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Henryk Gawkowski and Treblinka railway workers

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5036 | Film ID: 3362, 3363, 3364, 3365, 3366, 3367, 3818, 3743, 3744, 3368, 3370, 3371, 3372

Henryk Gawkowski was a locomotive conductor at the Treblinka station and estimates that he transported approximately 18,000 Jews to the camp. He drank vodka all the time because it was the only way to make bearable his job and the smell of burning corpses. He describes the black market and the prostitution that developed around the camp. This interview also includes conversations with several other Polish witnesses who were railway workers.

FILM ID 3362 -- Camera Rolls #4-7 -- 01:00:00 to 01:13:26
Gawkowski and a Polish choir sing "W mogile ciemnej ?pij na wieki," a Gregorian-chant style funeral march written by Aleksander Orlowski, in a church accompanied by an organ. A rough translation of the Polish lyrics are:
Verse 1
In the dark grave, sleep forever
And we have to say goodbye to you shedding tears, shedding tears!
Because you've headed to a far off land,
Your remaining brothers are sending off prayers!

For a brief time say goodbye to us
For in fact God will beckon us there
For a brief time say goodbye to us
For in fact God will beckon us there

Verse 2:
To God's throne we send prayers for you
That eternal peace He may give you
And that you have covered our hearts with grief
Is testified to by our tears, oh, by these tears.

FILM ID 3363 -- Camera Rolls #8-10 -- 02:00:00 to 02:31:52
CR8 Gawkowski explains his job as an assistant machinist/conductor on the locomotive. He went to Treblinka three times a week. Initially he transported gravel, after the creation of Treblinka he transported Jews. He tells how he would push the rail cars into the camp. He transported Jews from many different cities (talks of Bialystok and Warsaw).

02:10:49 CR9 Gawkowski describes the loading of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto onto the trains (not the Umschlagsplatz). He personally drove approximately 15-20 convoys, with 60 cars per convoy, 120-200 people per car, with an estimated total of 18,000 people, into Treblinka. It was required that German Gestapo accompany each transport. He says he transported Jews from France, Greece, Holland and Yugoslavia into the camp; his first transport was of Greek Jews.

02:22:05 CR10 Gawkowski talks about the first transport he drove, a convoy of Greek Jews. He recalls that it was passenger train, not a cargo train, and that they were accompanied by the German police, not the Gestapo. He knew what their fate was going to be, so while passing part of the train, he made a gesture (of slicing the neck) to let them know. They understood and it caused an uproar on the train. People started trying to get off the train and flee, they threw their children. Some might have escaped. Gawkowski maintains that foreign Jews were usually transported in passenger cars, while the Polish Jews arrived in commodity cars. He describes the scene of a foreign Jew who had stepped off of the train to buy something, trying to catch the train as it pulled away. Polish railworkers told him what he was running towards and he escaped. 02:31:22 Picture cuts out a few times.

FILM ID 3364 -- Camera Rolls #11-13 -- 03:00:00 to 03:22:03
CR11 Lanzmann asks Gawkowski where he lived during this period. He lived in Malkinia, in the same house they are sitting in. Lanzmann gets cut off asking his next question.

03:01:05 CR12 Gawkowski explains the process of how he would transport Jews. He lived in Malkinia, he would receive an order/itinerary to transport regular goods (i.e. ammunition, fuel) to the East; he would then receive another order with fake numbers to transport 'goods' back, only this time the goods were Jews. He didn't know beforehand what he would be transporting, but he knew what the special trains (Sonderzug) held. He witnessed the loading of a convoy in Bialystok from a distance, how they packed them in and beat them.

03:11:22 CR13 Lanzmann asks how Gawkowski how he felt while taking a convoy of Jews to their deaths, how he was able to deal with it. Gawkowski says that it was very difficult, but that the Germans would give them alcohol. He explains how he would drink it all because being drunk was the only way to make it bearable, to help with the smell. He goes on to describe the smell. The Gestapo rode the trains with their guns pointed at them; his only thought was to arrive at Treblinka. Gawkowski explains how those that drove the deportees would receive a special bonus, paid in alcohol, typically vodka. He tells that they would go slow, to give people the possibility of escape; they would make excuses for going slow (i.e. mechanical problems). He could hear the Jews in the cars behind him, they usually were crying for water. Picture cuts out at 03:16:25 to 03:16:31

FILM ID 3365 -- Camera Rolls #14-16 -- 04:00:00 to 04:22:25
CR14 Lanzmann brings up survivors' accounts that the convoys of Jews always traveled very slowly, that other convoys (i.e. military, passenger, etc) always took precedence, forcing the Jewish convoys to wait on sidetracks. Gawkowski says that was rare, but it did happen when the Russians started to counter-attack. They discuss the distances between Bialystok, Warsaw and Treblinka. Gawkowski tells how difficult it was for him to drive the convoys, but that it was impossible to refuse, because that meant death. His cousin was sent to Treblinka for not going to work. Lanzmann asks how many Polish train operators there were. Tape stops in mid-question.

04:06:15 CR15 Gawkowski is not sure how many Poles had to participate in the transports, there were several groups of them and they all had to. There was a schedule of trains, but often there were unscheduled or unexpected trains that operated outside their normal hours. These were 'ghost' trains because they didn't exist. The train operators would be summoned at a given time and then be forced to wait for eleven hours at the depot, as a 'reserve' in case of these trains. Military trains also operated outside their normal hours. He also drove regular passenger trains during this time, they also ran through the Treblinka train station.

04:11:12 CR16 Lanzmann and Gawkowski discuss the proximity between regular passenger trains and convoys carrying Jews at the Treblinka train station. The Jewish convoys waited on a separate side track, close enough that the other passengers could see what was going on. Gawkowski says that everyone in the area knew what was going on, what was happening to the Jews. He talks of the smell again, the horrible smell of dead bodies decomposing. Even in Malkinia, when the wind blew, one could smell it. It was especially bad in the morning and evening, when there was dew. He says the only way they were able to live with the smell was to drink, it was necessary. Picture cuts out at 04:22:20, sound a few seconds later.

FILM ID 3366 -- Camera Rolls #17,18 -- 05:00:00 to 05:22:30
CR17 Gawkowski was 20-21 years old at the time; this is why he remembers everything so well. Sound cuts in and out between 05:03:25 and 05:03:38. He vividly remembers the first transport of Greek Jews. Picture cuts out 05:05:49 to 05:06:11. He drove transports two to three times per week, for a year and a half-basically the entire time the camp was in existence. He explains how the convoys would be divided into thirds because the entire train wouldn't fit into the camp. The remaining cars waited at the Treblinka station; he would push the divided convoy into the camp. That was the worst for him, because he knew it was the end for the Jews on the train. Lanzmann briefly asks about the type of locomotives used.

05:11:00 CR18 Lanzmann asks if he has nightmares. Gawkowski replies that he does, he's relived the experience more than once. He tells Lanzmann that he sees the train cars in front of him, pushing them into the camp. When the cars opened, it was Jews, not Germans who dealt with the arriving Jews. He could see the inside of the camp, but he wasn't sure exactly where the gas chambers were, however he knew they were close. He saw Stangen, the camp commandant, amongst other SS officers. He spoke with some of the Ukrainians, they would give him wads of money in exchange for vodka, chocolate and liquor. He would lose it gambling. They discuss the amount of money and the currency used, along with where it came from. Picture cuts out at 05:22:07, sound a few seconds later.

FILM ID 3367 -- Camera Rolls #19-21 -- 06:00:00 to 06:30:20
CR19 Lanzmann and Gawkowski discuss the trafficking that was going on between locals, outsiders from Warsaw and the Ukrainians in the camp. Mrs. Gawkowski also trafficked goods on the Russian/German border. They discuss the prostitutes that came because of the camp, where they stayed and if any are still living in the area. Lanzmann wants to know more about the gold that was used as currency by the Ukrainians. Gawkowski knew that people had gold teeth and that after liberation locals around the camp dug up the ground and found gold. They go back to discussing the prostitutes and their fate. Gawkowski believes they all left; after the war some were convicted by army courts and executed. Lanzmann wants to know if people discussed the fate of the Jews. Gawkowski says they did, amongst themselves. The priest also gave his opinion on it. Picture cuts out last few seconds.

06:11:23 CR20 Lanzmann asks Gawkowski what the Jews could have done to stop what was happening to them. Gawkowski thinks that maybe if contact between the camp and the Polish resistance had been closer, something could have been done. He also mentions the revolt that took place in Treblinka. Lanzmann asks him if he knew any Jews prior to the war, he tells of a few that he went to primary school with. Gawkowski tries to explain what happened to the Jews in his town and surrounding area; most escaped over the Russian border, those that stayed were placed in ghettos and soon killed.

06:22:32 CR21 Lanzmann tries to ask Gawkowski what fault he thinks the 6 million murdered Jews atoned for, Gawkowski believes they were innocent, that the fault lies with the government. Lanzmann then asks about the presence of Polish antisemitism before the war, Gawkowski doesn't think it existed where he lived. He goes on to talk about the Jewish population, their religious/holiday observances, the synagogue, the visit of a great rabbi and their interaction with Catholics. End of interview.

FILM ID 3743 -- Treblinka 18 -- TR 22-25 (audio only)
Interview begins at 00:01:00, beginning of TR 23. Lanzmann, his translator Barbara, and Gawkowski walk along the railroad tracks upon which Gawkowski once conducted trains to Treblinka. Lanzmann asks Gawkowski to point out which tracks existed during the occupation and which have been built since. Gawkowski explains that the train station is exactly the same as it was during the war, besides the new switch system. 00:02:40 The interview becomes difficult to hear as the microphone is distanced from the conversation. 00:02:55 End of TR 23

00:03:15 TR 24 Lanzmann and Gawkowski continue to discuss the changes to the track system as they walk; very little has changed since the war. Gawkowski explains that four of the five platforms of the Treblinka station existed at the time, and that trains destined for the camp would stop at all but the main platform before arriving at the camp, because the platform at the camp itself could only accommodate 20 train cars at a time.

00:06:25 TR 25 Gawkowski and several other train conductors debate whether one of the train platforms existed during the war; all of the men talk over each other and it is difficult to understand what is going on; one man points out where they used to risk their lives to give water to Jews on the trains; several of the men in the group, including Gawkowski's brother-in-law, conducted trains during the war; they describe the arrival of transports of Jews to the Treblinka station. One man explains that his brother and sister were killed by Nazis; he describes watching Jews jump out of the train windows; he watched a woman and her infant jump from the train, and a German shoot her in the chest; the man becomes emotional and struggles to continue to tell the story; he explains that after the Jews, the Poles would have been next to be exterminated.

FILM ID 3744 -- Treblinka 19 -- TR26-30 (audio only)
00:00:26 TR 26. Continuation of an interview with Gawkowski and several other train conductors, on the train tracks near the Treblinka station; Lanzmann asks them to point out the location of the track turnoff toward the Treblinka camp, and they explain that it no longer exists but that it was several meters from them, beyond a semaphore signal post; one gentleman explains that next to the extermination camp there was a work camp, a gravel pit where Poles who would not give their products to the Nazis were forced to work and where they were so exhausted that they would die standing up; some words are spoken in German; Lanzmann asks the men whether they remember the smell of Treblinka; they reply that in the evening, the smell was so bad that for two years, they did not eat dinner, and the wind carried for several kilometers 00:06:38 End of TR 26. TR 27, 28, 29 are background noise around the train station

00:09:11 TR 30 Lanzmann asks the men why Ukrainian workers at Treblinka were known to sing; one replies that it was because they were paid with money taken from the Jews; one man makes a signal with his hand (possibly of slitting his throat), and explains that it was the signal did this to the Jews when they arrived on the trains, to warn them of what was coming; the men explain that when the Jews saw that sign, they would try to escape from the trains however possible; one man says that many escaped that way and survived, and Lanzmann argues with him, saying that none survived.

FILM ID 3368 -- Camera Rolls #71 -- 07:00:07 to 07:10:25
Gawkowski standing on a locomotive. Picture cuts out briefly at 07:00:23. Gawkowski explains the layout of the tracks where they are standing. They are close to Treblinka. He also tries to explain how the landscape was different. Lanzmann wants to know why Gawkowski appears so sad. He explains that it's because men went to their deaths here. It makes him feel sick, because they killed innocent people, even babies. He saw them bash babies against the wheels of the train. He secretly gave water to the Jews on the train, despite the risk of death for doing so. Picture cuts out at 07:10:11 to end.

FILM ID 3370 -- 3 int. loco -- 09:00:00 to 09:07:12
Footage of Gawkowski operating a train. Shots of shoveling coal, blowing the whistle, driving down the track, steam valves, etc. No conversation. Picture cuts out 09:06:11 to 09:06:33, and at 09:06:48.

FILM ID 3371 -- 3bis entre engage train -- 10:00:00 to 10:19:34
Shot of train coming down track, stopping next to the Treblinka station sign. Break from 10:01:50 to 10:01:59. Repeat, train coming down track, stopping next to the Treblinka station sign, with Gawkowski leaning out the side of the engine. Break from 10:05:22 to 10.05:38. Repeat, train coming down track, ends at 10:07:56. Repeat, train coming down track, with Gawkowski hanging out the side of the engine, ends at 10:10:40. Train is stationary next to the Treblinka sign, with intermittent CUs of Lanzmann and Gawkowski leaning out of the engine, ends at 10:13:33. Shot of train coming down an open stretch of track, whistling. Picture cuts out from 10:15:34 to 10:16:09. Brief shot of train, Tr. 73. Picture cuts out again from 10:16:11 to 10:16:31. Brief shot of train track. Cuts again 10:16:35 to 10:16:49. Shot of train entering Treblinka station. Picture cuts out from 10:17:54 to 10:19:00. Resumes with train parked next to Treblinka station sign.

FILM ID 3372 -- 3ter derriere le loco -- 11:00:00 to 11:12.04.00.
Camera positioned behind Gawkowski as he leans out of the moving train. The frame at 11:01:19:07 is very close to the jacket cover of the final film. Picture cuts out 11:04:45 to 11:05:02 and again from 11:05:04 to 11:05:14. Sporadic shots on top of and inside train. Picture cuts out from 11:06:06 to 11:06:42. Cuts out again from 11:06:56 to 11:07:16. Random clips of Gawkowski driving train through the countryside, CUs of different parts of the train. Picture cuts out at 11:11:46.

Event Date
July 1978
Treblinka, Poland
Malkinia, Poland
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
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Record last modified: 2018-03-13 13:49:25
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