Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps

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... Mr. Arad reports as a controlled and effective witness for the prosecution.... Mr. Arad's book, with its abundance of horrifying detail, reminds us of how far we have to go."-New York Times Book Review

... some of the most gripping chapters I have ever read.... the authentic, exhaustive, definitive account of the least known death camps of the Nazi era." -Raul Hilberg

Arad, historian and principal prosecution witness at the Israeli trial of John Demjanjuk (accused of being Treblinka's infamous "Ivan the Terrible"), uses primary materials to reveal the complete story of these Nazi death camps.

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1 The “Final Solution”: From Shooting to Gas

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The mass extermination of the Jews of occupied Europe by Nazi Germany began with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Four special SS formations called Einsatzgruppen, which were subordinate to Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), advanced with the forward units of the German army. Their specific task was to murder Jews and officials of the Communist Party and political commissars in the Red Army. With the help of local collaborators, the Einsatzgruppen rounded up the Jews in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union—men, women, children, and the elderly—drove them from their homes to locations in the vicinity of their towns and villages, and shot them dead.

The locations selected for these killings were either natural ravines, antitank ditches, or pits specially dug for the purpose. The Jews were concentrated at assembly points and taken in groups to the killing sites. As a rule, the men were taken first, then the women, and finally the children. The victims were lined up either inside the ditch or at its edge; then they were shot. After one group had been killed, the next was brought over. In cities with a large Jewish population, the killing sometimes went on for days or even weeks.

 

2 Operation Reinhard: Organization and Manpower

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The preparations for the extermination of the Jews of the General Government had actually started months before the Wannsee Conference. A special organization, later called “Operation Reinhard,” was established in Lublin, and the SS and Police Leader of the Lublin district, Odilo Globocnik (or “Globus,” as Himmler nicknamed him), was appointed its commander.

Globocnik was an Austrian, a member of the Austrian Nazi party, and in 1933 had received a prison sentence for his part in the murder of a Jew in Vienna.1 He had earned Himmler’s high esteem for his contribution to the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria to Germany, and when Austria became part of the Reich, he was appointed Gauleiter of Vienna. In January 1939, he was accused of illegal speculation in foreign currency and was stripped of his post and all his party honors. After Globocnik’s demotion to the ranks of the Waffen SS, Himmler pardoned his friend, and in November 1939 appointed him the SS and Police Leader in the Lublin district. The SS and Police Leader was the highest SS authority in the district.

 

3 Belzec: Construction and Experiments

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The leaders of Operation Reinhard, who at the end of October 1941 initiated the preparations for the extermination of the Jews in the General Government, did not foresee how many death camps would have to be constructed and operated for this purpose. Up to that time, no death camp operated in Nazi Germany or in the occupied countries and there was therefore no model on which the Operation Reinhard planners could base their plans. However, some guidelines did exist for selecting the sites on which to build the death camps. The camps would have to be near the main concentration of Jews in the General Government and near the railways, to facilitate the transports and deportations. The location of the camps had to be desolate places, as far as possible from inhabited areas, to maintain secrecy and to keep the knowledge of what was transpiring within them from the local population. And, third, the camps had to be in the vicinity of the occupied territories of the Soviet Union so as to encourage the belief that the Jews who had disappeared had eventually reached labor camps in the vast areas of the East.

 

4 Construction of Sobibor

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Sobibor was the name of a small village in a wooded area on the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line, 8 km south of Wlodawa. The Bug River, the border between the General-Government and the Reichskommissariat of Ukraine, was 5 km east of Sobibor. The whole area was swampy, wooded, and thinly populated. The exact location for the death camp was selected by the SS Central Building Administration in the Lublin district. The camp was built alongside the railway, west of Sobibor station, and was surrounded by a sparse pine forest. Close to the railway station buildings was a spur that was included in the camp site and was used for disembarkation of the transports. In the area selected for the camp two wooden buildings existed—a former forester’s house and a two-story post office. The entire camp area encompassed a rectangle 600 × 400 meters. At a later stage it was enlarged.

The construction of the Sobibor camp began in March 1942, at the same time that extermination actions were beginning in Belzec. SS Obersturmführer Richard Thomalla, from the SS Central Building Administration in Lublin, was put in charge of the construction of Sobibor. The workers employed at building the camp were local people from neighboring villages and towns. A group of eighty Jews from the ghettos in the vicinity of the camp was brought to Sobibor for construction work. A squad of ten Ukrainians from Trawniki arrived to guard these Jews. After completing their work, the Jews were shot.1

 

5 Construction of Treblinka

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The construction of Treblinka death camp began after Belzec and Sobibor were already operational. The expertise gained in the building and in the killing operations in the other two camps were applied in the planning and construction of Treblinka. It became the most “perfected” death camp of Operation Reinhard.

The Treblinka death camp was located in the northeast section of the General Government, not far from Malkinia, a town and station on the main railway, Warsaw-Bialystok, and close to the railway Malkinia-Siedlce. It was built in a thinly populated area near the village of Wolka Okranglik, some 4 km from Treblinka village and train station. The site chosen for the camp was wooded and naturally concealed from both the Malkinia-Kosov road to its north and the Malkinia-Siedlce railway, which ran to its west. Near the camp’s southwest boundary, a rail spur connected Treblinka station with a gravel quarry in the region that had been worked before the war. In the spring of 1941, the Germans decided to exploit the quarry for raw materials for the fortifications then being constructed on the Soviet-German line of demarcation, and in the summer of that year they established Treblinka I penal camp, to which they brought 1,000–1,200 Polish and Jewish detainees for forced labor. This camp, like the entire region, was under the authority of the Warsaw area SS and Police Leader (SSPF).

 

6 Preparing for the Deportations

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Organizing the deportation of the 2,284,000 Jews who, according to German data, lived in the General Government in hundreds of ghettos dispersed all over the country demanded thorough planning. The geographical dispersion of the Jewish ghettos, the location and killing capacities of the death camps, the available means of transport and their projected optimal use would all have to be considered.

In charge of planning and activating the deportations of Operation Reinhard was Hauptsturmführer Herman Höfle. The deportation orders were coordinated and channeled through SS authorities from Höfle’s office in Lublin, through the district SS and Police Leaders, down to the localities where the expulsions were to take place. In the first months of Operation Reinhard, the Jews in the General Government were under the jurisdiction of the German civilian administration. Therefore, the deportations required coordination of the SS authorities with the civilian officials. The SS chiefs of Operation Reinhard tried at first to keep the purpose of the deportations and the fate of the Jews secret—even from the German civilian authorities. The earliest known German document regarding any cooperation between SS authorities and civilian officials in the deportation of Jews in the framework of Operation Reinhard is a note written by Dr. Richard Türk, the head of the Department of Population Affairs and Welfare (Bevölkerungswesen und Fürsorge) in Lublin district. The document states:

 

7 Expulsion from the Ghettos

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The extermination process began with the deportations from the ghettos. A master plan was formulated to determine to which death camps Jews from each district would be sent; this was determined in accordance with the killing capacity of each camp and the available transportation (mainly trains). The deportations executed within the framework of Operation Reinhard were coordinated by Sturmbannführer Höfle.

The SS authorities in charge of the deportations developed a method that became routine procedure in all the ghettos. The basic principles were surprise, speed of execution, terror, and ensuring that the victims were unaware of their destination and fate. The Jewish councils and general Jewish population were informed of their imminent expulsion and what they were permitted to take only a few hours or, at most, one day before the deportations actually started. At the same time, the ghetto was surrounded by security reinforcements to prevent escape and resistance. With the onset of the deportation itself, small security units, composed of SS men, Ukrainians, local Polish police, and sometimes members of the Jewish police in the ghettos, dispersed throughout the ghetto and ordered the Jews to leave their homes and congregate at the assembly points. From there they were taken on foot, under police escort, to the embarkation stations. The sick and elderly, those who were unable to walk, and those who refused to leave their homes were very often shot on the spot.

 

8 The Trains of Death

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The extermination of the Jews was planned to be executed in the gas chambers, but, in practice, death and destruction began while the Jews were still in the freight cars rolling toward the death camps. Designed to carry a maximum of sixty to seventy people, including their belongings, the cars were packed with double that number. Deprived of air and water, with no sanitary facilities, forced to spend endless hours traveling or waiting in stations in the packed freight cars, many died en route. Personal belongings were stolen by the train guards—a few dozen SS men, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and occasionally Polish Blue Police (police that served the Germans and nicknamed “blue” by the local population because of their blue uniforms).

Ada Lichtman described the journey to Sobibor:

We were packed into a closed cattle train. Inside the freight cars it was so dense that it was impossible to move. There was not enough air, many people fainted, others became hysterical. . . . In an isolated place, the train stopped. Soldiers entered the car and robbed us and even cut off fingers with rings. They claimed that we didn’t need them any more. These soldiers, who wore German uniforms, spoke Ukrainian. We were disorientated by the long voyage, we thought that we were in Ukraine. Days and nights passed. The air inside the car was poisoned by the smell of bodies and excrement. Nobody thought about food, only about water and air. Finally we arrived at Sobibor.1

 

9 Belzec: March 17 to June, 1942

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The full-scale extermination of Jews in Belzec began on March 17, 1942, with the onset of the deportation of the Jews of Lublin. This date marks the actual start of Operation Reinhard.

In an entry in Goebbels’ diary regarding the beginning of Operation Reinhard, ten days after the killings started in Belzec, on March 27, 1942, he wrote:

Beginning with Lublin, the Jews in the General Government are now being evacuated eastward. The procedure is a pretty barbaric one and not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews. On the whole it can be said about 60 percent of them will have to be liquidated whereas only about 40 percent can be used for forced labor.

The former Gauleiter of Vienna [Globocnik], who is to carry this measure through, is doing it with considerable circumspection and according to a method that does not attract too much attention. Fortunately, a whole series of possibilities presents itself for us in wartime that would be denied us in peacetime. We shall have to profit by this. The ghettos that will be emptied in the cities of the General Government will now be refilled with Jews thrown out of the Reich. This process is to be repeated from time to time.1

 

10 Sobibor: May to July, 1942

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After the experimental killings were carried out in Sobibor in April 1942, routine mass extermination began there in the first days of May 1942. Franz Stangl, the commander of Sobibor, who had visited Belzec, had studied the extermination technique there, and had introduced it in his camp, received additional advice and instructions when Wirth visited Sobibor during the experimental killings there.1 The killing process in Sobibor was in effect an improved version of what had been implemented in Belzec.

The deportation trains stopped at the station of Sobibor. No more than eighteen to twenty freight cars were taken into the camp. When the train was composed of more cars, it was split into two or three parts. The escort and railway workers remained outside the camp, and only a specially trusted team of German railway workers drove the train inside. In the camp, the train stopped along the ramp, and the cars were opened by the Ukrainians. The people were ordered to disembark and were driven into Camp II, which was the reception area.

 

11 Treblinka: July 23 to August 28, 1942

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The trains with deportees destined for the death camp at Treblinka stopped at the Treblinka village station, some 4 km from the camp. The train, which was usually composed of close to sixty freight cars, was then divided into three sections, and each section was driven separately into the camp. Like in Belzec and Sobibor, from that point the train was driven by two German railway workers. In Treblinka they were Rudolf Emmerich and Wili Klinzman. The arrival of the first deportation transport from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka station was described by a Pole, Franciszek Zabecki:

The first transport of “deportees” left Malkinia on July 23, 1942, in the morning hours. The train announced its approach not merely with a shriek of wheels as it crossed the Bug bridge, but with a volley of rifle and machine-gun fire from the security guards. The train entered the station. It was loaded with Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. . . . Four SS men from the new camp were waiting. They had arrived earlier by car and asked us how far from Treblinka the “special train with deportees” was. They had already received word of the train’s departure from Warsaw. . . . A smaller engine was already at the station, waiting to bring a section of the freight cars into the camp. Everything was planned and prepared in advance. The train was made up of sixty closed cars, crowded with people. These included the young and elderly, men and women, children and babies. The car doors were locked from the outside and the air apertures barred with barbed wire. On the car steps on both sides of the car and on the roof, a dozen or so SS soldiers stood or lay with machine guns at the ready. It was hot, and most of the people in the freight cars were in a faint. . . . As the train approached, an evil spirit seemed to take hold of the SS men who were waiting. They drew their pistols, returned them to their holsters, and whipped them out again, as if they wanted to shoot and kill. They came near the freight cars and tried to calm the noise and weeping; then they started yelling and cursing the Jews, all the while calling to the train workers, “Tempo, fast!” Then they returned to the camp to receive the deportees.1

 

12 Reorganization in Treblinka

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In the second half of July 1942, the three death camps were in operation; however, serious administrative problems were involved in keeping them active. It became necessary for Globocnik to establish an authority within Operation Reinhard headquarters that would be directly in charge of the camps. Himmler’s order of July 19, 1942, which stated that by the end of December 1942 all the Jews within the General Government, with a few exceptions, should be liquidated, set a time limit for the entire operation. This made the need for a commanding authority to supervise and guide the activities in the camps even more urgent. The main problem was to accelerate the extermination process by shortening the time it took to liquidate a transport after its arrival at the camp. This required streamlining the extermination process and increasing the absorptive capacity of the gas chambers. To carry out this improvement and to achieve more control and more efficient supervision over the activities in the camps, Christian Wirth was appointed inspector of the three death camps at the beginning of August 1942. This was after he had completed the reconstruction of the gas chambers in Belzec and had been replaced there by SS Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering. Wirth took with him from Belzec Oberscharführer Josef Oberhauser, who became his aide-de-camp. Wirth’s new headquarters were in Lublin in the “old airport” camp.

 

13 The Mission of Gerstein and Pfannenstiel

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The gassing system that had been developed and introduced by Wirth in the Operation Reinhard death camps proved only partially satisfactory. The frequent engine breakdowns caused disturbances and delays in the entire extermination process. Globocnik was aware of these shortcomings and, in coordination with the higher authorities of the SS, decided to look into the possibility of introducing an alternative gassing system. The prevailing opinion among the higher SS authorities in charge of the extermination of Jews was that Zyklon B was more suitable for this task.

Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein, the chief disinfection officer in the Main Hygienic Office of the Waffen SS, and SS Obersturmbannführer Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, professor and director of the Hygienic Institute at the University of Marburg/Lahn, who had also served as hygienic adviser of the Waffen SS, were sent to Lublin in the middle of August 1942. Gerstein’s main mission was to check the possibility of introducing the gas Zyklon B into the gas chambers. Zyklon B had already been successfully used in Auschwitz instead of the engines that were still supplying the monoxide gas in the death camps of Operation Reinhard. In addition, Gerstein was to advise regarding the disinfection of the clothes left behind by the Jews.1

 

14 Jewish Working Prisoners

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The lack of a permanent and experienced cadre of Jewish prisoners to carry out the physical work involved in the extermination process, and the daily murder of some of those already engaged in this work and their replacement by others taken from the newly arriving transports, caused a constant disruption and slowdown of the liquidation activities in the camps. Realizing the source of the problem, the camp authorities in each camp decided to turn the temporary Jewish prisoner work force into a permanent one. According to this plan, each Jewish prisoner would belong to a particular working group and would become a specialist in the work he was assigned. These people would be kept working as long as they were fit and selections and executions would continue for those who became too weak or too ill to keep up to the required pace.

The first camp in which such a change was instituted was Sobibor, in May/June 1942. Moshe Bahir, who arrived in Sobibor at that time with a transport of Jews from Zamosc, wrote:

 

15 Women Prisoners

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The permanent prisoner staff in the camps also included Jewish women. In Sobibor Jewish women prisoners were employed from the early stage of the camp’s activity. From a transport which arrived in Sobibor on June 2, 1942, three girls were taken by SS Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner and left there to work. Ada Lichtman, one of those girls, describes her first day in Sobibor:

We were ordered to clean thoroughly a villa where the Germans lived. After work we were taken to an area with some barracks, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence where we were given a room with three wooden beds, one over the other. Close to our room lived the skilled workers. . . . In the evening, two men brought two big boxes with dirty laundry, and a Ukrainian guard told us that it should be ready within two days. . . . The washing required many different kinds of work. The laundry was full of lice, so first of all it had to be disinfected. We had to raise the water from a deep well with heavy wooden buckets tied to a rope. The laundry had to be boiled at a distant place. The wet laundry was transported in a baby carriage.1

 

16 Improved Extermination Techniques and Installations

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In the course of the reorganization that followed the first stage of operation, larger gas chambers and other attendant facilities were erected in Treblinka and Sobibor. The new gas chambers that had been built in Belzec in June/July 1942 served as a model in the other two camps.

The commanders of Operation Reinhard were of the opinion that the most urgent need was to increase the absorptive capacity of the gas chambers in Treblinka; as a result of their limited capacity, the extermination process suffered from complete chaos as early as the first month of activity. Therefore, one of Stangl’s first priorities when appointed commander of the camp was to erect a new building for the gas chambers next to the old one. This was carried out while the extermination activities in the old one continued. Wirth, as inspector of the death camps, dispatched Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, who was in charge of the gas chambers in Belzec, to assist in the erection of the new gas chambers in Treblinka.

 

17 The Annihilation of the Jews in the General Government

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After the change in command and the reorganization of the manpower in the camps, the enlargement of the gas chambers and improvements in the killing process, the extermination pace was stepped up considerably. The death camps turned into murder factories that could meet all the demands of those in charge of Operation Reinhard.

The large-scale deportations of the General Government Jews proceeded without disruption. Planned and coordinated from Operation Reinhard headquarters in Lublin, the expulsion of the Jews was carried out by the district SS and Police Leaders. From their headquarters in Cracow, German railroad authorities in occupied Poland (Generaldirektion der Ostbahn) planned the train schedule and allocated cars and engines accordingly. As transports to the death camps were outside the framework of normal passenger or freight-train traffic, their movements along the track system and via the way stations en route to the camps were coordinated by “travel timetable orders” (Fahrplananordnung) issued by the railroad authorities in Cracow. These detailed each station stop, the number and type of freight cars in the transport, arrival and departure times to and from the camps, the train’s destination once empty, and the fact that the train would be cleaned by prisoners before leaving the camp.

 

18 Deportations from Bialystok General District and Ostland

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The Bialystok General District comprised the regions of Bialystok, Grodno, and Volkovysk. It constituted an independent administrative district within the German regime in occupied Poland and was under the authority of Erich Koch, the Gauleiter of East Prussia and Reichskommissar of the Ukraine. Bialystok General District was divided administratively into five Kreiskommissariats or sub-districts.

During the first months of the German occupation, at the end of June 1941, the Jewish population of the Bialystok General District suffered a wave of mass murders. From July to September 1941, 31,000 Jews, mostly men, were shot by the Einsatzgruppen near their homes. On the eve of the mass deportations to Treblinka and Auschwitz, in the autumn of 1942, there were about 210,000 Jews in the district, concentrated in ghettos. The largest of these were Bialystok ghetto, with over 41,000 Jews, and Grodno ghetto, with 23,000 Jews.

In the first half of October 1942, the Reich Security Main Office issued an order to local SS authorities in the Bialystok General District to liquidate all the ghettos in the district and deport the Jews. But after the intervention of the German army and German civilian authorities that employed Jewish labor in war-economy enterprises, it was decided that the liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto would be postponed.1

 

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