Situated east of Warsaw, Treblinka began operation as a death camp in July 1942. During less than two years of existence, over 850,000 Jews were killed in its gas chambers, most of them immediately upon arrival. As was the case at other death camps, the SS forced Jewish prisoners to ensure the smooth running of the mass killings: they selected strong-looking men to drive new arrivals into the gas chambers, cut women’s hair, sort through luggage and finally to drag the corpses into the crematoria. By the spring of 1943 the destruction of Polish Jewry was practically complete, and by the autumn the camp had been dismantled.
The Nazis successfully destroyed most records of the camp, and only a few dozen inmates survived to see liberation. Most of these managed to flee during the remarkable Treblinka uprising, which broke out on 2 August 1943 (by which point large-scale killings had already ceased). Despite the odds, almost half of the 850 prisoners who took part managed to break out of the camp, although only around a hundred were able to escape the region and many died of exposure, starvation or recapture and subsequent deportation. Those who did escape found that people on the outside struggled to believe the horrors that they had witnessed.
In this context, there would seem to be little room for music. Yet Treblinka had a surprisingly well-developed musical life, most of which existed for the entertainment of the SS or for the deception of the victims. We also have scattered records of prisoners singing together for pleasure and solidarity (in his book Surviving Treblinka, for example, Samuel Willenberg writes about some of the music that he witnessed), and even some newly-created songs.
Probably the best-known musical ensemble of the Operation Reinhard death camps is Artur Gold’s orchestra. Already during the camp’s first days, the SS organised a trio to play for them during meals and in the evenings. The musicians were Polish Jews who had been brought to aid in the camp’s construction. They were forced to play near the gas chambers as well as to perform cheerful pre-war tunes during roll-call. When the well-known musician Artur Gold arrived in a transport from the Warsaw ghetto, however, he was pulled aside and ordered to organise a 'proper' orchestra. Gold assembled the necessary musicians, and, with the help of the SS, instruments and uniforms were made available. In addition to its daily duties, the orchestra was called upon to entertain and distract the SS officers and ‘elite’ prisoners.
In addition to these musical groups, we also know of songs that were created in the camp. The bitterly ironic text of the ‘Treblinka song’ called upon prisoners to keep their 'gaze forwards, always brave and happy looking into the world … Today we only have Treblinka, that is our fate … we want to work, more, more/ until that little happiness greets us finally. Hurray!' A surviving SS guard from Treblinka remembered the song with pleasure as 'an original. There isn’t a Jew today who can sing it'.
Songs could also provide some comfort to the prisoners. At night, prisoner functionaries sometimes sang or prayed together, as Jewish liturgical melodies known across national borders became an expression of identity and solidarity:
It was our way of trying, at least in the evening, to tear ourselves away from the horror around us and forget everything we had endured that day.