Bühler’s plea at the Wannsee Conference for the General Government to be the first area to be cleared of Jews was already well in hand. On the evening of Monday, 13 October 1941, Himmler had held a meeting with SS-General Krüger, his representative in the General Government, and SS-Brigadier Odilo Globocnik, the Lublin SSPF. He had ordered Globocnik to build a camp at Belzec in order to begin the extermination of the General Government’s Jews under the official code name “Aktion Reinhard”(Operation Reinhard).
Globocnik was an ideal choice for the job. He was born in 1904 in Trieste, where his father, a reserve officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, was a postal official. Globocnik was of half-Slovene, half-German ancestry, but he seems to have considered himself German and to have felt a strong contempt for the Slavs. He was originally enrolled to study at a military school, but the First World War intervened. His father was called up for military service, so Globocnik went to live with the rest of the family in Klagenfurt, where he completed his education at the local civilian high school in 1923.1
For the next few years, he worked in the building trade while developing contacts and friendships in right-wing circles. In March 1931, he joined the Austrian National Socialist Party and rose steadily through its ranks; he also served several brief prison sentences for his political activities. He joined the SS on 1 September 1934, achieving officer rank as an Untersturmführer (second lieutenant) in 1937. In the wake of the Anschluss, he was appointed Regional Leader of Vienna in May 1938, an indication that he was considered one of the rising stars of Austrian National Socialism. Unfortunately for Globocnik, though, this high reputation was short-lived. His new role gave him control over large amounts of money, including party funds, public funds and cash expropriated from the Jews or raised by the sale of their seized assets. Questions were raised about Globocnik’s handling of this money and, amid allegations of corruption and embezzlement, he was dismissed as Regional Leader on 30 January 1939. It seems that Himmler—who was a close personal friend—protected Globocnik from prosecution, but was unable to halt the investigation entirely.* For most of the next eight months, Globocnik—who by now held the General-SS rank of SS-senior leader—participated in military training with the Special Purpose Troops, with the lowly rank of SS-Rottenführer (lance corporal). He then took part in the invasion of Poland as a member of the 1st Battalion of the Germania Regiment.
On 3 November 1939, Globocnik made the considerable jump from Waffen-SS lance corporal back to SS-senior colonel as the SSPF for Lublin. Six days later he became an SS-brigadier (with an equivalent rank in the police). Of course, this meant he now owed a huge debt to Himmler for resurrecting his career. Thereafter, just as Himmler must have hoped, Globocnik demonstrated enormous zeal in executing—and even anticipating—the National Leader’s orders.
During his tenure as Lublin’s SSPF, he presided over a network of imprisonment and death that eventually comprised 57 Jewish ghettoes, including the massive Lublin ghetto itself; 143 work camps; 27 prison camps; 3 POW camps; 2 extermination camps (with a third nearby); the enormous Majdanek concentration camp, which had its own gassing and cremation facilities (it was also known as the Lublin concentration camp); 6 “sub-camps” of Majdanek; 17 transit camps; 9 prisons; and 29 detention centres.2 Additionally, his district was a centre for SS economic enterprises that utilised Polish and Jewish slave labour. It was also earmarked by Globocnik as a base for future German colonisation of the East. Himmler was so impressed by Globocnik’s efforts in this area that he appointed him “Plenipotentiary for the Construction of SS and Police Bases in the Former Russian Areas.”
According to Yitzhak Arad, Globocnik had responsibility for:
• The overall planning of the deportations and extermination activities of the entire operation.
• Building the death camps.
• Coordinating the deportations of the Jews to the death camps.
• Killing the Jews in the death camps.
• Seizing the assets and valuables of the victims and handing them over to the appropriate authorities.3
Globocnik assembled a team of specialists to carry out these tasks. His chief of staff was SS-Captain Hermann Höfle, who had spent the previous year overseeing the digging of a network of vast antitank ditches by Jewish slave labour in the Lublin district. Höfle’s office was in the Julius Schreck Kaserne at Pieradzkiego 11, Lublin, separate from Globocnik’s headquarters for security reasons. From there, he personally led a team of some 350 SS and police personnel, who were involved in various aspects of the extermination programme.
Another group, eventually numbering ninety-two, was attached to Globocnik’s staff from the Führer Chancellery. These were members of the operational staff of the T-4 killing centres and thus, at the time, were among the most experienced mass murderers in the world. The first to arrive in Lublin, in September 1941, was Christian Wirth, who was apparently sent there to set up a euthanasia facility. When this plan was abandoned, he turned his attention towards the Jews.
By all accounts, Wirth was a brutal and sadistic man, fitting the stereotype of the SS mass killer better than most of his colleagues. A Swabian, born in 1885, he had worked as a carpenter and a policeman before the First World War. He served as a soldier on the Western Front, then worked in the building trade before becoming a member of Stuttgart Police’s murder squad in the 1930s. As we have seen, he was present at the first gassing experiments in Brandenburg in 1939, and his participation in the euthanasia programme gave him indisputable expertise in mass killing.
In October 1941, he returned to Lublin with a small group of former T-4 employees, all of whom had been inducted into the Waffen-SS,* with orders to establish and operate a camp to kill Jews. The extermination facility was to be constructed on a railway spur near the small town of Belzec, in the south-east of Lublin district, out of sight of prying eyes but close to the railway and other transport links. Construction began on 1 November, supervised by SS-Sergeant Josef Oberhauser but carried out by local Polish tradesmen:
We built barracks close to the side-track of the railway. One barrack, which was close to the railway, was 50 m long and 12.5 m wide. The second barrack, 25 m long and 12.5 m wide, was for the Jews destined for “the baths.” Not far from this barrack we built a third barrack, 12 m long and 8 m wide. This barrack was divided into three chambers by a wooden wall, so that each chamber was 4 m wide and 8 m long. It was 2 m high. The inside walls of this barrack were of double boards with a vacant space between them filled with sand. The walls were covered with pasteboard. In addition, the floor and walls (to a height of 1.10 m) were covered with sheets of zinc. From the second to the third barrack led a closed passageway, 2 m wide, 2 m high, and 10 m long. This passageway led to a corridor in the third barrack where the doors to the three chambers were located. Each chamber of this barrack had on its northern side a double door 1.80 m high and 1.10 m wide. These doors, like those in the corridor, were sealed with rubber gaskets round the edges. All the doors in this barrack could only be opened from the outside. These doors were built with strong planks 7.5 centimetres thick, and were secured from the outside with a wooden locking bar held by two iron hooks on either side. In each of the three chambers of this barrack a water pipe was installed 0.10 m above the floor. In addition, in the corner of the western wall of each chamber, was a water pipe 1 m above the ground with an open joint, turned toward the centre of the room. These pipes with the joint were connected through the wall to a pipe that ran under the floor. In each of the three chambers of this barrack a stove weighing 250 kg was installed. It was expected that the pipe joint would later be connected to the stove. The stove was 1.10 m high, 0.55 m wide and 0.55 m long.4
The camp was divided into two sectors. Camp 1, the western half, was the reception area, with the railway platform, a few garages, storerooms, accommodation for the guard force and so on. It also included the “undressing barracks,” where the victims’ clothes were taken from them, and a hut in which the female victims’ hair was cut off. There was a “chute” or “sluice” into Camp 2, separated from Camp 1 by a high fence, where the extermination facilities were located. These were the wooden “barracks” built by the Polish labour force—in reality the gas chambers—the burial pits (and, later in the camp’s existence, the incinerators) and accommodation for the few “work Jews” who were kept alive to remove bodies from the gas chambers, sort through the victims’ clothing and possessions and perform menial tasks for the guards and the SS men. The camp offices and accommodation for the SS NCOs were in the town of Belzec itself.
The guards were not members of the SS but mainly Ukrainians, trained as military auxiliary Hilfswillige (or “Hiwis”) at the Trawniki training camp, which was also located in Lublin district. Many accounts of the Holocaust focus on the brutality of these men, as if they were somehow a lower, less cultured order of humanity than the Germans, and that this explained their behaviour. In addition to being racist, this ignores the fact that the majority of these men were prisoners of war, captured during the first months of Operation Barbarossa. They behaved brutally and participated in unforgivable crimes but equally they had been, for the most part, treated appallingly while in captivity, and many assumed that they were left with little option but to “volunteer” for German service in order to survive. Once they took up their new roles, they were all too aware that they would suffer if they did not perform them to the Germans’ satisfaction. Undoubtedly, there were anti-Semites and sadists among their number, but the majority were simply doing whatever was necessary to give themselves a chance of surviving the war. They were given some basic training and issued with black uniforms—often requisitioned from former General-SS stocks—and a rifle. The guard force at Belzec consisted of about eighty men, formed into two platoons, commanded by Ukrainian German-speakers. They were under the overall supervision of an SS NCO, SS-Sergeant Feiks.
Belzec’s task was simple: to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible. Once the camp’s basic facilities had been constructed in February 1942, Wirth began experiments in how to achieve this. Eventually, he settled on gassing with carbon monoxide, just as it had been used during the T-4 programme. However, it would have been logistically difficult to transport the relatively “clean” bottled form of the gas, and this might also have raised security questions. So, instead, SS-Sergeant Lorenz Hackenholt, a former driver and “disinfector” for T-4, connected what might have been either a Soviet tank or an armoured-car engine to the gas chambers. Whichever type of engine it was, it proved amply efficient.
The procedure for the murders at Belzec was ultimately adopted throughout Operation Reinhard. It started with the arrival of twenty freight cars at the camp’s railway “ramp.”* The Jewish prisoners disembarked with the guards in attendance and under the supervision of two or three SS men. Next, the “work Jews” would remove any corpses from the wagons, leaving them on the ramp to be cleared away later. Wirth or one of his subordinates would then give a speech, informing the prisoners that they had arrived at a transit camp, where they would be fed and re-clothed before being moved on to work camps. They were told that they needed to undress and tie their shoes together with the laces. The women were informed that they would have their hair cut before they were all taken to the showers for delousing. At this stage, the men and the women were separated.
The men were always killed first, to reduce the risk of any resistance. They were driven by the Ukrainian guards—with clubs and bayonets, if necessary—into the “sluice” that connected the reception area to the gas chambers. This two-metre-wide passageway was topped with barbed wire and covered with camouflage netting. But the fiction of where the prisoners were going was maintained even here: “To the Baths” signs adorned the walls in a bid to allay suspicions. As soon as they reached the gas chambers, the men were crammed in, shoulder to shoulder, and the doors were shut. Then the engine was started by Hackenholt or one of his Ukrainian assistants. As the Jews in the gas chambers realised what was happening, there would be screams and shouts, but within a few minutes most were unconscious. In twenty to thirty minutes, they were all dead.
On 17 August 1942, an SS technical officer, Kurt Gerstein, witnessed the process from beginning to end. His path into the Waffen-SS had been anything but typical: he had joined with the sole purpose of gleaning information about the euthanasia programme, in which his sister-in-law had been murdered. Born in 1905, the son of a judge, he originally trained as a mining engineer and worked as a civil servant for the Saarland mining administration. However, he was independently wealthy, and he helped to finance Christian anti–National Socialist propaganda even though he had joined the NSDAP in May 1933. He was arrested twice before the war by the Gestapo, and was incarcerated in concentration camps. As a result, he was expelled from both the civil service and the party. Having lost his job, he went to Tübingen University to study medicine.
He volunteered for the Waffen-SS in 1941 and was accepted, astonishingly, on the basis of references that were provided by two of the Gestapo officers who had investigated him. “The gentlemen took the view that my idealism, which they probably admired, must be of advantage to the National Socialist cause,” Gerstein reported. He did his basic training with the Germania Regiment in Hamburg, but was soon transferred into the Waffen-SS’s technical medical service, commissioned as an SS-lieutenant (F)* and assigned to the “hygiene” department, which specialised in the delousing of military uniforms and water purification.
In June 1942, Gerstein was ordered by SS-Major Günther of the RSHA to obtain a hundred kilos of the delousing agent Zyklon B for an undisclosed purpose. Two months later, Günther, Gerstein and SS-Major Wilhelm Pfannenstiehl, the Professor of Medical Hygiene at Marburg University, drove via Prague to Lublin, where they met Globocnik. The SSPF swore them to secrecy and briefed them on Operation Reinhard, which by then was in full swing at Belzec and two other camps: Treblinka and Sobibor. Gerstein now learned why he had been brought along. He was given two tasks: to look into the disinfection of the vast amount of clothing that had been stolen from the murdered Jews and was being sent back to Germany for use by forced labourers;* and to determine the viability of using Zyklon B in the gas chambers. To this end, it had been decided that Gerstein should witness the current gassing procedure. Gerstein recorded what happened that day:†
The next day we drove to Belzec. A small special station had been created for this purpose at a hill, hard north of the road Lublin–Lemberg, in the left angle of the demarcation line. South of the road some houses with the inscription “Waffen-SS Special Unit Belzec.” Because the actual chief of the whole killing facilities, Police Captain Wirth, was not yet there, Globocnik introduced me to SS-Captain Obermeyer. That afternoon he let me see only that which he simply had to show me. That day I didn’t see any corpses, just the smell of the whole region was stinking to high heaven in a hot August, and millions of flies were everywhere.
Near to the small double-track station was a large barrack, the so-called “cloakroom,” with a large counter for valuables. Then followed the barber’s room with approximately 100 chairs…Then an alley in the open air, below birches, fenced in to the right and left by double barbed wire with inscriptions: “To the inhalation- and bath rooms!” In front of us a sort of bath house with geraniums, then a small staircase, and then to the right and left 3 rooms each, 5 × 5 metres, 1.90 metres high, with wooden doors like garages. At the back wall, not quite visible in the dark, larger wooden ramp doors. On the roof as a clever little joke: the Star of David. In front of the building an inscription: “Hackenholt Stiftung.”* More I couldn’t see that afternoon.
The next morning, shortly before 7 a.m. someone announced to me: “In ten minutes the first transport will come!” In fact the first train arrived after some minutes, from the direction of Lemberg (Lvov). 45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Behind the barred hatches children as well as men and women looked out, terribly pale and nervous, their eyes full of the fear of death. The train comes in: 200 Ukrainians fling open the doors and whip the people out of the wagons with their leather whips. A large loudspeaker gives the further orders: “Undress completely, also remove artificial limbs, spectacles, etc.” Handing over valuables at the counter, without receiving a voucher or a receipt. The shoes carefully bound together…because on the almost 25 metre high heap nobody would have been able to find the matching shoes again. Then the women and girls to the barber who, with two, three scissor strokes is cutting off all hair and collecting it in potato sacks. “That is for special purposes in the submarines, for seals or the like,” the SS-Corporal who is on duty there says to me.
Then the procession starts moving. In front a very lovely young girl. So all of them go along the alley, all naked: men, women, children, without artificial limbs. I myself stand together with Captain Wirth on top of the ramp between the gas chambers. Mothers with babies at their breast, they come onward, hesitate, enter the death chambers! At the corner a strong SS man stands who, with a voice like a pastor, says to the poor people: “There is not the least chance that something will happen to you! You must only take a deep breath in the chamber, that widens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the illnesses and epidemics.” On the question of what would happen to them he answered: “Yes, of course, the men have to work, building houses and roads but the women don’t need to work. Only if they wish they can help in housekeeping or in the kitchen.”
For some of these poor people this gave a little glimmer of hope, enough to go the few steps to the chambers without resistance. The majority are aware, the smell tells them of their fate! So they climb the small staircase, and then they see everything. Mothers with little children at the breast, little naked children, adults, men, women, all naked—they hesitate but they enter the death chambers, pushed forward by those behind them or driven by the leather whips of the SS. The majority without saying a word. A Jewess of about 40 years of age, with flaming eyes, calls down vengeance on the head of the murderers for the blood which is shed here. She gets 5 or 6 slashes with the riding crop into her face from Captain Wirth personally, then she also disappears into the chamber. Many people pray. I pray with them, I press myself in a corner and shout loudly to my and their God. How gladly I would have entered the chamber together with them, how gladly I would have died the same death as them. Then they would have found a uniformed SS man in their chambers—the case would have been understood and treated as an accident, one man quietly missing. Still I am not allowed to do this. First I must tell what I am experiencing here!
The chambers fill. “Pack well!”—Captain Wirth has ordered. The people stand on each other’s feet. 700–800 on 25 square metres, in 45 cubic metres! The SS physically squeezes them together, as far as is possible.
The doors close. At the same time the others are waiting outside in the open air, naked. Someone tells me: “The same in winter!” “Yes, but they could catch their death of cold,” I say. “Yes, exactly what they are here for!” says an SS man to me in his Low German. Now I finally understand why the whole installation is called the Hackenholt Foundation. Hackenholt is the driver of the diesel engine, a little technician, also the builder of the facility. The people are brought to death with the diesel exhaust fumes. But the diesel doesn’t work! Captain Wirth comes. One can see that he feels embarrassed that that happens just today, when I am here. That’s right, I see everything! And I wait. My stop watch has honestly registered everything. 50 minutes, 70 minutes—the diesel doesn’t start! The people are waiting in their gas chambers. In vain! One can hear them crying, sobbing…Captain Wirth hits the Ukrainian who is helping Sergeant Hackenholt 12, 13 times in the face. After two hours and 49 minutes—the stop watch has registered everything well—the diesel starts. Until this moment the people live in these 4 chambers, four times 750 people in 4 times 45 cubic metres. Again 25 minutes pass. Right, many are dead now. One can see that through the small window in which the electric light illuminates the chambers for a moment. After 28 minutes only a few are still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, everyone is dead.
From the other side men from the work command open the wooden doors. They have been promised—even Jews—freedom, and some one-thousandth of all valuables found, for their terrible service. Like basalt pillars the dead stand inside, pressed together in the chambers. In any event there was no space to fall down or even bend forward. Even in death one can still tell the families. They still hold hands, tensed in death, so that one can barely tear them apart in order to empty the chamber for the next batch. The corpses are thrown out, wet from sweat and urine, soiled by excrement, menstrual blood on their legs. Children’s corpses fly through the air. There is no time. The riding crops of the Ukrainians lash down on the work groups. Two dozen dentists open mouths with hooks and look for gold. Gold to the left, without gold to the right. Other dentists break gold teeth and crowns out of jaws with pliers and hammers.
Among all this Captain Wirth is running around. He is in his element. Some workers search the genitals and anus of the corpses for gold, diamonds, and valuables. Wirth calls me to him: “Lift this can full of gold teeth, that is only from yesterday and the day before yesterday!” In an incredibly vulgar and incorrect diction he said to me: “You won’t believe what we find in gold and diamonds every day”…“and in dollars. But see for yourself!” And now he led me to a jeweller who managed all these treasures, and let me see all this. Then someone showed me a former head of the Kaufhaus des Westens* in Berlin, and a violinist: “That was a Captain of the Austrian Army, knight of the Iron Cross 1st class who is now camp elder of the Jewish work command!”
The naked corpses were carried on wooden stretchers to pits only a few metres away, measuring 100 × 20 × 12 metres. After a few days the corpses welled up and a short time later they collapsed, so that one could throw a new layer of bodies upon them. Then ten centimetres of sand were spread over the pit, so that a few heads and arms still rose from it here and there. At such a place I saw Jews climbing over the corpses and working. One told me that by mistake those who arrived dead had not been stripped.5
Wirth was clearly embarrassed by the problems that had been encountered that day, and asked Gerstein not to bother conducting the Zyklon B experiments. Consequently, Gerstein buried the canisters in some nearby woods.
THE SECOND OPERATION Reinhard camp was built close to the village of Sobibor, in a densely wooded part of the eastern Lublin district. It was situated close to the River Bug, which formed the border between the General Government and theReichskommisariatUkraine, and not far from the Chelm–Wlodawa railway. Construction began in March 1942, and the layout of the camp reflected lessons that had been learned from the early murders at Belzec. For instance, a rail spur, leading from the station at Sobibor, ran straight into the camp, through a gateway in a wall constructed from concrete and “camouflaged” with tree branches.
In April 1942, Franz Stangl was placed in command of the camp.* His story is fairly simple. He was born in 1908 in Altmünster, Austria, the son of an ex-soldier who bullied and terrorised him for the first eight years of his life. However, in 1916, Stangl’s father died, and his childhood became more bearable. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed in a local textile mill, and three years later he qualified as a master weaver, supposedly the youngest in Austria. He continued in that profession until 1931, when he joined the police in Linz. He seems to have been a reasonably competent policeman, and in July 1934, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Dollfuss, the Austrian Chancellor, he discovered a National Socialist arms cache in a forest. His reward was a decoration and a posting to detectives’ school. After he qualified, he joined the political police in the town of Wels, where he investigated anti-government activity.
Stangl claimed that he was not a National Socialist supporter prior to the Anschluss; and thereafter, he feared that his police record might well lead to him being branded an enemy of the new regime. He therefore persuaded a contact to enter his name retrospectively on a list of secret National Socialists, which he hoped would afford him some protection. His police unit was absorbed into the Gestapo in early 1939,6 and he was promoted to the status of an established, pensionable civil servant. He also left the Church, in line with SS policy (even though he was not yet an SS member). He continued with his police work—which by now included some tasks relating to forced Jewish emigration—until November 1940, when he was informed by his superior that he had been selected for a special role.
This was an assignment to the T-4 programme euthanasia killing centre at Hartheim. It is not clear why Stangl was chosen, but perhaps it was because he was fundamentally obedient, the sort of man who would not disobey an order from a superior, even if it conflicted with his own moral beliefs. Stangl also seemed to believe that accepting the position would help his career. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the uniformed police and duly became the administration and security officer at Hartheim. He was responsible for the general smooth running of the operation, the issuing of death certificates and the return of the victims’ personal effects to their families. Although he was intimately involved in all aspects of the operation, the killing at Hartheim (as in all of the euthanasia centres) was carried out by doctors and nurses, and Stangl appears to have been able to distance himself from it emotionally.
He remained at Hartheim until the centre’s T-4 killings were wound down in the autumn of 1941, whereupon he moved to Bernburg to supervise the end of the T-4 programme there. As we have seen, both centres continued to kill “incurables” from the concentration camps as part of Operation 14 f 13, but Stangl still had to resolve administrative issues associated with the end of the formal euthanasia programme. He completed this in February 1942,7 and was then offered the choice of a return to Linz or an unspecified “anti-partisan” task in Lublin. He had not enjoyed a good working relationship with the senior officers in Linz, so he chose the second option and travelled east in a group of about twenty T-4 personnel.
Stangl later claimed that he had no idea what was awaiting him. When he reached Lublin, in March 1942, he had a long conversation with Globocnik, who sounded him out for the role of commandant of Sobibor. However, according to Stangl, the SSPF was vague about the camp’s true function. Globocnik did tell Stangl that Christian Wirth was in charge of the operation, and soon afterwards Stangl travelled to Sobibor to take up his new post. When he arrived at the camp, a small group of Polish labourers was building the camp under the supervision of a number of former T-4 personnel. They were soon supplemented by a Jewish labour detail and a company of Ukrainian guards from Trawniki. As construction continued, Stangl was summoned by Wirth to Belzec, and it was here that he finally realised the true purpose and scale of Operation Reinhard. On the day he arrived, there was a problem in the burial pits: the corpses had putrefied, expanded and spilled on to the open ground surrounding the pits. Wirth was furiously trying to deal with this situation, but he found the time to tell Stangl that he would soon be having similar problems at Sobibor.*
On his return to Sobibor, Stangl discussed what he had witnessed with Sergeant Hermann Michel, a friend and former co-worker at Hartheim, who had been appointed his deputy. According to Stangl, both he and Michel were deeply distressed, but they decided to keep their heads down and seek transfers out of Operation Reinhard, rather than protest or refuse to serve. Some days later, Wirth made an extended visit to the new camp to ensure that preparations were continuing smoothly. Wirth demanded that the gas chamber should be fully tested, so he gave the order for twenty-five of the “work Jews” to be murdered in it.
This test revealed some deficiencies that had to be rectified, but Sobibor was ready to receive its first transport of prisoners in the first week of May 1942. The procedure was almost identical to that employed at Belzec, as SS-Sergeant Kurt Bolender recalled:
Before the Jews undressed, SS-Sergeant Michel made a speech to them. On these occasions, he used to wear a white coat to give the impression that he was a physician. Michel announced to the Jews that they would be sent to work, but before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection so as to prevent the spread of diseases…After undressing, the Jews were taken through the so-called “Schlauch” [sluice]. They were led to the gas chambers not by the Germans but by the Ukrainians…After the Jews entered the gas chambers, the Ukrainians closed the doors. The motor which supplied the gas was switched on by a Ukrainian named Emil Kostenko and by a German driver called Erich Bauer from Berlin. After the gassing, the doors were opened and the corpses removed.8
As at Belzec, a few hundred Jews were kept alive in the camp to perform menial duties: burying corpses, cleaning trains and sorting through the vast amounts of goods, money, jewellery, food and clothing that were stolen from the victims before they died.
Between May and July, 90,000–100,000 Jews—primarily from the General Government but also from Austria and Czechoslovakia—were murdered at Sobibor.9 By most accounts, it was a more efficient camp than Belzec, having learned from its precursor’s mistakes, and because Stangl was a better, more sober organiser than Wirth. The pace of the murders was less frantic than at Belzec. Sobibor rarely received more than one transport per day, which usually consisted of no more than 2,500 victims. That made the process more manageable, although the maximum capacity of the gas chambers at this stage was not more than six hundred people at a time.
Engineering work on the Lublin–Chelm railway line caused a lull in the gassings between July and October 1942, but this gave the camp staff the opportunity to increase the gas chambers’ capacity to some 1,300 people. Between October 1942 and June 1943, between 150,000 and 170,000 Jews from the General Government and Slovakia were murdered, as well as 4,000 from France and 34,000 from the Netherlands. Killing operations were wound down at Sobibor after July 1943, when the camp was transformed into a depot for captured ammunition.
• • •
CONSTRUCTION BEGAN ON the third and largest of the three Operation Reinhard extermination camps soon after Sobibor had accepted its first transport in May 1942. Treblinka was placed under the command of SS-Lieutenant Dr. Irmfried Eberl, who had been present at the first gassing experiment at Brandenburg and had then worked for T-4 both there and at Bernburg. Initially, there were three gas chambers in Treblinka, each capable of murdering between 200 and 250 prisoners at a time. In the first five weeks of its operation, in excess of 300,000 Jews were murdered there: some 245,000 from the Warsaw ghetto and surrounding areas; over 50,000 from Radom; and more than 16,000 from Lublin.10 But while the camp had managed this industrial scale of killing, the rest of the operation was in a state of chaos. By July, the reception area was littered with the decomposing corpses of people who had died on the transports or had been too weak or too sick to make the short journey to the gas chambers and had thus been killed on the spot. Vast piles of prisoners’ belongings were also piling up, because Eberl had not thought to set up work details to sort through them. This meant that valuables ended up in the pockets of the camp staff, were forwarded by Eberl to his former employers at T-4 (presumably at the instigation of T-4), or were simply left lying around. In the last week of August, Globocnik and Wirth visited the camp and saw a complete breakdown of the system: a transport train full of dead and dying Jews was waiting to be unloaded, because there was no space within the camp itself. Eberl was dismissed on the spot,* and Globocnik stated that he would have had him court-martialled, had he not been a fellow Austrian.
The dependable Stangl was brought in to re-establish order at Treblinka. He and Wirth asked Operation Reinhard headquarters to call a temporary halt to deportations to allow them to sort out Eberl’s mess. This was agreed to, and five hundred Jews from previous transports were set to work cleaning up the camp and burning or burying the piles of corpses. The transports resumed on 3 September, by which time Stangl had organised a prisoner work detail to deal with the arriving prisoners and their luggage. One group of prisoners removed dead bodies from the trains and buried them in the mass graves; others cleaned the freight cars; others sifted through the piles of clothing, valuables and food.
Generally speaking, each of the Operation Reinhard camps had a prisoner labour force of between five hundred and a thousand people. Unsurprisingly, their existence was brutal and extremely precarious. Roll-calls were held up to three times each day, and any prisoner who seemed ill or weak, or had irritated the SS NCOs, would be sent to the gas chamber or shot, to be replaced by a new arrival from the next transport. Those who remained alive were entirely at the mercy of the SS and the Ukrainians. There were no effective rules to regulate the behaviour of their overseers, who could—and did—beat and murder the workers at will. Survivors of the camps reported that very few of the guards behaved with any decency or humanity. The great majority of them were either indifferent to the prisoners’ suffering or were actively cruel and violent. One tiny shred of relief for the working prisoners was that food was usually plentiful: the victims tended to bring supplies with them on the transports, and this was used to supplement the basic rations provided by the SS. The working prisoners also managed to obtain cash and valuables, which they bartered with local civilians and some of the Ukrainian guards for more provisions. However, if the transports slackened off for any reason, the supply of extra food dried up and hunger added to the prisoners’ misery.
Male prisoners were mostly assigned to heavy physical work, but a few women were also employed in the death camps—as laundrywomen, cooks and cleaners. They lived in separate barracks to the men and could be subjected to sexual abuse and rape by the guards, despite National Socialist strictures against “race defilement.” In Sobibor, a love affair is said to have developed between a young Jewish woman from Vienna and SS-Sergeant Paul Groth, who had a reputation as a sadist. Groth’s behaviour towards the other prisoners apparently improved as a result of the affair, but when it became known to his fellow SS men the girl was murdered.11
In spite of being fully aware of the consequences, the prisoners staged several acts of resistance in the Operation Reinhard camps. The first of these was the killing of SS-Sergeant Max Bialas at Treblinka in September 1942, when the camp had been in operation for only a few weeks. Bialas was in charge of the evening roll-call and was in the process of deciding which prisoners were to be murdered that night when one of the prisoners ran from the ranks and stabbed him with a knife he had been concealing. Bialas fell to the ground while his assailant—Meir Berliner, an Argentinian who had been in the camp only a few days*—stood over him. Berliner was beaten to the ground with a shovel by a Ukrainian guard and then shot. Meanwhile, other Ukrainians started shooting randomly into the prisoners, killing and wounding dozens. Once order had been restored, Wirth, who was in the camp at the time, demanded the immediate execution of ten prisoners. Another 150 were shot the next morning.
On several occasions, groups of prisoners fought with the guards as they were being hustled towards the gas chambers, but these acts of defiance were always doomed to fail in the tightly organised and confined conditions of the “chute.” So it was perhaps inevitable that the major act of resistance to the Holocaust should take place where the murderers had less control over their victims. From July 1942, the SS began to clear the Warsaw ghetto of its inhabitants, with the vast majority being sent to Treblinka. By the end of September, some 300,000 had already been deported and murdered, leaving only 60,000 in the ghetto. But at that point, the Jewish Fighting Organisation came into being to offer some resistance. Led by Mordechai Anielewicz, the organisation smuggled a few weapons into the ghetto, and started to manufacture more with whatever materials they could find.
Three thousand SS, army and police troops from the Warsaw garrison, commanded by SS-Brigadier Jürgen Stroop, eventually entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943 to begin the final clearance. Using armoured vehicles, artillery and heavy machine guns, they attacked, blew up and set fire to buildings where the Jewish resisters were thought to be hiding. The defenders responded by fighting a running battle from ruined buildings, bunkers and trenches. Their ferocity shocked the German units, and Stroop could not claim victory until 16 May.* (Notoriously, he subsequently produced a bound volume of photographs and reports, as if the operation had been a considerable military victory.) Even then, some Jewish resisters continued to fight until July. Overall, the fighting claimed the lives of some 14,000 Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto, but 7,000 more were removed to Treblinka and exterminated, with the remainder being sent to Majdanek concentration camp. The Germans lost around 400 killed and 1,000 wounded.12
The camps were never able to launch anything to rival the Warsaw ghetto rebellion, but prisoner committees in Treblinka and Sobibor did at least try. The Treblinka revolt occurred on 2 August 1943. There had been a lull in new arrivals at the camp since late May, when the Warsaw ghetto had finally been cleared. The prisoners’ workload now comprised routine maintenance in and around the camp, and the cremation of corpses exhumed from the mass graves, which had been ordered by Himmler following a visit in the early spring. This relative lack of activity convinced many of the prisoners that the camp was about to be wound down and that they, inevitably, would not survive its closure. Consequently, they began to plan a revolt. Among the leaders were the camp elder, Bernard Galewski, a former Czech Army officer named Zelomir Bloch and several others with some military experience. Their plan was straightforward: teams of prisoners armed with whatever weapons they had managed to steal from the camp store would attempt to kill as many on-duty SS and Ukrainian personnel as possible; then they would attempt to seize as many weapons as possible; and finally they would burn down the camp and flee into the surrounding countryside.
In the event, circumstances forced the rebels to abandon even this basic plan. SS-Sergeant Kuttner, commander of the “lower camp,” where most of the working prisoners were housed, unexpectedly appeared in their barracks and began a conversation with a known informer during the early afternoon of 2 August. One of the committee leaders decided something had to be done, so he sent for an armed prisoner. In the meantime, Kuttner had discovered a young prisoner with bundles of cash, in readiness for his escape. As he led this prisoner to the gate of the barracks, Kuttner was shot by one of the rebels. Obviously, the general uprising now had to begin, but many of the stolen weapons had not yet been distributed among the prisoners. As a result, the revolt was chaotic. A group of prisoners armed with grenades attacked the camp headquarters, but they failed to kill or even injure any of the SS men inside. Others attacked the Ukrainian guards and fired on the watchtowers. Still others ignited the camp’s petrol depot. However, in the confusion, nobody thought to cut the telephone line, and Stangl, who was in his office, called for reinforcements from the local police. In the extermination area of the camp, prisoners managed to kill or disarm their Ukrainian guards and set light to the wooden buildings, but they were unable to destroy the gas chambers or knock out the guards in the watchtowers. As a result, as the prisoners began to break through the fences and gates, many were cut down by rifle and machine-gun fire from the towers.
There were approximately 850 prisoners in Treblinka at the start of the revolt. Some 350 to 400 (including many of the leaders) were killed within the camp; about 100 did not make it outside the wire (some of these were too weak to try, while others clung to the hope that they would not be killed if they displayed “loyalty”); and about 350 managed to escape. Of these, about half were captured and killed during the next twenty-four hours. Thereafter, the German security forces combed the forests and countryside for several more days. They picked up several more escapees, while a number were reputedly caught and either murdered immediately or handed over to the National Socialists by local peasants. However, an estimated hundred or so of the prisoners were never recaptured.13
The Treblinka uprising was an act of heroic defiance; and, in spite of the heavy cost, it was certainly a risk worth taking for the otherwise doomed prisoners. By the time it was launched, Operation Reinhard was nearly complete, because the overwhelming majority of the target group had already been eliminated. Two transports arrived from the Bialystock ghetto in the third week of August 1943, and their occupants were exterminated, but the greatly reduced prisoner population meant that the process took much longer than had previously been the case. Thereafter, most of the Bialystock Jews were sent to Auschwitz, Majdanek and Theresienstadt.
In many respects, the revolt at Sobibor was better organised and more successful than the Treblinka uprising. The catalyst for the revolt was the arrival of a transport of Jews from Minsk on 23 September 1943. Among the two thousand prisoners was a group of about a hundred Jewish Soviet Army prisoners of war, including Lieutenant Alexander Pechersky. About eighty men from the transport, most of them from this group, were spared the gas chambers and began to work in the camp. By the end of the month, they were formulating plans for a mass escape. Pechersky’s military bearing and obvious leadership ability attracted the attention of longer-term prisoners and their unofficial leaders, and a dialogue quickly opened up between the existing camp underground and the new arrivals.
Pechersky’s first escape scheme involved digging a thirty-five-metre tunnel. Work began on this in early October, but after a few days of smooth excavation, heavy rain caused the tunnel to flood and it was abandoned. Pechersky decided that a more direct method was required, so he started to devise a means of eliminating the SS men within the camp, followed by a mass breakout through the gates. By this stage, the rebels had already made two discoveries that gave them hope: first, the camp commandant, Captain Franz Reichleitner, and his second-in-command, Sergeant Gustav Wagner, as well as several other members of the SS staff, would soon be going to Germany on leave; second, only those Ukrainian guards who were on duty carried ammunition for their rifles.*
In essence, Pechersky’s plan was to kill the SS men in the camp, then assemble as if nothing had happened for evening roll-call, march towards and then rush the gates, and suppress any resistance from the guards with weapons captured from the Germans or stolen from the camp armoury. This plan was put into action on 14 October. During the afternoon, the SS staff were invited into various workshops and storerooms by prisoners, where they were killed with axe blows to the head. Among the dead were the acting commandant, Second Lieutenant Niemann, ten other SS NCOs and one Ukrainian guard. As the afternoon drew to a close, the prisoners moved on to the second phase and began to form up, as if for roll-call. It was at this stage that the plan began to unravel. A group of prisoners attacked the armoury, where they severely wounded Sergeant Werner Dubois. However, this assault, together with the discovery of a body elsewhere in the camp, caused shooting to break out, and the leaders of the revolt started to lose control as panicking prisoners began to climb the fences. Many were shot by the Ukrainian guards and two surviving SS NCOs; others died in the minefields that had been sown around the perimeter. Nevertheless, of the six hundred or so prisoners who had been in the main part of the camp, around three hundred managed to escape.
Unlike at Treblinka, the prisoners had cut the telephone lines, so it was some time before the remaining SS men were able to call for back-up. A mounted squadron of SS and police finally arrived in Sobibor by train at around midnight, followed by a company from the Army’s 689th Security Battalion in the early hours of 15 October. These forces immediately began to sweep the local forests. Later, they were joined by more SS and Sipo units. Many of the escapees were eventually found, while others were turned in or murdered by the local population, but around fifty managed to find refuge. A small group of the Soviet POWs joined a partisan group whom they met in the forest, and several of them, including Pechersky, survived the war. All of the Jewish prisoners still in Sobibor—numbering at least 150—were executed on the afternoon of 15 October on the orders of SS-Major General Sporrenberg, who had succeeded Globocnik as Lublin’s SSPF.*
IN PRINCIPLE, THE decision to bring Operation Reinhard to an end was taken in the spring of 1943, after Himmler had visited the camps. By this stage, the great majority of the Jews in the General Government had been murdered, and it was thought that any left alive could be dealt with by the extermination facilities at Majdanek and, especially, Auschwitz–Birkenau.
The first of the Reinhard camps to cease operations was Belzec, where mass murder ended in March–April 1943. From that point onwards, all effort went into demolishing the camp and hiding the evidence of the terrible crimes that had been committed there. A small detail of surviving prisoners did the work: tearing down the buildings, levelling the mass graves and planting trees across the site. The work had been finished by July, at which point the work detail was transported to Sobibor and murdered. Belzec’s guards were redistributed around Sobibor, Treblinka and the labour camp at Poniatowa, where Belzec’s last commandant, SS-Captain Gottlieb Hering, took over as camp commander.
The SS’s attempt to conceal evidence was a complete failure. As soon as the Germans had left the area, local Poles began to dig up the mass graves in search of gold and valuables. Consequently, the ground was soon strewn with identifiable human remains.*
The final death toll for Operation Reinhard is difficult to determine, not least because the SS’s own records did not survive. Murdered Jews were not registered on arrival at the camps. They were simply sent there as a transport of “x” number of Jews from the ghettoes and killed. Consequently, estimates can be based only on numbers who are known to have resided in the “evacuated” areas prior to the war; numbers who lived in the ghettoes; and numbers who arrived in the camps on each transport. Hilberg suggests that some 1.5 million Jews died in Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor between March 1942 and November 1943; in addition, approximately 150,000 Jews and others were murdered at Kulmhof, which, although not officially part of Operation Reinhard, killed its victims in a similar manner.14 Arad estimates that 1.7 million died in the Reinhard camps alone.15
The SS conducted its own statistical estimate in early 1943. Dr. Richard Korherr, chief inspector of the organisation’s statistical department, was commissioned by Himmler to present a report on Europe’s Jewish population. Korherr looked at the entire programme of emigration, deportation and extermination, with Eichmann’s Section IV B4 his main source of information. However, his detailed figures for Operation Reinhard came from SS-Major Hermann Höfle, Globocnik’s staff officer, presumably based on numbers from each transport.
Höfle sent a telegram to the commander of the Sipo in Cracow on 11 January 1943 in which he reported the number of Jews killed in all of the Reinhard camps:
• Lublin-Majdanek 24,733
• Belzec 434,508
• Sobibor 101,370
• Treblinka 713,555*
• Total 1,274,16616
Based on these figures (compiled more than six months before Sobibor ceased operations), a final estimate of at least 1.5 million seems entirely plausible, if not conservative.
In addition to extracting an obscene human toll, Operation Reinhard amassed an enormous amount of loot. The SS had always sought to profit from their persecution of the Jews: those who had been forced to emigrate from pre-war Germany and Austria had been obliged to pay extortionate fees for the privilege of leaving their homes, which had left many of them virtually destitute. Those who were murdered in Operation Reinhard were stripped of everything they possessed: food, clothing, cash, jewellery, art, even their hair and their gold teeth. Administration of this booty was loose, at best: some of it was taken by corrupt SS men, acting on their own initiative; some was pilfered by the Ukrainian guards; and some found its way into the hands of local Poles through black-market trading with the SS, the guards and even the prisoners. But the great majority—amounting to hundreds of millions of marks—was sorted by the prisoner labour force and sent to the WVHA. In a note dated September 1943, Globocnik recorded that he had sent some eighteen hundred rail cars of textiles to Germany;17 and in a subsequent note to Himmler he boasted that the “‘decency and honesty’ of his men had guaranteed a complete delivery of assets.”18
Operation Reinhard comprised the largest—and most efficiently run—element of the Holocaust. Almost all of the material required for the construction of the camps, including the gas chambers, was sourced locally, and the logistical support they required was minimal. In total, the three camps required only 120 SS men and no more than 400 Ukrainian auxiliaries. All of the physical labour was performed by the continually changing roster of 500 to 1,000 prisoners that each camp temporarily saved from death. The operation came to an end only because Globocnik had largely achieved his aim of annihilating the entire Jewish population of the General Government. And the industrial extermination machinery of Auschwitz could easily take care of the few who were left.
* A few months later, in August 1939, Himmler awarded Globocnik the Totenkopfring—his personal honour that was supposedly not available to any SS member with a tarnished disciplinary record. Whether this indicates that Himmler did not believe the allegations or simply did not care is unclear.
* This highlights the legal status of the Waffen-SS. The T-4 personnel of Operation Reinhard were supposedly performing military service in the camps, so they were given the same status as combat-unit members of the SS.
* The trains usually set off with between sixty and eighty wagons, but this exceeded the capacity of the reception facilities in the camp, so they were split into groups of twenty for the final part of their journey.
* The “(F)” denotes that Gerstein was a Fachführer (specialist officer).
* By this time, Globocnik had accumulated some forty million kilos of textiles—far too much to be disinfected in existing commercial facilities. Gerstein negotiated with some commercial disinfectors, but they baulked at the scale of the task. Eventually, Globocnik and Gerstein decided simply to sprinkle disinfectant on the clothes, so that at least they smelled as if they had been disinfected.
† Gerstein’s account has been criticised because it undeniably contains exaggerations as well as descriptions of events that he did not witness. Nevertheless, his presence at the gassing at Belzec on 17 August is corroborated by other witnesses and there is no doubt that his account of this specific event is largely accurate.
* “Hackenholt Foundation”—the SS men’s nickname for the gas chamber at Belzec—named after Lorenz Hackenholt.
* A large department store, equivalent to Harrods in London or Macy’s in New York.
* What follows is derived largely from Stangl himself. His testimony is unique among those of extermination camp commanders in that it was given—in a series of interviews with Gitta Sereny in 1970—without a hint of compulsion. Sereny’s book, Into That Darkness, therefore gives an unsurpassed insight into the mind-set of a major perpetrator of the Holocaust. Stangl’s attitude to what he did can best be described as a kind of morose, fatalistic detachment.
* By his own account Stangl neither liked nor had a good working relationship with Wirth.
* Eberl subsequently served as a doctor with the army. He returned to civilian medical practice after the war, but committed suicide in custody after his arrest in 1948.
* Berliner had been visiting relations in Warsaw with his wife and daughter when the war broke out. His Argentinian citizenship did not protect him and he and his family were deported to Treblinka a few days before his attack on Bialas. Both his wife and daughter had been murdered on arrival at the camp.
* Anielewicz and his command group committed suicide in their bunker on 8 May.
* This rule had been introduced after several members of the guard company had fled from the camp (with their weapons and ammunition) to join the partisans.
* Globocnik was rewarded for his efforts in Lublin with promotion to the role of Senior SS and Police Leader for the Adriatic Coastal Zone. There he had responsibility for combating partisan activity and liquidating the local Jewish population. Many of his staff from Operation Reinhard, including Wirth and Stangl, accompanied him. Globocnik killed himself after being captured by British soldiers in May 1945. Wirth was killed in action against partisans. Stangl was extradited to West Germany from Brazil in the late 1960s. He died of heart failure in prison in 1971, just eight months after being found guilty of war crimes by a West German court.
* At Auschwitz, the ashes of cremated victims were ground up before disposal so that no identifiable bones, teeth or other fragments would ever be found.
* The actual figure given in the telegram was 71,355, but this was clearly a typing error.