with much luggage, a day later only the luggage remained When the thirteen chambers worked to capacity, the number of dead was 20,000 a day. The behaviour of the victims varied. Some wept, some prayed, some walked as in lethargy, some went mad. A number committed suicide, particularly the intelligentsia. Many of those assigned to handling the corpses used to hang themselves in the barracks after they had finished at the end of the day. There were from 15 to 20 suicides every day.  Some used to attack the German’s, a certain Jew named Kuszer, unable to bear it, threw himself on Oberschaführer Matthes and wounded him. Soon the guard arrived. All the Jews of Kuszer’s transport which had arrived that morning from Warsaw and among them several of my friends were beaten to death with pieces of iron.

Unspeakable Deeds by Drunken Guards

Between the two camps were the barracks where the Ukrainian guards lived. Nearly always drunk, they would steal what they could and sell it for vodka. They constantly sought new excitements. They would seize naked Jewish women from those being sent to the gas chambers and rape them, afterwards delivering them to the next party to be disposed of. Let me describe another scene. A young Jewish woman from one of these parties jumped over the 9ft barbed wire fence and ran. Ukrainian guards closed in on her, but were unable to shoot for fear of shooting one of themselves. She managed to seize a rifle and shot one dead and wounded another in the hand. They got hold of her and beat her until she was dead.

Among those in a transport of Jews from Germany was a woman with her two boys who claimed she was not a Jewess and was deported by mistake. The boys were not circumcised. They stood in line weeping while the authorities decided what to do with them. They decided that she had seen too much and must perish with the rest. Anyone who crossed the threshold of Treblinka was doomed.

The square in Treblinka camp was covered with stacks of articles, piles of fountain pens, clothing, foodstuffs, sweets, all the things these millions brought with them. Jews were forced to sort these articles out, all had value except the Jews. One day I saw 70 gypsies brought in, poor, hungry men, women and children. Their eyes shone when they saw all these things spread about. But they too followed the Jews. And the Germans robbed them of the belongings they had.

In December 1942, whilst I was still employed in Camp No.1 an order was issued that all craftsmen must return to Camp No.2. First thing I saw on my return was stacks of fresh corpses and Germans pulling out gold teeth and crowns from their mouths. I have seen many terrible sights, but this was one that has made my life even less worth living. I was at that time employed redecorating the camp kitchen. Others were making special carriers for transporting corpses. Then I was ordered to build a wash-house, a laboratory and a hut to house fifteen women workers. I began to become insensible to what was happening, but I remember some things.

Traces of Crime

We heard of the Katyn affair. And after that Himmler arrived and gave the order that all bodies must be burnt and so destroyed. Then the burning began, a ghastly affair.We had to dig up corpses, sometimes half rotten. At first, it was not a success, it was found that male corpses did not burn as well as female, as to each pile of men’s bodies women’s had to be added to provide, as it were, kindling. The Germans introduced competition among the corpse burners announcing the numbers destroyed by each team day by day. And still the male bodies would not burn. So petrol was used, but this proved expensive. The sight was beyond description. When pregnant women were burnt, their bodies would split open and the foetus would emerge.

Whenever an aeroplane was heard approaching, the guards made us cover the bodies with branches to prevent their being seen. Sometimes the pyres contained as many as 3000 corpses. They introduced a special machine for digging them up. I myself shall never forget the sight, but on the Germans it seemed to have no effect. An Oberscharführer about 45 used to watch it smiling with enjoyment and say: “Tadellos, Tadellos” (Excellent).

The Germans were in a hurry to destroy as many as possible quickly. They facilitated their methods to such an extent that they were able to burn 10,000 to 12,000 on one pyre. It is my belief that while I was there about 3,500,000* bodies were burnt.  They were all Jews from many countries. I remember a party of Bulgarian Jews, tall, handsome, strong men. The Germans did not let them die quickly, they put them in the gas chamber and let the gas in very slowly, so that their death was a lingering one. One evening, rather late, a new transport of Jews arrived at Treblinka. We were already locked up in our barracks. Suddenly we heard shouting and firing outside in the camp.

This went on for some time. In the morning we found the whole square covered with dead. It appeared that the victims revolted and that many died fighting rather than enter the death camp. The camp became more strongly guarded. I was ordered to build a number of observation towers and the authorities even praised me for the excellent job I had done. A number of Jews who have been sent to help me and those who appeared not to know the work were shot by the Nazis when it was discovered that they were useless for construction. Four out of seven Jews who tried to dig a tunnel in Camp No.2 were caught. After they were beaten a whole day, they were hanged publicly. One of them named Mechel, from Warsaw, as he died called out: “Down with Hitler, long live the Jews.”

Among us were a number of religious Jews. They prayed every day. A German commander of one of the camps, Karol, encouraged them in their worship, deriving cynical amusement from it. He even supplied them with prayer shawls and phylacteries. During the long winter I saw the death of millions. In April 1943 new transports began to arrive from Warsaw and I saw new terrible things. The murderers were not yet satiated with blood and they invented new means of satisfying their sadism. They directed their torture particularly at women and children. They would pick out a number, dragging them along to the burning pyre of corpses and watch the women faint and the children cry and cling to their mothers. Some of the women died of fright. The others the Nazis killed and threw into the flames. As they did so, other victims were lined up to watch. Very often I have seen them catch hold of a child and throw it into the flames.

I have seen thousands of such terrible scenes.

It was about this time that many more Jews were brought from Camp No.1 to help in Camp No.2. They were so frightened that they wouldn’t even talk, but soon we learned that something was in the air. A revolt was being prepared. We decided to free ourselves or die. Communication between Camp No.1 and Camp No.2 was almost impossible, but I soon found a way of getting in contact with the people there. I was ordered to build a blockhouse and then take it to Camp No.1. When I got there I found that the terror was so appalling that they were afraid even to talk to us. Guards surrounded us all day wherever we went but in spite of it we were able to establish contact with Lejlajzen, a Warsaw baker, who was a liaison between the various conspiring groups. When I was first in Camp No.1 there were with us several Jewish boys between 13 and 14 who were employed looking after the geese. They were favourites of the camp and even the Hauptsturmführer looked after them, giving them food and clothing. I always hoped that they would be left alive, but when I came again I found that they too, had been killed.

On our return to Camp No.2 we found a real hell, piles of corpses were burning everywhere, as new transports had been brought in. Two of these transports were of Poles. I did not see them but I heard the Germans say: “These cursed Poles will not revolt again.” Young Jews in the camp became restless, longing to revolt. But it was too early, our plans were not sufficiently prepared. We began to organise ourselves in groups of five, each group with a special task. One was charged with the killing of the German or Ukrainian guard, another with burning down the building, a third with devising the best way to escape. It was necessary to prepare the instruments to kill the guards, to get ready the pails of petrol and so on. At one meeting the organisers decided that the revolt was to break out on June 15 1943 but the day had to be postponed several times. The organising committee used to start work after we had been locked up in the barracks. When all the others were dead tired and asleep, we watched and schemed.

It was difficult to hold the younger ones back. They were burning for revolt. But we felt that to start it in Camp No.2 without timing it with one in Camp No.1 would be suicide for the simple reason that we numbered only 300 workers alive, whilst in the other one there were 700. We knew that the Jews in Camp No.1 would soon join us but it needed organisation. In the meantime the Germans and Ukrainians wanted entertainment, so they organised concerts, dances and theatricals. These were macabre affairs. Jewish victims, having been beaten a few hours before, were forced to appear as “Artists,” singing and dancing for their torturers.

*The figure of 3,500.000 is mistaken, the official estimates for the number of victims is thought to range between 750,000 – 900,000


IMT Document 3338-PS - The Wiener Library of Contemporary History, London

© Holocaust Historical Society 2014