How do we know the Nazis used excavators to exhume bodies for cremation at the Operation Reinhard death camps?
Holocaust deniers claim:
The only proof that the Nazis used excavators at the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor are two drawings made by one single survivor of Treblinka.
More specifically, Holocaust deniers also claim that these two drawings are less than definitive in and of themselves. The drawings, produced by S. Willenberg in the 1980s, show only part of the Treblinka camp and feature “an excavator in the background!”
The facts are:
Numerous pieces of evidence, including photographs, documents, and eyewitness testimony, show that the Nazis used excavators to exhume the bodies of victims from the mass graves of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor.
Facts on the use of excavators at Treblinka:
Samuel Willenberg’s drawings are certainly not the only proof that the Nazis used excavators at Treblinka. There are also photographs, documents, and eyewitness evidence about the use of excavators.
Photographs: Kurt Franz was the last commandant of Treblinka. Although photographs were explicitly forbidden by SS directive, Franz still took numerous pictures of the camp, including the excavators, the gas chambers, and the mass graves.
- A telegram from Odilo Globocnik, the head of Operation Reinhard in Lublin, Poland, dated September 4, 1942. In this telegram, he insisted that two “bucket excavators” be acquired immediately from the August Harms Company in Hamburg, Germany.
- A telegram from Christian Wirth, the overseer of all three camps, to Hans Kammler in Berlin dated June 2, 1942. The subject of this telegram is the delivery of an excavator from the Lamczak Company in Berlin. Wirth complains that an excavator had arrived, been damaged, and could not be repaired in Poland.
- A shipping document dated June 29, 1943. This document indicates that the Nazis were returning, again to the Lamczak Company in Berlin, one of the three excavators at Treblinka.
Eyewitness testimony corroborates the documents:
Maria Daniel, a Polish woman who lived near Belzec: “We could see a machine that took the corpses from the graves and threw them into the fire [. . .] At that time a dreadful smell dominated the whole area, a smell of burned human bones and bodies. From the moment they began burning the corpses, from all directions of the camp came the smell of the corpses. When the Germans completed the burning of the corpses, they dismantled the camp.”
Rudolf Reder, a Jewish survivor of Belzec: “We dug pits, enormous mass graves [. . .] We dug with spades, but there was also a machine which loaded sand, brought it to the surface, and emptied it beside the pits.”
Heinrich Gley, an SS guard, who arrived at Belzec toward end of July 1942: “When all the bodies had been removed from the graves, a special search commando sifted through the earth and extracted all the leftovers—bone, clumps of hair, etc. and threw those remains on the fire. An additional mechanical excavator was brought to accelerate the work. One excavator came from Sobibor and the other from the Warsaw district, which were operated by Hackenholt.”
Dov Frieberg, a Jewish survivor, stated: “One day a large crane, with two unusual shovels, was brought into the camp. The crane stood beside Lager 2 [the reception area] for a few days, where Getzinger worked on it for a long time, and then it was brought to Lager 3 [the death camp area]. After some time the air around us was filled with the terrible smell of rotting, burning flesh, and thick black smoke wafted over to us from Lager 3, covering the sky.”
Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka: “It must have been at the beginning of 1943. That’s when excavators were brought in. Using these excavators, the corpses were removed from the huge ditches which had been used until then [for burial].”
Samuel Willenberg, a survivor of Treblinka: “Peering over the 5-metre-high sandbank, we saw the tip of a crane which had previously been used to dig pits and build up the sand between ourselves and the Todeslager [death camp area]. Now it was digging up corpses and scattering them. As its scoop rose in the air, we saw corpses fall between its serrated edges [. . .] The crane toiled thus, dumping bodies into the blazing furnace, for days on end.”
Eyewitness testimony from Polish bystanders, Jewish survivors, and Nazi perpetrators corroborates the documentary evidence that the Nazis and their collaborators used excavators in all three camps.
Samuel Willenberg’s drawings are not the sole proof regarding the use of excavators at Treblinka. Primary documents, photographs, and eyewitness testimony, when taken together, persuasively support the claim that the Nazis used excavators at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. They were initially used for digging mass graves, then for exhuming remains for cremation.
Shmuel Willenberg, 1942. Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Shmuel and Ada Willenberg
 Carlo Mattogno and Jürgen Graf, Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp? (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), 141 at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/t.pdf. The drawings can been seen in Samuel Willenberg, Surviving Treblinka, edited by Wladyslaw T. Bartoszewski (Basil Blackwell, 1989), Plates 2 and 3. One of the drawings can also be seen at http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/treblinka/maps.html.
 Jonathan Harrison, Robert Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov and Nicholas Terry, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard. A Critique of the Falsehoods of Mattogno, Graf and Kues, 356 citing Vernehmung Maria Daniel, 16.10.1945, BAL B162/208 AR-Z 252/59, Bd. 1, 1154 at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html. Select Google Docs, Rapidshare, or Archive.org for a PDF version.
 Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), 173 citing court documents from the Belzec-Oberhauser trial, Band 6, 1154.
 Rudolf Reder, “Belzec,” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, Volume 13: Focusing on the Holocaust and its Aftermath, edited by Antony Polonsky (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000), 280.
 Robin O’Neil, Belzec: Prototype for the final Solution: Hitler’s Answer to the Jewish Question (“Belzec: Second Phase, Belzec’s dead: burning of the corpses”) at http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Belzec1/bel100.html#67r citing court documents TAL/ZStL, Belzec Case: Statements of Heinrich Gley and Robert Jührs, 11 October 1961.
 Dov Freiberg, To Survive Sobibor (Gefen House Publishing, 1099), 266, 267.
 Jonathan Harrison, Robert Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov and Nicholas Terry, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard. A Critique of the Falsehoods of Mattogno, Graf and Kues, pp. 445, 446 at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html. Select Google Docs, Rapidshare, or Archive.org for a PDF version.
 Samuel Willenberg, Surviving Treblinka, edited by Wladyslaw T. Bartoszewski (Basil Blackwell, 1989), 108.