Symbolic Cemetery at Treblinka

17,000 stones set in concrete in a circle form a symbolic cemetery

Located on a knoll, at the top of a gentle slope, on the site of the former Treblinka extermination camp is a large circular area with 17,000 stones of various sizes and colors set into concrete, which represents a symbolic cemetery. When I visited Treblinka in October 1998, my tour guide told me that 130 of the stones have the names of the cities or towns from which the victims were deported to the death camp. The guide told me that many relatives of those who died here come to the symbolic cemetery and are disappointed to find that their village is not named on any of the stones.

According to a pamphlet which I purchased at the Visitor's Center, "The great monument in Treblinka is a homage of the Polish people to those ashes lie under the concrete plates of the symbolic cemetery. It is one of the most tragic monuments of martyrdom in Poland."

My tour guide informed me that the ashes of the 800,000 people who were murdered here were dumped in this area and are now hidden underneath the concrete of the symbolic cemetery and by the grass and tiny flowers which cover the area.

One of the 17,000 symbolic stones represents the city of Kielce in central Poland, where 42 Jews were killed by a mob of Polish citizens in a pogrom on July 4, 1946, long after the Nazi occupation had ended. Today Kielce is a modern industrial city with a population of 210,000, located between Warsaw and Krakow. In 1939, the Jewish population was around 25,000, although until the early 1800s, Jews were barred from living in the city. After the 1946 pogrom, many of the 300,000 Polish Holocaust survivors fled Poland and settled in other countries. In 1968 there was more violence against the Jews in Poland, and almost all of the survivors were forced to leave.

Since my visit to Treblinka in 1998, I have learned that some tour guides now tell visitors that the number of 17,000 stones in the symbolic cemetery represents the highest number of Jews that were gassed in a single day when the camp was in operation. Others say that the number 17,000 represents the number of Jewish communities that were destroyed in the Holocaust.

The photograph below shows the 26-foot granite memorial stone, which was designed to resemble a tombstone. It is located approximately on the spot where the gas chambers once stood, according to my guide. This view was taken from the front side of the memorial stone, and you can see some of the stones of the symbolic cemetery behind it. The large crack down the middle of the stone is part of the design. Note the votive candles placed between the cracks and the flowers left at the base.

Front of stone monument at Treblinka symbolic graveyard

According to the pamphlet that I obtained from the Visitor's Center, the Treblinka memorial site was built between 1959 and 1963. In February 1960, the Warsaw Regional Council selected the design of Polish sculptor Franciszek Duszenko and Polish architect Adam Haupt for the memorial stone and the Symbolic Cemetery.

According to the Council, the design of the symbolic cemetery would create a field of jagged stones that suggest a cemetery consisting of 17,000 stones with 700 of the stones inscribed with the names of the Jewish villages and communities in Poland that were obliterated by the Holocaust.

The photograph below shows the back side of the memorial tombstone. When the death camp was in operation, there was a narrow dirt path through a "tube" covered with tree branches which led to the gas chamber building in this spot. Notice the Menorah at the top of the tombstone.

Back side of stone monument, surrounded by symbolic grave stones

Raul Hilberg wrote in his three-volume book entitled "The Destruction of the European Jews" that there were 700,000 bodies buried at Treblinka, and 50,000 bodies taken directly from the gas chambers and burned on pyres.

The photo below shows more stones under a majestic tree in the back portion of the symbolic cemetery, behind a simulated cremation pit, which is visible in the foreground.

Symbolic cemetery with simulated burning pit in foreground

According to a map of the camp, the area on both sides of the cremation pyre was where the 800,000 bodies were buried before they were dug up and cremated.

The 800,000 bodies which had been previously buried were dug up and then cremated on the orders of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, after he visited the camp in 1943, according to Martin Gilbert. This project required three months of intense labor by 1,000 Jewish workers who were forced to perform this grisly task in an attempt to destroy the evidence of mass murder at Treblinka.

In the background of the picture below, you can see four round containers where "eternal flames" can be lit on special occasions.

Memorial stones of basalt recreate pits where bodies were burned

The photograph above represents the cremation pit where, according to the camp pamphlet, bodies were burned on "grates." The picture shows what the pamphlet calls "melted basalt" set on a "concrete fundamental plate."

The top of the map is South

The map in the camp pamphlet, which is similar to the map shown above, shows that there were actually two cremation pyres, located just east of the 10 new gas chambers. To the right of the spot where the train platform once stood, and in front of you as you are looking into the camp with the platform on the left, is the location of the "burial pits for those who died during transportation," according to the camp pamphlet. The victims were brought to the camp on trains with freight cars, except for a few Very Important Jews, who arrived in passenger cars.

Near the burial pits, according to the pamphlet, was an "execution site (disguised as a hospital)." This is where those who were too weak or sick to walk into the gas chambers were shot and then buried in the pits, according to the pamphlet. Half way up the gentle slope to where the symbolic graveyard now stands, there were "3 old gas chambers" according to the pamphlet, and a short distance to the south of them were built "10 new gas chambers."

According to my tour guide, the first gas chambers used carbon monoxide. The 10 new gas chambers used the poison gas known as Zyklon-B, according to the pamphlet that I purchased at the Visitor's Center. Treblinka apparently did not have delousing chambers; all the clothing taken from the prisoners was sent to the Majdanek camp to be disinfected with Zyklon-B before being sent to Germany.

A short distance farther up the slope to the east of the gas chambers was located the "cremation pyres" according to a map in the camp pamphlet. None of the three Operation Reinhard extermination camps had a crematorium for burning the bodies of the 1.5 million Jews who were killed in these camps. Of the other five extermination camps which were in operation during the same period (Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau), only Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, which also functioned as forced labor camps, had crematoria with ovens for burning the bodies.

Warsaw Stone at Treblinka Cemetery



This page was last updated on February 29, 2008