Camps of Operation Reinhard

Operation Reinhard, the systematic Nazi mass murder of the Polish Jews within the General Government, was the largest extermination “Aktion” which took place during the Holocaust. It lasted for twenty-one months, from March 1942 to November 1943, and followed the plans that Nazi killing machine operators drew up. Operation Reinhard was a key part of the comprehensive plan for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question."

The decision to murder the Jews living in the General Government (Operation Reinhard) was made in the first half of October 1941. This was two months prior to Hitler's decision to exterminate the whole of European Jewry in mid-December 1941, and more than three months before the Wannsee Conference when Heydrich announced the decision to exterminate 11 million European Jews to the ministerial representatives. Five months were needed from the time the decision about Operation Reinhard was made and the time the operation commenced in mid-March 1942 in order to plan and establish the operation's organizational framework, construct the Belzec extermination camp, and assemble the German and foreign staff to administer and carry out the slaughter. A further four months were needed until May 1942, when Sobibor and July 1942, when Treblinka became operational. Three central decisions were reached relating to the extermination of Jews during the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe", resulting in phases up to the stage in which the total physical extermination throughout Europe began. The first decision was concerned with the extermination of the Jews living inside the borders of the Soviet Union of 22 June 1941. That decision was reached between the second half of July and the first half of August 1941, 4-6 weeks after the German attack on the Soviet Union. The decision and its implementation showed the Nazi leadership that the physical extermination of millions of people was a feasible solution to the Jewish problem and offered a method by which to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. The second decision regarding extermination was Operation Reinhard. The decision and its timing was not an outgrowth or a part of the general plan to kill the Jewish population of Europe, a plan which Heydrich only presented at the Wannsee Conference. The reason for the timing of and the decision process relating to Operation Reinhard arose from the Nazis' plan to thrust eastward (Drang nach Osten), establish German settlements and accomplish the "Germanization" of Eastern Europe. According to the plan drawn up by Himmler and Globocnik, Germanization would commence in the Lublin district and spread throughout the whole General Government, thus linking the future German settlements in the German occupied Soviet territories with the German Reich. To make room for the German settlers, a top priority was to eliminate the Jews and later on also segments of the Polish population. Due to unfavorable military developments which prevented the deportation of the Jews in the General Government to the German occupied Soviet territories where they would be doomed to die, it was decided to exterminate them inside the General Government, and not wait for the general plan to exterminate the whole Jewish population of Europe. The third decision, affecting European Jewry as a whole, was taken by Hitler in mid-December 1941, and its practical form was presented by Heydrich to the ministerial bureaucracy at the Wannsee Conference. Although the first two decisions regarding extermination, the first regarding the Jews of the Soviet Union and the second the Jews in the General Government, were made prior to Hitler's blanket plan to kill all the Jews, they certainly had his approval and were in the spirit of his speech before the German Reichstag on 30 January 1939. The leading persons of Operation Reinhard, Odilo Globocnik and Christian Wirth together with their S.S. subordinates, were able to create a simple and efficient system for human mass murder using rather limited means. Only 20-35 Germans were assigned to command and control positions in each of the death camps—Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka—with 90-130 Trawniki men recruited among former Soviet POWs, predominantly Ukrainians, acting as guards. The physical work of the extermination process was entirely delegated to 700-1000 Jewish prisoners in each of the camps. The camp design and structure facilitated the extermination apparatus and its operation. The camps were relatively small, allowing for the close and continuous monitoring of the whole area and everything in it. The materials used for constructing the camps, that is wood and bricks, and the methods of extermination, motor vehicle engines and ordinary fuel, were available from nearby localities. Local workers and Jewish prisoners constructed the camps. What all this meant was that during all the stages of the operation—from the early stage of the camps' construction to the final stage of the extermination process—the operation commanders were absolved of any dependency on outside or distant parties. Everything needed for the implementation of the extermination operation itself was obtainable from areas nearby within a short time. The method of killing developed by Wirth made it possible to murder thousands of Jews every day in the three camps under his responsibility. The German authorities managed to conceal the fact of the camps' construction and what went on inside them from the vast majority of the victims of Operation Reinhard. Even when the rumors spread among the remaining Jews of the ghettos in the General Government, rumors about Belzec and Treblinka—and to a much lesser degree, Sobibor—people refused to believe them. It was easier for them to accept the Nazis' explanation and believe that the transports were headed for labor camps somewhere in the East where a workforce was needed to repair the transportation infrastructure, for industrial plants and agriculture, than to believe that innocent people were being sent to gas chambers. But even if someone believed the rumors about the gas chambers and mass extermination, they had hardly any chance to save themselves and their families. Yet when the truth regarding the goal of the deportations and the fate of the deportees gradually reached the ghettos, the operation to remove the Jews from there and transport them by train became harder for the Germans and demanded greater forces and more violence to carry out (see the unit on ghettos, chapter E). Tens of thousands prepared hiding places and hid there rather than present themselves for deportation. Tens of thousands fled into the nearby forests. Thousands jumped from trains on the way to the camps. Few of all these survived. Most were discovered and shot in their ghetto hideouts or burned alive when the Germans set fire to their houses. Those who fled to the woods were shot by their pursuers or murdered by local peasants demanding their possessions. The same fate met those who jumped from the trains. The hostility of large sections of the population, the indifference or "non-intervention" of the majority of the local population coupled with terror of the Germans, robbed them of any chances of finding shelter and avoiding deportation. To further encourage the non-Jewish population to capture Jews who attempted to escape and hand them over to the Germans, the Nazi authorities exploited existing antisemitic sentiments through a system of bribes and threats. In order to survive Jews needed the active support of the local population to find hiding places, food, and “Aryan” papers. Few Jews received such assistance from either local Poles or the Polish underground. This was the general pattern, and only a few individuals, now honored as Righteous among the Nations, departed from it. The situation for Jews trying to hide among the Ukrainian population in areas east of the Operation Reinhard camps could be even more dire (see the unit on Ukraine, chapter D). The Jews of the ghettoes and camps were aware of the attitudes of the local population and their small chances of finding a place to hide among them. This dismal knowledge convinced many to not even consider the option of escaping the unknown fate and destination of the transports. Nazi deception continued even once the Jews reached the camps. Almost everyone went to the gas chambers believing they were going to the showers. It was this secrecy, trickery, and dissimulation combined with the crushing odds against escape or concealment by the local population that enabled the Nazis to operate the death machine without incident. However, some of those who were selected to work (sorting goods / disposal of corpses etc.) in the camps and did know what was happening in them did not despair. Despite being monitored closely and guarded heavily, prisoners of Sobibor and Treblinka did manage to escape as individuals and to organize uprisings and escape in their hundreds. Thanks to these uprisings, more than one hundred prisoners survived, and the secret of the death camps was exposed to the world. These survivors were the key witnesses in the Sobibor and Treblinka trials held in the Federal Republic of Germany and in other trials. Despite their systematic efforts, the murderers were unsuccessful in burying and hiding the existence of the camps and what went on there along with their victims. Although Nazi Germany successfully kept the deportation plans, their goal and the existence of the death camps a secret from their victims, they were unsuccessful in preventing the truth about Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka from becoming known to the free world. In the initial stages of Operation Reinhard, the news was delivered by the Polish underground to the Polish Government in Exile in London and from there to the governments of Great Britain and the United States. As time passed, and especially towards the end of 1942, increasingly detailed and reliable information reached the free world. We can also assume that this type of news reached the Soviet government. No action was taken as a result of the reports. No steps were taken to warn those condemned to die, to call on the local population and underground to save them, to bomb the train tracks or even the camps, to disrupt the deportations and the slaughter. The Jews of Poland and Europe were left to their fate. The extermination process in the camps of Operation Reinhard lasted twenty-one months. At the end of the operation, the murder of the last concentrations of a few tens of thousands of Jews in the General Government camps (Trawniki, Poniatowa and Majdanek) most of which were controlled by the Operation Reinhard headquarters, took place. The action to exterminate the last Jews of the General Government was a cause for celebration for its S.S. perpetrators and indeed the Germans called the operation Aktion Erntefest ("Operation Harvest Festival"). Operation Reinhard resulted in the murder of the vast majority of Jews in the General Government and Bezirk Bialystok, many tens of thousands of Jews from the Third Reich, as well as Jews of Western and South Eastern Europe. The silence that settled over the fields of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka following the dismantlement of the camps in the fall of 1943 did not last long. Already when the Germans controlled the region and on an even greater scale after liberation in the summer of 1944, shameful scenes occurred at the sites of the former death camps. Rumors spread among the local populations in the regions adjacent to the camps and even further away, that valuables could still be found buried with the victims at these sites. Rachel Auerbach visited Treblinka on November 7, 1945 as a member of the Polish Central Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes in Poland. She described what she saw there: "Crowds of all manner of looters and vandals with shovels in their hands. They come here and they dig, searching, probing, sieving the sand, removing from the ashes practically rotted limbs, bones, and trash that was discarded there, hoping to come across one coin or at least one gold tooth! They even drag unexploded shells and bombs here, those hyenas and jackals in human form. They place several of them together, blow them up, and excavate enormous pits in the violated ground, saturated with the blood and ashes of burnt Jews ..." Scenes like this also took place in the fields of Belzec and Sobibor. These activities stopped only after the Polish government decided to turn the whole area of the camps into national memorial sites. These memorial sites bear witness to the tragedies and slaughter which occurred in these locations, a sign of the ignominy and eternal disgrace of Nazi Germany and a warning against racism, hatred, and antisemitism, to all nations. Dr. Yitzhak Arad