The Treblinka Gold Rush
After World War II, Polish peasants hunted for jewels and gold amid the human remains at former Nazi death camps
It is a familiar image, one people have seen in countless variations: a group of peasants at harvest time after work, resting contentedly with their tools behind a pile of crops. Some may have taken a snapshot of this kind on summer vacations, while visiting with distant relatives in the countryside; others might carry it as a souvenir of their days as a student volunteer, when they helped farmers in the back country in their work. It was the kind of image featured every summer on the front pages of newspapers in communist countries half the world over, and visitors could find more or less artistically refined renditions in art galleries and museums.
Yet despite the bucolic setting, this particular photograph is disquieting—and not just because it’s out of focus. Something feels off-kilter about the landscape, which cannot be pegged easily to a geographical location. Were palm trees rather than conifers protruding from behind the group, one might place the setting of the photograph in a desert. And when one notes what is scattered in front of the group the mystery deepens.
Where are we? Who are the people in the photograph?
We are in the middle of Europe right after World War II. The peasants in the photograph are standing atop the ashes of 800,000 Jews gassed and cremated in the Treblinka extermination camp between July 1942 and October 1943. The peasants have been digging through remains of Holocaust victims, hoping to find gold and precious stones that their Nazi executioners may have overlooked.
This innocent-looking image links two central events of the Holocaust—the mass murder of European Jews and the accompanying looting of their property. The writer Rachela Auerbach visited Treblinka on Nov. 7, 1945, as part of an official delegation organized by the Main Commission for the Investigation of Hitlerite Crimes. She called one of the chapters of a small book she subsequently wrote about the Treblinka extermination camp “The Polish Colorado or About the Gold Rush in Treblinka.” She also described how plunderers with shovels were everywhere. “They dig, they search, pulling out bones and body parts. Maybe something could still be found,” she writes, “maybe a golden tooth?”
Dominik Kucharek, a gleaner from Treblinka who had been served with an indictment for violating foreign-exchange laws—he tried to sell in Warsaw a diamond he found at Treblinka and purchase gold coins on a black market—explained in his deposition that “everybody” from his village went to dig there. “I didn’t know that looking for gold and valuables at the site of the former camp at Treblinka was forbidden, because Soviet soldiers also went there with us to search. And they detonated explosives in places where they expected to find something.” There could be several hundred diggers working the camp at any one time. Given the size of the site, approximating that of a sports stadium, it must have looked like a busy anthill. And these digs went on for decades.
Testimonies from Bełżec tell a similar story. The main difference was that digging there had already begun during the war. Like Treblinka, Bełżec was dismantled by the Germans, and the camp’s terrain was plowed over, and trees and grass were planted to cover mass graves. Bełżec was the first death camp to close—in mid-1943. When the Germans got wind of what the Polish locals were doing, they chased them away and installed a permanent guard to make sure that no evidence of their own murderous activity would be unearthed. As soon as the guard fled before the approaching Red Army, the local people resumed their excavations.
“According to information provided by policemen stationed in Bełżec,” states a report prepared by a commission visiting Bełżec on Oct. 10, 1945, “the area of the camp has been dug up by local people looking for gold and precious stones left by murdered Jews. All over the dug-up terrain one finds scattered human bones: skulls, vertebrae, ribs, femurs, jaws, women’s hair, often in braids, also fragments of rotting human flesh, such as hands or lower limbs of small children.” After the Germans fled from Bełżec the local police tried to inhibit digging in the camp area, “but it is difficult to do anything,” explained the town’s police precinct commander, Mieczysław Niedużak, “because as soon as one group of people is chased away, another group appears.”
The commission worked conscientiously, and in addition to talking to scores of witnesses the authors of the report also surveyed the camp. Nine separate sites in the death camp were probed for depth, in one instance the bottom of the grave was over 20 feet down. “When digging the probes it was ascertained that camp graves have been previously dug up,” and also “that at the present time the entire camp area is being dug up by the local population looking for valuables.”
Death-camp harvesters usually worked alone, lest a lucky find provoke envy from a neighbor (in the vicinity of Treblinka, diggers were robbed and tortured one another). Both in Bełżec and in Treblinka it was common practice to take skulls home in order to check them out later, and “in peace.”
There were also a few entrepreneurs who hired small crews to dig for them, such as a man known as the “banker of Bełżec,” who owned a brick factory in town and staked a claim to an area where a latrine had been previously situated in the camp. It was the most fertile spot, presumably because desperate Jews who figured out at last what awaited them threw therein valuables instead of surrendering them to camp officials. After the Red Army liberated the area near Sobibór, Soviet soldiers scooped the former camp latrine by buckets hauling loads of wristwatches. The latrine area in Bełżec yielded also small skeletons—most likely of Jewish children who had been drowned there by camp guards.
The area surrounding the death camps was indeed, as Rachela Auerbach suggested, a Polish Colorado—not just on account of what happened there after the war, but mainly during the war. Villages in the vicinities of camps prospered materially as a result of trade between camp guards and the local people, trade which according to one observer brought a “material and economic revolution” into this area. A landlord whose property was not far from Treblinka put it thus: “thatched roofs were gone, replaced by sheet metal, and the entire village seemed like a piece of Europe suddenly moved into the center of Podlasie.”
What lay behind this perceptive observation? In addition to a small staff of SS men, Treblinka’s personnel was made up of released Soviet POWs, mostly Ukrainians, trained by the SS to serve as guards. Those young men, about a hundred of them altogether, treated with contempt by their German superiors, were called Wachman or, alternatively, “Blacks,” from the color of their uniforms. They easily communicated in pidgin Polish-Ukrainian with the local people and were welcome guests in their homes, as bearers of looted money and valuables. Treblinka guards traded with the locals, buying alcohol, tasty food, and sex, and the inflow of capital into the area was beyond anything that had happened there before or has happened since.
The Zamir Chorale brings its Jewish choral music to Jazz at Lincoln Center in celebration of Yom Yerushalayim