The Treblinka Gold Rush
After World War II, Polish peasants hunted for jewels and gold amid the human remains at former Nazi death camps
In Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibór over a million and a half Jews were murdered, including the Jewish population of several large cities. And monies as well as valuables, which Jews took on their final journey, hoping against hope that they might survive, in some small part trickled into the hands of the locals. Warsaw native and engineer Jerzy Królikowski, who lived in the village of Treblinka while supervising construction of a railroad bridge nearby, recalled how “wrist watches were sold by the dozens, for pennies, and local peasants carried them in egg baskets offering them to whomever was interested.”
Villages around extermination camps were swept up in a gold rush akin to that in the Wild West: “Prostitutes from a nearby town, or even from Warsaw, showed up, eager to get golden coins, while vodka and food could be purchased in numerous houses. In villages close to the camp, Ukrainians, during their spare time from ‘work,’ were heartily welcomed by some peasants. Daughters in such households, people were saying, provided company to these murderers and eagerly benefited from their largesse.”
The local population was determined not to be outdone by outsiders in the provision of desired services. Camp guards paid for food and vodka “without counting the change,” and only by the time Treblinka was about to close did they start “selling diamonds by carats and not by piece.” A local informant whom we have already quoted (a well-educated prewar supporter of the National-Democratic Party and a landowner from Ceranów) described the circumstances in even more derisive terms: “The village Wólka Okrąglik is situated near Treblinka. Peasants from there used to send their wives and daughters to meet with Ukrainian guards employed at the camp. They were beside themselves if the women did not bring, in exchange for personal services, enough jewelry and valuables that belonged to the Jews. Theirs was a very profitable business.”
Mieczysław Chodźko, a Treblinka survivor, reveals in his reminiscences another interesting detail. “Guards,” he writes, “had cameras and took pornographic pictures, which they very much liked to show to each other.” This may help explain some of the mystery of the photograph. Just as it is unknown who took the picture or why, it was puzzling how a camera made it into Podlasie countryside shortly after the war in the first place. Now we know that both during and after the war it was possible to find virtually anything in the vicinity of Treblinka.
The inhabitants of Treblinka and its surroundings did not draw their income exclusively from the dead Jews. Their business activities started the moment trains filled with living Jews destined for gas chambers stopped at the Treblinka train station. Huge, 60-wagon-long trains arriving from Warsaw were filled with the condemned, who could not be disposed of at once because of the limited capacity of the gas chambers. These trains had to be split into smaller sections and rolled into the camp sequentially. Even when everything went smoothly, freight cars filled with victims awaiting their turn to be killed were parked in the station for hours. It also happened that two or three trains might reach Treblinka at the same time. And whenever a train arrived at dusk it would be kept in the station till the next morning.
After a train arrived, writes Królikowski, people from neighboring villages would come over to the station.
When I saw people near the train for the first time I thought that they came out with a noble intent to feed the hungry and bring water to the thirsty. But I was quickly told by the workers [on the construction project, which Królikowski supervised] with whom I spoke that this was regular commercial activity, selling water and food at very profitable prices. And indeed this is what it was, as I later found out. When transports were not guarded by German gendarmerie, which didn’t allow anybody to approach the trains, but by one of the auxiliary police formations [occasionally, even by the Polish police] crowds would assemble, bringing pails of water and bottles of moonshine. Water was for the people locked up in freight cars, while liquor was used to bribe the convoy guards, so they would allow the locals to approach the train. When there was no liquor, or convoy guards would not be satisfied with this form of payment, girls would come forward, put arms around their necks and cover them with kisses – anything in order to be able to come close to the wagons.
After permission was granted, trade with unfortunate prisoners dying of thirst and willing to pay 100 zlotys for a cup of water began.
Income from the “trading” with the Jews, alongside profits from selling food, alcohol, and sex to camp guards, revolutionized the local economy. A resident of Bełżec opined after the war that it had been very difficult for people in her area to “keep their decency” during the German occupation.
The killing fields of Sobibór, Bełżec, and Treblinka were neglected by the Polish authorities for decades. No attempts were made to commemorate the dead or even protect mass graves from continuous desecration. “First clean-up and inventory activities at the site of the former camp began in the Spring of 1958,” wrote a contemporary historian of Treblinka, Martyna Rusiniak. “During the initial cleaning it wasn’t uncommon for the workers and the police to join occasionally with the diggers.” Only since the mid-1960s had camp areas been marked as sites of mass murder, still neglecting to specify that the victims who had been killed there were Jewish.
This essay is adapted from Golden Harvest: Events at the Periphery of the Holocaust (Oxford UP, March 2012) by Jan Tomasz Gross with contributions by Irena Grudzinska Gross.
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