13. Nazi Death Camps in Poland


In the Nazi war against the Jews, the main battleground was in Poland – and never more so than during 1942. Not just because all of the major death camps were built on Polish soil, and Poland was the destination for the vast majority of the transports from across Europe, but because more Polish Jews died in the Holocaust than Jews from any other nation – around 3 million.1 Half of all the Jews murdered in the course of the entire Final Solution.

On 19 July 1942, on a visit to Poland, Himmler ordered that the ‘resettlement of the entire Jewish population of the General Government’ should be ‘carried out and completed by 31 December 1942’.2 According to Himmler, a ‘comprehensive clearing out’ was necessary. This was a euphemistic way of saying that he wanted virtually all of these Jews to be murdered by the end of the year.

Enormous numbers of Polish Jews would now be sent direct to death camps where the vast majority would be murdered within hours of arrival. Only a handful would either temporarily be spared deportation because their work was deemed essential or be selected for the Jewish Sonderkommando units when they arrived at the death camp, and be forced to help the SS with the extermination process.

Himmler’s order is a key moment in the history of the Holocaust – a vital part of an evolutionary process. At the start of 1942 the Nazis did not know for sure how many Jews they were going to kill in the short term. For Heydrich at Wannsee the confrontation with the Jews was still potentially a long-term process of attrition with large numbers of Jews worked to death over a period of time. What Himmler did in July 1942 was to say in effect, ‘We will kill vast numbers of Jews, right now.’ While that was a leap forward, it was one that was possible only because the Nazis had previously embarked on a gradual process of killing selected Jews. Only because of that past history, and the experience that they had gained along the way, could Himmler now be confident of committing mass murder on such a scale.

This was undoubtedly a decision taken in the weeks and months after the Wannsee conference, rather than the implementation of a decision taken at Wannsee or before. We know this partly because of the physical changes that were needed at the two existing specialized death camps with fixed gas chambers. Neither Bełżec nor Sobibór had the capacity to murder the numbers of Jews that Himmler now imagined. Only at this point were both expanded. At Bełżec all transports were temporarily suspended in June while larger gas chambers were built which would allow just over a thousand people to be murdered simultaneously. In the second week of July, transports began again, just in time to fulfil Himmler’s programme of expansion. Similarly, at Sobibór there was a halt in the extermination programme – this time at the end of July. This was partly to allow repairs to be made to the railway line that transported Jews to the camp, but also to enlarge the existing gas chambers. Killing capacity now increased from 600 people at a time within the gas chambers to 1,200. Most significantly of all, an entirely new extermination camp at Treblinka – close to the main railway line to Warsaw, 60 miles away to the south-west – opened on 23 July just four days after Himmler’s announcement. More Jews would eventually be murdered at Treblinka than at any other camp with the exception of Auschwitz.

A number of other factors came together at this point – all of which had occurred since the Wannsee conference. The first was an administrative change of considerable consequence. During the early months of 1942 Hans Frank, ruler of the General Government, had been called to account over allegations of corruption. As Frank’s power weakened, Himmler assumed control over Jewish policy within the General Government subject only to Hitler’s wishes. This was especially important because more Jews lived in the General Government than anywhere else – around 1.7 million. Himmler already had a subordinate in place in Lublin in the General Government – the Higher SS and Police Chief, Odilo Globocnik – who could be relied upon to organize the practical side of any expansion in the extermination plan.

There was also the question of the availability of food. A cut in rations to the German people in April 1942 had proved understandably unpopular, and the Nazi leadership remained determined that before any German went short of food others should starve first. Göring expressed this view at a meeting on 6 August 1942 when he imposed new demands on the occupied territories. ‘This everlasting concern about foreign peoples must cease now, once and for all,’ he told a group of senior officials. ‘I have here before me reports on what you are expected to deliver. It is nothing at all when I consider your territories. It makes no difference to me in this connection if you say that your people will starve. Let them do so, as long as no German collapses from hunger.’3 A few days before the meeting, Himmler had ordered that food deliveries to Warsaw in August should be restricted, and any farmers who didn’t hand over the produce the Germans expected should be executed.4 Another way, of course, of reducing the demand for food in the occupied territories was to kill many of the people who were currently eating it. In this case the Jews of the General Government.

An additional external event that would have intensified the murderous determination of both Hitler and Himmler was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. In an operation planned by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive), two Czech operatives attacked Heydrich’s open-top Mercedes as he drove through Prague on the morning of 27 May 1942. Heydrich died of his wounds eight days later. At his funeral on 9 June, Himmler said, ‘We have the sacred duty to atone for his death, to carry forward his work, and now, even more than before, mercilessly to annihilate the enemies of our people without showing any weakness.’5 That evening, at a gathering of senior SS figures, Himmler declared that ‘within a year … no one [i.e. Jews] will be migrating any more. For now things have finally got to be sorted out.’6 The action to murder the Jews of the General Government would be named Operation Reinhard in honour of Heydrich.

Himmler met Hitler on many occasions during this period, and one persuasive analysis is that crucial discussions between them about the expansion of the killing were held on 23 April and 3 May. Himmler even met Hitler in July the day before he announced the ‘comprehensive clearing out’ of the Jews in the General Government, and it is inconceivable that the two of them did not once again discuss the forthcoming killings.7 When Hitler crowed that the Jews would ‘soon not feel like laughing anymore’ two months later, it is very possible that he was referring obliquely to the massive increase in the extermination programme in Poland that had occurred since July.


Around this same time, Himmler and Hitler were also contemplating the mass murder of millions of non-Jews. On 16 July, three days before he gave the order that almost all the Jews of the General Government should be killed by the end of the year, Himmler remarked privately that he had experienced the ‘happiest day of his life’, because he had just discussed with Hitler ‘the greatest piece of colonization which the world will ever have seen’8 and his own key role in creating it. This was the infamous General Plan for the East by which tens of millions of Slavic people would be condemned to slavery and death. Indeed, an indication of how ruthless Himmler would now be in pursuit of racial ‘cleansing’ occurred in the months following this ‘happiest day’. In a massive ‘Germanization’ action that has not received the public attention post-war that it deserves, Himmler ordered the expulsion of large numbers of Poles from the region around Zamość in south-east Poland. Himmler’s senior commander in Lublin, Odilo Globocnik, oversaw the forcible deportation of more than 50,000 Poles. The idea was that this whole area, rich in fertile soil, would be colonized by ethnic Germans. But once again the Nazis had overestimated their ability to accomplish the task, and their racial arrogance worked against them. Many Poles fled to the forests, formed resistance units and fought back. It was obviously impractical at this moment for the Nazis to pursue this plan in addition to the deportation of the Jews, and Himmler’s colonization of the region was left unrealized.9

In the General Government more Jews were imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto than anywhere else. More than twice as many Jews lived in this one small area of the Polish capital than Eichmann had said he wanted to deport that summer from France, Belgium and the Netherlands put together. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the summer of 1942 the more than 300,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were an immediate target for the SS. Adam Czerniaków, chairman of the Jewish Council in the ghetto, wrote in his diary on 18 July that there were ‘rumours’ about deportation. The next day he recorded that he had done his best to reassure those Jews who were anxious. ‘I try to hearten the delegations which come to see me,’ he wrote. ‘What it costs me they do not see. Today I took 2 headache powders, another pain reliever, and a sedative, but my head is still splitting. I am trying not to let the smile leave my face.’ The following day an SS officer said to Czerniaków that he could tell the ghetto population that all talk of deportations was ‘utter nonsense’. But it was a lie. Two days later, on 22 July, Czerniaków wrote: ‘We were told that all the Jews irrespective of sex and age, with certain exceptions, will be deported to the East. By 4 p.m. today a contingent of 6,000 people must be provided. And this (at the minimum) will be the daily quota.’10 Czerniaków’s despair was focused, in particular, on what he called the ‘tragic dilemma’ of the children in orphanages. Did he have to hand them over as well? The answer, of course, was bound to be yes. The SS saw the children as a particular target – to them they were the most ‘useless’ of ‘useless eaters’.

Unbeknown to Adam Czerniaków, one of Odilo Globocnik’s officers had arrived several days before to plan the deportations with the help of the SS who oversaw the ghetto. They now sought the cooperation of the Jewish Council in organizing the transports via a combination of incentive and threat. The incentive was simple: the SS offered to exclude the members of the Jewish Council and their families from deportation. The threat was even more straightforward – if the Jewish Council didn’t cooperate, their loved ones would be killed. Czerniaków was told on 22 July that ‘if the deportation was impeded in any way’ his wife would ‘be the first one to be shot as a hostage’.11

All this was too much for Adam Czerniaków. On 23 July he committed suicide by swallowing a capsule of cyanide. This made no difference to the SS or to the deportations. They appointed another head of the Jewish Council, Marek Lichtenbaum, and carried on as before. More than 2,000 members of the Jewish Order Police within the ghetto now helped organize the deportations. Like the members of the Jewish Council, by doing so they saved – temporarily at least – their own lives and the lives of their wives and children.

No one living inside the ghetto knew for certain what would happen to the Jews who were deported. But some information about what was happening to Jews had filtered back to Warsaw. Emmanuel Ringelblum was particularly well informed and had even heard about one of the death camps by name. He wrote in his diary in June 1942, just before the deportations began, that the Germans were ‘following this plan: The “non-productive elements”, children up to the age of ten and old people over sixty, are locked in sealed railroad cars, which are guarded by a German detail and transported to an unknown destination … where every trace of the “resettled” Jews disappears. The fact that no one has so far succeeded in escaping from the death camp in Belzec, that up till now not a single Jewish or Polish witness of the extermination operation in Belzec has survived, is the clearest indication of how careful they are that the news not be published among their own people.’12

Ringelblum was particularly critical of the role of the Jewish police during the deportations, who ‘said not a single word of protest against this revolting assignment to lead their own brothers to the slaughter’. In his judgement, and based on his own observations, ‘For the most part, the Jewish police showed an incomprehensible brutality … Merciless and violent, they beat those who tried to resist.’13

The action against the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, starting on 23 July, was one of the most atrocious of all the horrors of the Holocaust. ‘The turmoil and terror is appalling,’ wrote Abraham Lewin in his diary on 1 August. ‘Mothers lose their children. A weak old woman is carried onto the bus. The tragedies cannot be captured in words. The Rabbi from 17 Dzielna Street has been seized and apparently shot. Children walking in the street are seized.’14

Halina Birenbaum, then twelve years old, remembers, ‘Every day there were less and less people, every day more and more empty apartments.’ The Jews took to hiding within the fabric of their apartments ‘behind the wardrobe or behind the bed’, but soon ‘the Germans and their Ukrainian helpers, together with the Jewish police’, started to ‘go from floor to floor in each apartment breaking the doors with iron bars … I heard when they were getting the Jews out, and the screaming, and the shots. Every day is like that – from the morning until evening.’15

Sixty-five thousand Jews were deported to Treblinka in the first ten days of the action. To begin with the SS didn’t deport those who had been granted exemption, but soon, if they had trouble filling a train, they would take anyone they could find. The Jewish police were told that if they did not serve up five people each – every single day – then their own loved ones would be sent in their place. By such methods the great majority of the Jews were expelled from the ghetto by the end of September.

Almost all of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were sent to the death camp at Treblinka. This, the last specialized death camp to be constructed, was the largest and most deadly.16 Around 850,000 people – some estimates say over 900,000 – were murdered here between summer 1942 and autumn 1943. And within that timeframe, the most murderous period was from the end of July until the end of August 1942 when an estimated 312,500 people were killed – around a quarter of a million of them from the Warsaw ghetto.17 The SS achieved this appalling killing record in part because Treblinka had been built with a railway spur leading directly into the camp. This was of great assistance to the SS, who were able to speed up the unloading of the Jews and their transportation to the gas chambers. As for the internal layout of the camp, it was similar to Bełżec and Sobibór. There was an arrival area and an extermination area containing the gas chambers, with the two connected via a narrow pathway or ‘tube’, plus separate sections for the guards’ and Sonderkommandos’ accommodation.

Another reason for the astonishing scale of the murders at Treblinka in the summer of 1942 was not technical, but personal – the ambition of thirty-one-year-old Dr Irmfried Eberl, the commandant of Treblinka and the only medical doctor ever to run an extermination camp. Dr Eberl has already featured in this history, when he was the director of the euthanasia killing centre at Brandenburg. He thus had plenty of experience in mass murder before starting work at Treblinka. And just as he showed every sign of liking his work at Brandenburg, so he appeared to relish the opportunity to murder Jews. In June 1942, while preparing the extermination camp for the arrival of the first transport from Warsaw, he wrote to his wife, Ruth, that his life was ‘very busy’ and that he ‘enjoyed it’.18 In another letter to her at the end of July, shortly after the Jews had started arriving, he said: ‘I know that I haven’t written much lately, but I couldn’t help that, as the last “Warsaw weeks” have gone by in an unimaginable rush.’ He said that even if the day had ‘a hundred hours’ it would not be ‘quite enough’ for him to complete his work, and that in the pursuit of his duties he had managed to gain ‘nerves of steel’. He was also, he claimed, able to get his staff to ‘go along’ with him and he was ‘glad and proud of this achievement’.19

The key to operating an efficient death camp, the SS had learnt from experience, was subterfuge. So Treblinka was disguised as a transit camp, with the new arrivals hurried through the killing process as swiftly as possible towards the ‘showers’ in the ‘disinfecting’ block. An obvious precondition for this deception was that the presence of large numbers of dead bodies was hidden from the arriving Jews. This was accomplished not just by seeking to bury the corpses as quickly as possible but also by weaving dead branches into the wire fences that divided different areas within the camp in order to hide what was happening.

To begin with, the killing appeared to progress efficiently for the SS, with about 5,000 to 7,000 Jews murdered each day. But around the middle of August the systems at the killing factory at Treblinka started to fall apart. Part of the reason was an increase in the number of Jews sent to the camp – arrivals almost doubled to over 10,000 a day. This meant that the SS and their helpers could not adequately clean up the camp between transports in order to preserve the fiction that this was merely a transit camp. Once this task was not accomplished on schedule, the consequences for the rest of the murder process were immediate. The SS had to order arriving trains to wait at Treblinka station before the carriages were shunted up the railway spur into the camp. This only exacerbated the collapse of the deception, because it meant that large numbers of Jews died within the freight wagons. Cleaning the wagons of corpses took much longer than escorting the Jews to the gas chambers, adding yet more delays to the working of the camp.

There was also the problem, for the Nazis, of the smell. The air around the camp was filled with noxious odours. Eugenia Samuel, then a schoolgirl who lived close by, remembers that ‘the smell of the disintegrating corpses was just terrible. You couldn’t open a window or go out because of the stench. You cannot imagine such a stench.’20

Oskar Berger was one of the Jews who arrived at Treblinka just as the fabric of the camp was collapsing. When he disembarked from the train, on 22 August 1942, he saw ‘hundreds of bodies lying all around’.21 The SS and their Ukrainian helpers attempted to control the new arrivals by shooting at them from the roofs of buildings. This only made the panic worse, as the ‘air was filled with screaming and weeping’.

Another new arrival, Abraham Krzepicki, was ‘confronted’ in the camp ‘by a staggering sight: a huge number of corpses, lying one next to the other. I estimate there were 20,000 corpses there … most of whom had suffocated in the freight cars. Their mouths remained open, as if they were gasping for another breath of air.’ He was selected by the SS to help clear up this nightmare scene. But, notwithstanding the terrible situation at the camp, the relentless train schedule did not stop: ‘At night another transport arrived at the camp. We ran toward the cars. I was shocked. All the cars were filled only with the dead – asphyxiated. They were lying on top of one another in layers, to the ceiling of the freight car. The sight was so awful, it is difficult to describe.’22

Irmfried Eberl’s immense over-confidence, as well as the increase in the numbers of transports in August, was behind this horror. ‘Dr Eberl’s ambition’, said August Hingst, a member of the SS at Treblinka, ‘was to reach the highest possible numbers and exceed all the other camps. So many transports arrived that the disembarkation and gassing of the people could no longer be handled.’23 There were also rumours that discipline had broken down at Treblinka and that some valuables stolen from the Jews had not been sent back to the Reich but taken by the guards at the camp – even that Dr Eberl, when he was drunk, ordered a female Jew to dance naked for him.24

When reports of the disintegration of Treblinka reached Dr Eberl’s superiors they decided to pay him a visit. Towards the end of August, Odilo Globocnik travelled to the camp together with a group of senior officers, including Christian Wirth, the first commandant of Bełżec and the newly appointed inspector of the Operation Reinhard death camps. ‘In Treblinka, everything was in chaos,’ said SS man Josef Oberhauser, who worked for Wirth and saw what happened when the delegation arrived at the camp. ‘Dr Eberl would be dismissed immediately … Globocnik said in the course of this conversation that if Dr Eberl were not his fellow countryman, he would arrest him and bring him before an SS and police court.’25

Wirth chose Franz Stangl, currently commandant of Sobibór, to replace Dr Eberl. Because Sobibór was temporarily closed while the railway line that ran next to the camp was repaired and the gas chambers enlarged, Stangl was free to take over almost at once. Even so, Wirth decided to stay on at the camp for a few weeks to oversee the cleaning-up process, together with Stangl. This was a major undertaking, as witnessed on his arrival by one of the cruellest of all the SS figures working in the death camps, SS Oberscharführer (Company Sergeant Major) Kurt Franz, an SS officer nicknamed ‘Doll’ because of his supposed baby-faced looks: ‘In the camp there were bodies lying everywhere … These bodies were dragged through the camp to the upper section by Jews. The working Jews were forced to keep moving by the [Ukrainian] guards, also by the Germans … There was tremendous confusion and a horrible din … During my walk I established that some of the guard squads were with girls and had put down their rifles.’26 Kurt Franz’s specialty at Bełżec had been dealing with the auxiliaries – guards who had been selected from Soviet POWs to work at the death camps – collectively known, as we have seen, as ‘Ukrainians’. So he now tried to establish order among them.

Transports to Treblinka had to be suspended between 28 August and 3 September while the camp was cleared of thousands of corpses. The dead bodies were burnt in ditches and the smoke that filled the sky was noticeable for miles around. Throughout this process, Christian Wirth was the dominant force. ‘Wirth conducted talks with the German staff, mainly at 11 o’clock in the evening,’ said SS Scharführer (Sergeant Major) Franz Suchomel. ‘These talks took place in the presence of Stangl … His [Wirth’s] instructions were detailed.’27

Just as there had been at Sobibór, there were tensions between Stangl and Wirth. According to Suchomel, after Stangl had examined the extermination operation at Treblinka, he recommended that buckets should be placed in the tube – the path that led from the arrival area of the camp to the gas chambers – because the women ‘all defecated you know, while they ran, or stood there, waiting’. Stangl said he had previously put buckets in the tube and it had proved helpful. Wirth answered, ‘I don’t care a damn what you did with the shit in Sobibor. Let them beshit themselves. It can be cleaned up afterwards.’28

Christian Wirth, like Dr Eberl, gave every indication that he revelled in his work. His adjutant, Josef Oberhauser, remarked that ‘His most outstanding features were iron relentlessness, unconditional obedience, belief in the Führer, absolute insensitivity and ruthlessness. These traits already characterized him in the euthanasia [action], where I got to know him; but he really was in his element when it came to the extermination of the Jews.’29 With Wirth ‘in his element’, the extermination process at Treblinka began again with the resumption of transports from the Warsaw ghetto on 3 September.

Kalman Taigman was one of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto crammed into a freight wagon that September en route to Treblinka. While some Jews on the train believed that they were being sent to their deaths, he still thought that the Nazis might have spoken the truth about what lay ahead. ‘We were told when we were still in the ghetto’, he says, ‘that we were going to the east to work in all kinds of factories. So I thought that I was a young and healthy man and that I was probably being taken to work.’30 But on arrival at Treblinka these illusions were swiftly shattered. ‘It was unbelievable,’ he says. ‘They opened the freight cars and started yelling, “Get out!” in German, of course, yelling, and many of the people who were still standing and breathing came out, but there were some who were already corpses inside the freight cars and they didn’t come out.’ From the healthy Jews who arrived, the SS made a selection and Kalman Taigman was one of those they picked. A relatively large number of Jews were chosen to work in the camp from these early transports to Treblinka in September, in order to ensure that the camp was kept clean and the chaos of Eberl’s regime was not repeated. Out of those chosen from Kalman’s transport, one group started emptying the freight wagons of bodies and another began sorting out the belongings of the Jews who had been taken to the gas chambers.

Kalman was later part of a commando that cleaned out the barracks where the women had their heads shaved before entering the gas chambers. ‘When we cleaned these barracks of the clothing,’ he remembers, ‘there were cases where we found babies underneath these piles. I guess the mothers left them there, maybe so they might be rescued.’ When he and his comrades found these babies they carried them to a fenced-off area of the camp where the sick were taken, known as the Lazarett (German for military hospital). But when Jews arrived at the Lazarett they discovered that, just as at Sobibór, it wasn’t a hospital at all but an execution area where the sick were shot and then thrown into a pit. ‘There was a white fence around it,’ says Kalman, ‘and on this fence there was a sign of the Red Cross, so people who came there didn’t know where they were going at all … such things are hard to describe.’ He remembers that the babies found in the barracks were either shot and thrown into the pit or – if bodies were already being burnt – thrown directly on to the fire. ‘How did I feel?’ says Kalman. ‘I didn’t feel anything … I became an automaton. No thoughts. I only worried about not getting beaten and sometimes I worried about having a full stomach and that’s it. I didn’t think and I didn’t feel. I saw hell if such a thing exists.’31

The new SS regime at Treblinka ensured that the camp was kept as spotless as possible. ‘The path that led to the gas chambers had to be clean and tidy,’ says Kalman. ‘Each time we had to bring new clean yellow sand and scatter it.’ During his time at the camp, he says, ‘the death machinery worked there very efficiently.’

By the end of the third week of September most of the Warsaw Jews had perished in the gas chambers of Treblinka. The German authorities now decided temporarily to halt the deportations from Warsaw after a final mass selection that allowed 35,000 Jews to remain for the moment in the ghetto – around 10 per cent of the pre-deportation ghetto population. There were also more than 25,000 other Jews left in the ghetto – those who had managed to hide themselves, often in cellars, in attics and behind walls.

The pause in the deportations from Warsaw allowed the Nazis to send Jews from other ghettos in Poland to die in Treblinka. The biggest ghetto clearance during this new phase occurred in Częstochowa, west of Lublin, where about 35,000 Jews were forced on to trains and sent to Treblinka. Jews were also sent to the death camp from many other ghettos, large and small. Samuel Willenberg, for instance, then nineteen years old, was caught in Opatów in south-east Poland and transported to Treblinka during this new phase. By now – the autumn of 1942 – rumours about the fate of the Jews were widespread, and as his train passed through a station he heard Polish children shout out, ‘Jews! You’ll be turned into soap!’32 But, like many other Jews transported to the death camps during the Holocaust, those crammed into Samuel Willenberg’s freight car found it difficult to accept that the Nazis wanted to kill them all. Many still hoped that such a place could not really exist. ‘It was hard to believe,’ says Samuel. ‘I was here [Treblinka] and still I could not believe it at first.’

Almost everyone on Samuel Willenberg’s transport died within a few hours of arriving at the camp. He survived only because of a chance encounter. One of the Jewish Sonderkommandos, already working in the camp, asked him where he was from. Samuel, who thought the man looked familiar, answered that he was from Opatów, but had also spent time in Warsaw and Częstochowa, where he had been born. ‘Częstochowa,’ echoed the prisoner, who was obviously from the same place. The prisoner asked Samuel for his name, and added cryptically, ‘Say you are a bricklayer.’

As a result of this short conversation, Samuel Willenberg escaped the gas chambers. The SS lined up the Jews who had just entered the camp and asked if there were any bricklayers among the new arrivals. Samuel immediately volunteered. He thought, correctly as it turned out, that he could acquire enough of the trade quickly enough to fool the SS. So he became a member of the Sonderkommando.

Samuel observed first hand how efficiently the SS dealt with new arrivals. He saw that when the women had their heads shaved they ‘gained hope, for if they are going to have their hair cut, it means there is going to be some life after … for hygiene is necessary in a camp’. Making the incoming Jews take off their clothes also worked to the advantage of the SS. ‘A man who takes his shoes off and then is ordered “Strip!” and is naked – that man is no longer a human being,’ says Samuel, ‘no longer a master of himself. He covers certain parts of his body, he is embarrassed. Suddenly, he has a thousand problems of which he has not been aware in his normal life, which he did not have as he was never forced to walk about naked – except perhaps as a child – among people, among friends. Suddenly everyone is naked! And the Germans, you see, took advantage of that. And on top of that, the lashing, “Quick! Schnell!” At that point one wanted to run somewhere as fast as one could, run somewhere, no matter where.’

At Treblinka, Samuel spent much of his time sorting out the belongings of the murdered Jews. ‘It looked like a Persian bazaar,’ he says, ‘open suitcases, spread-out sheets, and on each sheet lay different things. Trousers separately from shirts, from woollen things, it all had to be sorted. The gold lay separate in the bags … Each of us had a sheet spread out next to him where we put photos, documents, diplomas.’ Samuel and the rest of his commando were often supervised by Kurt Franz. He remembers Franz as ‘The worst of them [of the SS] … He was a handsome man, posing as Napoleon and demanding constant admiration. Those were his happiest days! He had a great time here. He was a bandit, a real bandit.’33

Franz took pleasure in setting his dog, a massive St Bernard called Barry, on the prisoners. He also enjoyed personally administering pain. ‘He was an expert at whipping, twenty-five or fifty lashes,’ wrote Oskar Strawczynski, another Sonderkommando. ‘He did it with pleasure, without hurrying. He had his own technique for raising the whip and striking it down.’34

Franz was a committed Nazi and had worked at Buchenwald concentration camp before the war. Like a number of other guards in the death camps, he had also spent time in the T4 euthanasia programme. He had thus been working for many years in an environment, and for an organization, that preached absolute hatred of Jews and asserted that it was legitimate to kill those the state thought ‘unworthy of life’. As a result, he almost certainly thought the people he was dominating, torturing and killing were not really ‘human’ at all. But that can’t be the whole explanation for his sadistic actions, since some other SS in the same situation did not appear to take the same pleasure in inflicting the pain that Franz did. It is a reminder that members of the SS who decided to carry on working in a death camp still had a choice about how to behave – one between becoming a sadistic murderer, or merely a cold-hearted one. Kalman Taigman’s view, having observed the SS and their Ukrainian helpers closely at Treblinka, is that ‘each person has the instincts of an animal, but since we live in a normal way we don’t show it – it doesn’t come out. But there are times when a person turns into something else and what comes out of him is what was hidden [all along].’

Only a fraction of all those sent to the death camps of Sobibór, Bełżec and Treblinka survived the war – perhaps not more than 150 people. And each of these individuals owed their survival to a large extent to good fortune. Samuel Willenberg, for instance, says, ‘It could have turned out differently in a thousand different ways. It did not matter what I said or did – I could have been burnt just as well. I would have ended up in the ash. It was all a question of luck … and maybe a bit of hot-headedness.’35 Luck was part of the reason why he survived, but it was not the whole reason. Both Samuel Willenberg and Kalman Taigman also possessed particular attributes that helped them endure their experience at Treblinka. Both were young at the time – in their late teens when they arrived at the camp – and both were strong and determined. Both were also men – far fewer women were selected for Sonderkommando work. Taigman coped in part, as we have seen, by turning himself into an ‘automaton’, while Willenberg had an extraordinary ability to look on the positive side – even in a death camp. After the war, he remarked that ‘others suffered more. It wasn’t like I was actually one of those forced to work in the gas chambers. They worked in terrible conditions. They had to drag the corpses out of the gas chambers as fast as they could.’36 So, surprising as it may seem, he drew some comfort from the fact that other Jewish workers at Treblinka were suffering even more than he was. Both he and Taigman were eventually to escape from the camp during the revolt in August 1943.

In addition to Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełżec, a fourth murder camp under the aegis of Odilo Globocnik was in operation during 1942. This place, called Majdanek, was situated just 3 miles away from Globocnik’s office in Lublin. Majdanek was an unusual camp within the system: neither a prisoner-of-war camp nor a concentration camp, nor a specialized death camp, nor a massive combination of concentration and death camp like Auschwitz, but a mixture, on a smaller scale, of all of them. Even the Nazis seemed unsure how to label the camp. Until early 1943 the place was officially the ‘Prisoner of War Camp of the Waffen SS in Lublin’, while other German documents at the same time called it a ‘concentration camp’.37

Majdanek’s evolution mirrored in many ways the development of the Nazis’ Final Solution. Like Auschwitz Birkenau, it was originally conceived as a camp for Soviet prisoners of war. Construction began in the autumn of 1941, and barracks for around 20,000 prisoners were completed by the end of the year. From the start Majdanek was a place where death was commonplace. Starving prisoners slept on the bare ground in unheated barracks through the freezing Polish winter of 1941–2. They were at risk from a range of infections, including typhoid. But by the time new arrivals came to the camp in the spring of 1942, Majdanek’s function had changed. No longer a prisoner-of-war camp, it had now become a sorting centre for the Final Solution. Several thousand Slovak Jews were sent to the camp between the end of March and the middle of June 1942. Occasionally trains transporting Jews to Sobibór would stop near by and a selection would be made, with some Jews diverted to Majdanek as forced labourers.

Gas chambers were constructed behind the shower blocks at Majdanek. No other camp had the gas chambers so close to the genuine showers used by arriving Jews who had passed the initial selection. The position of the gas chambers meant that, just as with the gassings at the crematorium in the main camp at Auschwitz, the SS had difficulty in keeping the killings secret, and – as at Auschwitz – the SS had to rev motor engines at Majdanek next to the gas chambers in order to drown out the screams of those trapped inside.38

While there were rumours about the true function of Treblinka and some of the other death camps, Majdanek remained relatively unknown. When, for example, Halina Birenbaum was sent to the camp with her mother from the Warsaw ghetto, in the second wave of deportations in the spring of 1943, she remembers that there was ‘hugging and kissing’ among the Jews when they discovered that they were not en route to Treblinka. ‘If it’s not Treblinka,’ she says, ‘and we hadn’t heard of Majdanek, then it’s a sign that we are going to a labour camp and not to our deaths. So, big celebration!’39 Halina was further reassured by her first sight of Majdanek. ‘There is a camp, and there are barracks, and we will work. Now they’ll take us to a shower and give us different clothes, and they’ll take us to these barracks and whoever is willing and can work, nothing will happen to you. The barracks you see over there, there’s probably beds and food and water and everything will be good.’

The SS directed Halina along with a group of other Jews to one of the shower blocks at the camp. As she entered the building she suddenly became anxious: ‘My mum is not coming in, and everything is turning upside down in my stomach. What? Is she not going to come? She’ll never be here again, my mother?’ Halina looked frantically around to try and find her but without success. Suddenly she realized that her mother must have been taken away, and that Majdanek, like Treblinka, was a place of murder: ‘I have no words at all. I didn’t cry. It was beyond tears. It’s all over. There is nothing any more. There is no sky. No more earth. As if they took and broke my legs and hands. So I started to go round the shower. “Mother is gone. Mother is gone. Mother is gone.” ’40

Halina was admitted to Majdanek, and after a short time she consoled herself with the knowledge that at least her mother had been spared the experience of life in the camp. When she saw how the prisoners were beaten she couldn’t bear the thought that her ‘distinguished, modest, clean’ mother would have been hurt in such a way. ‘What could be worse than Majdanek?’ she says.41

Stefania Perzanowska, a Polish doctor imprisoned in Majdanek, confirmed the brutality of the regime in the camp. ‘Above all there was beating,’ she said. ‘Beating for any reason and for no reason. Beating over the head with a bullwhip at roll call, with a fist to face, over a special stool with a piece of rubber or cane … They all beat us.’ She remembers one SS guard ‘who was capable of coming into the hospital even at two in the morning to beat us across the face because he was drunk and had to take it out on someone, right down through all the camp ranks’. But it was a female guard called Else Ehrich who ‘probably broke all the records. She beat women with a passion with frigid cruelty in her eyes. No SS woman could match her for strength or inflicting pain. She always beat us until she drew blood.’42

Another Majdanek survivor confirms how violent Else Ehrich could be towards inmates. ‘It seemed to us that she hit us with complete intentionality, short and hard,’ said Hanna Narkiewicz-Jodko, ‘and employed particularly humiliating and denigrating language. She usually kicked and hit us with her riding crop, which I saw over and over again.’43

Such testimony reminds us that it was not just men who abused prisoners in the camps, women participated in the mistreatment as well. Known as Aufseherinnen, ‘female overseers’, a number of women were used as guards in camps such as Majdanek and Auschwitz – their appearance coinciding with the arrival of female prisoners. Himmler never gave the Aufseherinnen full SS status, although they nonetheless held the power of life and death over the inmates. But women only ever made up a small percentage of the overall garrison of these particular camps – there were just twenty-eight during the period of operation of Majdanek, for instance, and fewer than 10 per cent of concentration camp guards were women across the whole Nazi system during the war.44

Though the regime was particularly brutal, Majdanek always remained small in comparison to Auschwitz. Just under 25,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Majdanek at peak capacity in the spring of 1943. And uniquely among the camps that contained gas chambers, Majdanek’s killers could murder with either bottled carbon monoxide – like the extermination chambers of the adult euthanasia scheme – or Zyklon B – like the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Why Majdanek, of all the camps, had the capacity to kill with both methods has never been determined.

For many years after the war it was only possible to calculate the death toll approximately at the camps of Majdanek, Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór. But in 2000 a decrypted German telegram was found in files held at the Public Record Office in London that revealed the Nazis’ own estimate. This telegram, dated 11 January 1943 and written by SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Hermann Höfle, one of the organizers of Operation Reinhard, recorded in detail the number killed at each of the camps up to the end of 1942: the figures were 24,733 at Majdanek, 101,370 at Sobibór, 434,508 at Bełżec and 713,55545 at Treblinka – a total of 1,274,166 human beings murdered.46

The Nazis managed to commit mass murder on this incredible scale with only a small number of SS supervising the process. Treblinka, the camp where more than half of this vast total died, required only two dozen or so SS to oversee the whole extermination operation. The contrast with the thousands and thousands of SS, Einsatzgruppen and other security forces needed to shoot Jews en masse in the Soviet Union is stark. Significantly, Majdanek, the place on Höfle’s list that killed fewest people, needed a larger SS garrison than the others, because more prisoners were kept alive for longer.

The insight the Höfle telegram offers is thus straightforward. Just a handful of SS could kill large numbers of their fellow human beings in a small area, as long as mechanized means were employed and the new arrivals were killed within hours of disembarking.

At the start of 1942 the Nazis had not known if it was possible to kill so many people so quickly. By the end of the year they had discovered the answer – it was.

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