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.
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.
Jan T. Gross is Professor of History at Princeton University and author, among other books, of Neighbors.