Military history



Already some time before the Wannsee Conference, Himmler had appointed Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, to organize the systematic killing of all the Jews in the General Government. The ghettos would have to be emptied to make room for Jewish deportees from the west. Globocnik was to set up a series of camps to achieve this aim in the ‘Reinhard Action’.236 Globocnik was an Austrian Nazi. His deep antisemitism had brought him a conviction for murdering a Jew in 1933. He had been appointed Regional Leader of Vienna after the annexation, but in January 1939 he had been reduced to the ranks for speculating in foreign currency. Himmler, however, did not lose sight of him, and appointed him to his post in Lublin the following November. In 1940, Globocnik built up a small economic empire on the basis of Jewish slave labourers, and in July 1941 he commissioned the building of a huge labour camp at Majdanek. For the Reinhard Action, Globocnik recruited a large number of people from the former T-4 Action, including Christian Wirth. They continued to be paid by the headquarters of the euthanasia programme at the Chancellery of the Leader in Berlin, though they took orders from Globocnik. Nearly all of the twenty or thirty SS men employed in each of the camps Globocnik now began to establish to carry out his mission fell into this category. This set the camps apart from the normal run of SS establishments. All of the SS men were officers or NCOs. Basic manpower was provided by Ukrainian auxiliaries, many of whom had been drafted in from prisoner-of-war camps and given a brief training before being sent on to work for Globocnik.237

The three ‘Reinhard Action’ camps set up to carry out the extermination programme were all based at remote sites to the west of the river Bug, but with good railway connections to other parts of Poland and within relatively easy reach of the major ghettos. Construction of the first of these death camps, at Belzec, began on the site of an existing labour camp on 1 November 1941. It was carried out under the supervision of a former euthanasia operative, who stayed on to assist Christian Wirth on the latter’s appointment as camp commandant in December 1941. He had a railway spur built, running into the camp from the nearby station. There were houses for the SS, barracks for a small number of longer-term prisoners such as cobblers, tailors or carpenters, who would work for the SS, and quarters for the Ukrainian auxiliaries. The gas chambers were constructed of wood but were made airtight and supplied with pipes through which petroleum exhaust from cars would be pumped, killing anyone inside. Wirth chose this procedure because pure carbon monoxide canisters such as had been used in the euthanasia action were difficult to obtain in quantity, and might arouse the suspicion of incoming victims if they saw them. By February 1942 the facilities were ready. They were tried out on small groups of Jews; then the Jewish workers who had helped build them were also gassed. On 17 March 1942 the first deportees were delivered to the camp and gassed immediately on arrival. Within four weeks, 75,000 Jews had been put to death, including 30,000 of the 37,000 inhabitants of the Lublin ghetto, and more from other regions of the General Government including Zamość and Piaski.238

The murderous brutality of the round-ups and transports to Belzec was noted by Dr Zygmunt Klukowski, whose diary provides a graphic though not completely accurate account of their impact on local Jewish populations in Poland. On 8 April 1942 he learned

that every day two trains, consisting of twenty cars each, come to Belzec, one from Lublin, the other from Lvov. After being unloaded on separate tracks, all Jews are forced behind the barbed-wire enclosure. Some are killed with electricity, some with poison gases, and the bodies are burned. On the way to Belzec the Jews experience many terrible things. They are aware of what will happen to them. Some try to fight back. At the railroad station in Szczebrzeszyn a young woman gave away a gold ring in exchange for a glass of water for her dying child. In Lublin people witnessed small children being thrown through the windows of speeding trains. Many people are shot before reaching Belzec.239

11. Extermination Camps, 1941-5

Shortly afterwards, 2,500 Jews were taken from Zamość; several hundred were shot on the streets. The Jewish inhabitants of Szczebrzeszyn were in a state of complete panic, sending their children to live with Poles in Warsaw, and bribing Poles to keep them in hiding. Crowds were gathering in order to loot their homes when they were deported.240 On 8 May 1942, reported Klukowski, a German police unit arrived in Szczebrzeszyn and started shooting Jews ‘like ducks, killing them not only on the streets but also in their own houses - men, women, and children, indiscriminately’. Klukowski began to organize help for the wounded, but then he was told he was not allowed to give help to Jews, so, reluctantly, he posted people outside the hospital to turn them away. ‘I was lucky that I did so,’ he noted later: soon afterwards the police arrived at the hospital, carrying machine-guns, and went through the wards looking for Jews: had there been any, Klukowski and probably some of his staff would almost certainly have been shot. The whole massacre left him deeply upset, as he recorded in his diary:

I am saddened that I had to refuse to give any help at all. I did this only because of strict orders by the Germans. This was against my own feeling and against a physician’s duties. With my eyes I can still see the wagons filled with the dead, one Jewish woman walking along with her dead child in her arms, and many wounded lying on the sidewalks across from my hospital, where I was forbidden to give them any help.241

He was appalled by the behaviour of some Poles, who looted the houses of the victims, and even laughed as they saw them being shot. Later, too, the German police ordered the local Jewish council to pay for the ammunition used in the massacre.242

Wirth tried to design the camp at Belzec in such a way as to allay the suspicions of the Jews arriving there. They were told it was a transit centre and that they would be disinfected before receiving clean clothes and getting their valuables returned to them. The gas chambers themselves were designed to look like showers. All this followed the original pattern devised for the euthanasia gassings, though on a much larger scale. But the ruses were little more than gestures. The very brutality with which they were rounded up must have left the Jews with few illusions as to the fate in store for them. Another Austrian SS officer, Franz Stangl, described what he saw at Belzec in the spring of 1942:

I went there by car. As one arrived, one first reached Belzec railway station, on the left side of the road. The camp was on the same side, but up a hill. The commandant’s office was 200 metres away, on the other side of the road. It was a one-storey building. The smell . . . Oh God, the smell. It was everywhere. Wirth wasn’t in his office. I remember, they took me to him . . . He was standing on a hill, next to the pits . . . the pits . . . full, they were full. I can’t tell you; not hundreds, thousands, thousands of corpses . . . One of the pits had overflowed. They had put too many corpses in it and putrefaction had progressed too fast, so that the liquid underneath had pushed the bodies on top up and over and the corpses had rolled down the hill. I saw some of them . . . oh God, it was awful.243

Stangl himself was subsequently to play a central role in the Reinhard Action. Born in 1908, the son of a brutal ex-soldier, he had grown up in small-town poverty, and trained as a weaver. In 1931 he had joined the police, undergoing a tough training before being involved in pursuing and arresting members of the illegal socialist opposition during the Schuschnigg dictatorship. At some point he had become an active, secret member of the Nazi Party, and after the absorption of Austria into the Reich in 1938 he was promoted, before being transferred to work in the central administration of the ‘euthanasia’ murder programme in Berlin in 1940. Here he had got to know Christian Wirth, who summoned him to Belzec to get him acquainted with the Reinhard Action on the ground.244 Stangl thought the programme was operating with lamentable inefficiency. The gas chambers at Belzec were crude constructions. They were constantly breaking down, leaving deportees waiting for days without food or water; many died. Eventually this was too much even for Wirth. In June 1942, he temporarily halted the transports and dismantled the wooden gas chambers, replacing them with a concrete construction containing six gas chambers with a total capacity at any one time of 2,000 people. They came into operation in mid-July; transports continued arriving until mid-December. By the end of 1942 some 414,000 Jews from occupied Poland had been killed in the camp, and more from other parts of Central Europe who had been taken to the ghettos in the Lublin district; the total may have been as high as 600,000.245

The second of the Reinhard Action camps was constructed near the village of Sobibor, where up to this point there was nothing but a small labour camp for Jewish women. Construction began in March 1942, but fell behind schedule, so Wirth appointed Franz Stangl camp commandant with the initial brief of finishing the building on time. By the middle of May 1942 the gas chambers were ready. They were housed in a brick building and could each hold 100 people, who were killed by engine exhaust fumes piped in from outside. The camp was built in imitation of Belzec, with administration and reception areas near the railway spur and the extermination area some distance away, out of sight and reached through a narrow passage 150 metres long known as the ‘tube’. Behind the gas chamber building were burial pits. A narrow-gauge tramway went from the railway to the pits with the bodies of people who had died on the journey. The usual gestures were made to reassure the arriving victims, but, as in Belzec, they were often ineffective, since the SS and particularly the Ukrainian guards shouted at the victims and beat them as they ran through the ‘tube’. Some SS men trained a dog to bite the naked Jews, increasing their panic. Stangl ran the camp efficiently according to his lights, and it was not overwhelmed by vast numbers of transports as Belzec had been. Nevertheless, within the first three months of the camp’s operation, nearly 100,000 Jews from Lublin, Austria, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the Old Reich had been killed there.246

Work on the main railway line brought the transports to a temporary halt in the summer of 1942. At the same time, the hot weather caused the tightly packed layers of bodies buried in the pits behind the extermination area to swell up and rise above the ground, as had been the case in Belzec, causing a terrible stench and attracting large numbers of rats and other scavenging animals. The SS men also began to notice a rancid taste in the water. The camp water supply was taken from wells and they were clearly becoming contaminated. So the camp administration constructed a large pit which they filled with wood and ignited; a mechanical excavator was brought in to dig up the corpses, which were placed on grilles above the pit and cremated by a Jewish Special Detachment whose members were afterwards put to death themselves. Meanwhile, the transports resumed in October 1942 and continued until the beginning of May 1943. One transport of 5,000 arrived from Majdanek, with prisoners in striped uniforms already weakened by hunger and maltreatment. On this occasion, the gas chambers had broken down, so the prisoners were kept in the open through the night. 200 of them died from exhaustion or from beatings and shootings administered by the SS during the hours of darkness. The remainder were herded into the gas chambers the next day. Another transport arrived in June 1943 with the prisoners already naked because the SS in Lvov thought this would make it more difficult for them to escape: the journey had been a long one, and twenty-five out of the fifty freight cars contained nothing but corpses. They had died of hunger and thirst, and as an eyewitness later recalled, some of them had been dead for as long as a fortnight by the time they arrived.247

Jews still had some personal effects with them. These, along with their clothing and the contents of their suitcases, were taken from them. Valuables were impounded by the camp authorities. Many of them found their way into the pockets of individual SS men and their auxiliaries. The most valuable jewellery was sent together with the gold extracted from the tooth fillings of the dead to a central sorting office in Berlin, where the precious metals were melted down into bars for the Reichsbank and the jewellery exchanged in occupied or neutral countries for industrial diamonds needed for German arms factories.248 From August 1942 the collection and delivery of these objects was organized by Pohl’s Economy and Administration Head Office. The confiscation of the furniture and other effects the Jews had left behind, including clothing, crockery, carpets and much else besides, was carried out by Rosenberg’s office and the confiscated items auctioned off in Germany. 249 A report to Pohl’s office estimated the total value of Jewish possessions confiscated in the Reinhard Action up to 15 December 1943 at not far short of 180 million Reichsmarks.250

By this time, almost 250,000 victims had been killed at Sobibor. When Himmler visited the camp early in 1943, the operation was already winding down. Although no new regular transports were scheduled to arrive, the camp administration arranged a special transport from a labour camp in the district in order for him to observe a gassing in action. Pleased with what he saw, he gave promotions to twenty-eight SS and police officers including Wirth, Stangl and other senior functionaries. He also ordered preparations to be made for the closure of the camps and the removal of all traces of their activity once the final batches of victims had been killed. Sobibor was to be transformed into a storage depot for ammunition captured from the Red Army. Jewish labourers were put to work constructing the new facilities. In the meantime the cremation of the victims’ corpses continued apace. It became clear to the Jewish construction workers, many of them battle-hardened Soviet prisoners of war who arrived on 23 September 1943 and formed a cohesive, well-disciplined group, that they were doomed. They began to organize an escape. On 14 October 1943 they managed to entice most of the camp’s SS personnel and a number of the Ukrainian auxiliaries into the camp workshops on a variety of pretexts and kill them with daggers and axes without attracting the attention of the guards on the watch-towers. The resisters cut the camp’s telephone wires and electicity supply. As they made a break for the main gate, the Ukrainian guards opened fire with automatic weapons, killing many; others broke out through the perimeter fence. Some were killed in the minefield outside the fence but more than 300 out of a total of 600 inmates succeeded in breaking out of the camp (all those who did not succeed were shot the following day). 100 of the escapees were caught and killed almost immediately as the SS and police mobilized a large search operation including spotter planes. But the rest eluded capture, and a number of them eventually found their way to partisan units. Shortly afterwards, a fresh detachment of Jewish prisoners arrived to dismantle the camp. The buildings were razed, trees planted, a farm constructed, and when the work was completed, the Jews were forced to lie down on the roasting grilles and were shot one by one. After December 1943 there was no one left at the camp, and all obvious traces of it had disappeared.251


The third of the Reinhard Action camps was located at Treblinka, north-east of Warsaw, in a remote wooded area at the end of a single-track branch line running to an old quarry from the railway station at Malkinia, a station on the main railway line from Warsaw to Bialystok. In the spring of 1941 the German occupiers opened a labour camp near the quarry, to excavate materials for use in fortifications on the Soviet- German border in Poland. A year later, the SS selected it as the site of a new death camp. Construction began at the beginning of June 1942, overseen by Richard Thomalla, the SS officer who had built Sobibor. By the time it was begun, the death camps at Belzec and Sobibor were already in operation, so Thomalla tried to improve on them. Jewish workers were brought in to build the new camp; many of them were randomly shot by the SS as they worked, or made to stand in the line of trees as they were felled to clear the ground, so progress was often interrupted. They built a railway spur and station, from which arriving Jews were taken to an undressing room near the ‘ghetto’ where the longer-term prisoners lived. Once they got there, the naked Jews were quickly herded through a narrow fenced-in alleyway (called by the SS the ‘Road to Heaven’) to a large, carefully concealed brick building in the upper camp. This housed three gas chambers, into which the victims were driven with shouts and curses, to be killed by fumes pumped in from diesel engines through a system of pipes. Behind the building was a set of ditches, each 50 metres long, 25 metres wide and 10 metres deep, dug out by a mechanical excavator. Special Detachments of prisoners pushed the bodies in small wagons from the processing area along a narrow-gauge railway and dumped them in the ditches, which were earthed over when they were full.252

As in Sobibor, arriving Jews were told they had come to a transit camp and that they would receive clean clothes and their safeguarded valuables after going through a disinfection shower. Initially, around 5,000 Jews or more arrived each day, but in mid-August 1942 the tempo of killing increased, and by the end of August 1942, 312,000 Jews, not only from Warsaw but also from Radom and Lublin, had been gassed at Treblinka. Less than two months had passed since the first gassings in the camp on 23 July 1942. The first commandant of the camp, Irmfried Eberl, an Austrian doctor who had worked on the ‘euthanasia’ action, had declared his ambition of exceeding the number of killings in any other camp. The transport trains were unventilated and, without water or sanitation, thousands died en route in the hot weather. The pressure of numbers was such that all pretence was abandoned. Oskar Berger, who arrived on a transport on 22 August 1942, noted ‘hundreds of bodies lying all around’ on the platform, ‘piles of bundles, clothes, suitcases, everything mixed together. SS soldiers, Germans and Ukrainians were standing on the roofs of barracks and firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Men, women and children fell bleeding. The air was filled with screaming and weeping.’ The survivors were driven up to the gas chambers by SS men who beat them with whips and iron bars. In case their screams were heard by those waiting below, the SS set up a small orchestra playing Central European hit songs, to drown out the noise. So many victims arrived that the gas chambers were unable to cope, and, as in the case of the transport that arrived on 22 August 1942, the SS guards shot large numbers of the Jews in the reception area instead. Even this did not work, and newly arrived trains were left standing for hours, even days, in the summer heat. Many of those inside died of thirst, heatstroke or asphyxiation. The gas chambers frequently broke down, sometimes when the victims were already inside, where they would be forced to wait for hours until repairs were completed. The ditches were rapidly filled, and new ones could not be excavated quickly enough, so that soon there were unburied bodies everywhere.253

Eberl and his staff confiscated large quantities of the Jews’ possessions for themselves, and gold and money were said to be lying around on the sorting yard in great heaps along with huge piles of clothes and suitcases, which were accumulating far too rapidly to be processed. Ukrainian guards, lacking proper accommodation, had set up tents around the camp, where they partied with local prostitutes. Eberl was reported to have made a Jewish girl undress and dance naked in front of him; she was later shot. Reports of the chaos reached Globocnik and Wirth, who paid a surprise inspection visit and dismissed Eberl on the spot. Wirth had been appointed as general inspector of the three death camps in August 1942, with the brief of streamlining the killing operations. He transferred the command to Franz Stangl, the commandant of Sobibor, at the beginning of September. On his arrival, Stangl established what he thought of as an orderly regime. Neatly dressed, in a smart white jacket, dark trousers and jackboots, he habitually carried a riding-crop, though he did not use it, or take part in any violence personally. He built a fake railway station, complete with timetables, ticket booths and a station clock, though the hands were painted on and never moved. He established gardens, built new barracks and set up new kitchens, all to deceive the arriving victims into thinking they were at a transit camp. Standing, as he regularly did, on a vantage point between the lower and upper camps, he would watch the naked prisoners being driven brutally up the ‘Road to Heaven’, thinking of them, as he confessed later, as ‘cargo’ rather than as human beings. Every so often, Stangl would go home on leave to visit his wife and family. He never told her what his job was, and she thought he was engaged only on construction work.254

At the camp, scenes of sadism and violence continued. Jewish work details were constantly beaten, and when their term of duty came to an end, they were shot in front of their replacements. Ukrainian auxiliaries would commonly seize and rape young Jewish women, and one, Ivan Demjanjuk, who supervised Jews going into the gas chambers and worked the diesel motor outside, was reported to have sliced off the ears and noses of elderly Jews as they went in.255 In September 1942, one prisoner, Meir Berliner, who was in fact an Argentinian citizen, knifed an SS officer to death at a roll-call. Wirth was called in; he had 160 men executed randomly as a reprisal, and stopped all the work prisoners’ food and water for three days. The incident did not interrupt the flow of victims to the gas chambers. The number of transports fluctuated during the early months of 1943, but by the end of July 1943, the small number of work details kept alive in the camp were becoming conscious that the amount of work to do was declining. Already in the spring of 1942, Himmler had decided that the bodies buried at the extermination camps should be dug up and burned so as to destroy the evidence of the murders. Globocnik resisted the implementation of this policy, except where it was obviously necessary for other reasons, as at Sobibor. Instead of digging up the bodies, he is said to have remarked, they should ‘bury bronze tablets stating that it was we who had the courage to carry out this gigantic task’.256

In December 1942, however, the cremations began at Chelmno and Belzec, to be followed in April 1943 by Treblinka. Himmler took the decision to close the camps down, since the vast majority of the Jewish inhabitants of the Polish ghettos had now been killed. By late July 1943, after four months, the task of digging up and incinerating some 700,000 corpses that had been crudely buried in mass pits was almost complete. Fewer and fewer transports were arriving at Treblinka. The workers themselves realized that they were next in line for the gas chambers. Clandestine resistance groups were set up in both parts of the camp, and though the plan formed to co-ordinate their actions did not work out in the end, they managed on 2 August 1943 to set part of the camp on fire, acquire weapons and enable almost half of the 850 camp inmates to break through the perimeter fencing and escape. Looking out of his window, Stangl suddenly saw Jews beyond the inner perimeter fence, shooting. The phone wires had not been cut, so Stangl called in reinforcements from outside. The Jewish fighters had not managed to secure many weapons or collect much ammunition, and 350 to 400 were killed by the better-armed SS guards as they returned fire. Only half a dozen guards were shot. Of the men who escaped, half were recaptured shortly afterwards, and perhaps 100 disappeared into the nearby woods; how many of them survived is not known. Almost the only building left intact after the fire was the solid brick house containing the gas chambers.257

Stangl initially intended to rebuild the camp, but three weeks later, he was summoned by Globocnik, who told him that the camp was to be closed down immediately and he was to be transferred to Trieste to organize the suppression of partisans. Back at the camp, Stangl packed his bags, then called together all the remaining Jewish labourers ‘because’, he said later without the slightest trace of irony, ‘I wanted to say goodbye to them. I shook hands with some of them.’258 After he left, they were killed. Meanwhile, the uprisings at Sobibor and Treblinka had strengthened Himmler’s belief that Jews anywhere were a security risk. The numbers of inmates in the two camps were small, but there were some 45,000 Jews, including women and children, in three labour camps in the Lublin area run by Reinhard Action staff, especially at Travniki and Poniatowa, and a large number of Jews at the Majdanek concentration camp as well. Himmler decided they should all be killed immediately. In a carefully planned, military-style operation codenamed ‘Operation Harvest Festival’, thousands of police, SS and Military SS men surrounded the camps, where the men had already been made to dig trenches on the pretext that they were building defensive fortifications. When the German forces arrived, they made all the inmates undress and go to the trenches, where they were all shot. A clandestine Jewish resistance group at Poniatowa seized a barrack building and opened fire on the SS, but the Germans set the barracks on fire and burned all the Jews inside alive. At Majdanek, all the Jewish inmates were selected and, together with many more Jews brought in from the smaller labour camps in the Lublin district, were made to undress, driven to previously prepared trenches and shot. As the trenches filled up, the newly arriving naked victims were made to lie on top of the dead bodies before they were shot themselves. Beginning around six in the morning, the killings continued until five in the afternoon. Some 18,000 Jews were murdered in the camp on this single day. At Travniki and Majdanek, camp loudspeakers broadcast dance music at full volume throughout the action, to drown out the sound of the shooting and the cries of the victims. All in all, ‘Operation Harvest Festival’ killed a total of 42,000.259

Little or no trace of the Reinhard Action camps remains today. Following the uprising, the remaining buildings at Treblinka were demolished, the land was grassed over and planted with flowers and trees, and the bricks from the gas chambers were used to build a small farm, designed to be lived in by a Ukrainian who promised to tell visitors that he had been there for decades.260 But local Polish people knew what had been there, and in the summer of 1944 rumours spread that Jews had been buried there without having had their gold teeth removed, and that their clothing, full of jewellery and valuables, had been buried with them. For many months, large numbers of peasants and farm workers scoured the area, looking for buried treasure. When a member of the Polish state war crimes commission visited the site of Treblinka on 7 November 1945 she found ‘masses of all kinds of pilferers and robbers with spades and shovels in their hands . . . digging and searching and raking and straining the sand. They removed decaying limbs from the dust [and] bones and garbage that were thrown there.’ The macabre treasure-hunt ended only when the Polish government set up official memorials on the camp sites and posted guards around them.261

According to a report sent to Eichmann on 11 January 1943 and intercepted by British monitoring services, the number of Jews killed in the Reinhard Action camps by the end of the previous year totalled nearly one and a quarter million.262 A more complete list of all Jews ‘evacuated’ or ‘sluiced through the camps’ in the east was provided on Himmler’s orders by his ‘Inspector for Statistics’, Richard Korherr, on 23 March 1943; it put their number at 1,873,539, though this included killings outside the Reinhard camps as well. A shorter version of the report, updated to 31 March 1943 and prepared in the large type used for documents intended to be read by the short-sighted Hitler, was presented to the German Leader on the eve of his fifty-fourth birthday, on 19 April 1943.263Modern estimates put the total number killed at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka at around 1,700,000.264


The conquest of Poland and the victory over France, with the re-annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, had led to the creation of new concentration camps in the incorporated territories at Stutthof, near Danzig in September 1939 (locally run until January 1942), Natzweiler in Alsace in June 1940, and Gross-Rosen in Silesia in August 1940 (initially as a sub-camp of Sachsenhausen). Another camp was set up in April 1940 in an old collection centre for migrant labourers near the town of Oswiecim, known in German as Auschwitz, now part of the German Reich. It was built to house Polish political prisoners. On 4 May 1940 the former Free Corps fighter and camp officer in Dachau and Sachsenhausen, Rudolf Ḧss, was appointed as commandant. In his memoirs Ḧss complained about the poor quality of the staff he was given, and the lack of supplies and building materials. Not without a touch of pride, he recorded that when he was unable to obtain enough barbed wire to seal the camp off, he pilfered it from other sites; he got steel from old field fortifications; and he had to ‘organize’ the trucks and lorries he needed. He had to drive 90 kilometres to acquire cooking-pots for the kitchen. In the meantime prisoners had started to turn up; on 14 June 1940 the first batch arrived to be sorted, to serve a period of quarantine, and then to be sent on to other camps. Most of them were drafted into construction work while they were in Auschwitz. But Auschwitz soon became a permanent centre for the Polish political prisoners, of whom there were to be up to 10,000 in the camp. Over the entrance, Ḧss placed a wrought-iron archway with the words Arbeit macht frei, ‘work liberates’, a slogan he had learned in Dachau.265

In November 1940, Himmler told the commandant that ‘Auschwitz was to become the agricultural research station for the eastern territories . . . Huge laboratories and plant nurseries were to be set out. All kinds of stock-breeding were to be pursued there.’266The camp grew still further after Barbarossa. On 26 September 1941 Himmler ordered the building of a vast new camp at Birkenau (Brzezinka), 2 kilometres from the main Auschwitz camp, to house Soviet prisoners of war and use them for labour projects: up to 200,000 were to be imprisoned there according to his plans, though these were never fully realized. 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived in October 1941. Ḧss put them in a separate compound in the main camp, and tried to use them to build the new camp at nearby Birkenau, but he found them too weak and malnourished to be of any use. ‘They died like flies,’ he later noted, especially in the winter. There were many cases of cannibalism. ‘I myself,’ he recalled, ‘came across a Russian lying beween piles of bricks, whose body had been ripped open and the liver removed. They would beat each other to death for food . . . They were no longer human beings. They had become animals, who sought only food.’ It evidently did not occur to Ḧss to give it to them. Of the 10,000, only a few hundred were left alive by the following spring.267

The new camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of a pair, paralleled by the construction of another labour centre for Soviet prisoners in the eastern part of the city of Lublin. This was unofficially known as the Majdanek camp. But the project did not go well, and the camp only ever reached a fifth of its projected extent (even more grandiose plans for it to hold a quarter of a million inmates were quickly abandoned). Instead of the planned 50,000 Soviet prisoners, only 2,000 arrived to construct the camp. As it developed, Majdanek took on a variety of functions, holding not only prisoners of war but also members of the Polish resistance, hostages, deportees, and later on sick prisoners transported from other camps to be killed there. It contained a wide variety of workshops and small factories but the camp management never managed to integrate them into German war production, and the employment of Jews was treated mainly as a means of killing them by forcing them to work long hours at exhausting tasks. When Himmler decided to quicken the pace of the extermination of the Jews in July 1942, some seven gas chambers were constructed at Majdanek, of which at least three were in use by September 1942. Some 50,000 Jews were put to death in these gas chambers by exhaust fumes over the following months. In addition, following the revolt at Sobibor, 18,000 Jews were shot in the camp as part of the ‘Harvest Festival’ operation. Altogether 180,000 people were eventually to be killed at Majdanek; up to 120,000 of these were Jews, not only from the Lublin district but also from further afield, including Western Europe. That Majdanek did not become larger was in part at least the consequence of its continual maladministration. The camp administration soon became widely known for its corruption and brutality. Two of its commandants, Karl Otto Koch and Hermann Florstedt, not only stole on a massive scale but also completely neglected their administrative duties, preferring to enforce their commands by naked terror. They eventually went too far even for the Reich Security Head Office, and were arrested and executed. Their successor, Max Koegel, had convictions for peculation and deception dating from the 1920s and was not much better. Many of the guards were Croatians and Romanians, who were difficult to control. Their cruelty towards the Jewish inmates was notorious. As an unstable, badly run and inefficient camp, Majdanek never achieved its originally intended potential as a multifunctional centre of labour and extermination. That achievement, if achievement it was, belonged to Auschwitz.268

Auschwitz was destined, indeed, to become the largest mass killing centre in the history of the world, larger even than the killing centres at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Summoning Ḧss to see him, according to the latter’s subsequent recollection, some time in the summer of 1941, but most probably several months later, at the very end of the year or the beginning of 1942, Himmler informed the camp commandant that, since the existing extermination facilities in the east were not extensive enough to carry out the final solution of the Jewish question, he was designating Auschwitz as an additional centre, most notably because of its combination of good communications and relative remoteness from major centres of population. Shortly after this, Eichmann arrived at the camp and discussed the plans in more detail. Whereas the Reinhard Action camps had been set up to kill the Jews of Poland, the eventual function of Auschwitz was to kill the Jews brought from the rest of occupied Europe, including not only neighbouring parts of the former Poland but also, once these Jews had been killed, from Germany, the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and western countries like France, Belgium and Holland. From the outset, the methods used in Auschwitz differed from those employed in the other camps. Initially, this was a matter of a chance discovery; but soon it became systematic.269

In July 1941 a team of prisoners and their SS guards was disinfecting some clothes and bedding with the chemical pesticide known as Zyklon-B, the main constituent of which was sulphuric acid, when they noticed that a cat that strayed into the room was rapidly killed by the gas. One of the guards speculated that the chemical might be useful for killing people too. The idea, which had been briefly considered by the T-4 team in 1939 but rejected as impractical, was taken up by the camp management. Early in September 1941 it was tried out on some 600 Soviet prisoners of war who had been classified by a Gestapo commission the previous month as ‘fanatical Communists’, along with 250 sick inmates of the camp. They were taken into a cellar in Block 11, in the main camp, and gassed. The experiment was then repeated later the same month with 900 healthy Red Army prisoners in the camp morgue.270 Ḧss later remembered observing the gassing. The men were herded into the room, the doors were sealed, then powdered Zyklon-B was shaken down through holes in the roof. The warmth generated by the bodies packed into the chamber below quickly turned it into a deadly gas. ‘For a little while,’ he recalled, ‘a humming sound could be heard. When the powder was thrown in, there were cries of “Gas!”, then a great bellowing, and the trapped prisoners hurled themselves against both the doors. But the doors held.’ All the prisoners died.271 On Eichmann’s next visit to the camp, it was agreed to use the gas in a systematic way. But the camp morgue was so close to the main administration building that when the Soviet prisoners were killed, their screams in the gas chamber could be heard by the personnel. So Ḧss decided that the killings would have to be carried out away from the main camp, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Soon there were two provisional gas chambers ready for operation there, in buildings known as Bunker I and Bunker II, or the ‘red house’ and the ‘white house’. They killed their first victims on 20 March 1942.272

On arriving at the camp, the surviving deportees were roughly bundled out of the trains by SS guards and auxiliaries with dogs and whips, yelling at them: ‘Out! Out! Fast! Fast!’ They were made to line up - in the early months by an open field 2.5 kilometres from the camp, at the end of a goods siding, and in the later stages of the camp’s existence, on the infamous ‘ramp’ leading from the railway siding to the camp - and undergo a ‘selection’. ‘The process of selection,’ Ḧss later remembered without a trace of self-consciousness, ‘. . . was in itself rich in incident.’273 Selections were carried out by SS doctors, who asked the arrivals a few questions and gave them a cursory medical examination. Those under the age of sixteen, mothers with children, the sick, the old and the weak were moved to the left, loaded on to lorries and taken straight to the gas chambers, after being told they were to be ‘disinfected’ there. Families, recalled Ḧss, tried to stick together, and rushed back from one line to rejoin one another. ‘It was often necessary to use force to restore order.’ Able-bodied men and women were taken to the camp, tattooed with a serial number on the left arm, and registered. In many transports they were in a minority. In the main camp and the labour camps, periodic ‘selections’ were carried out, to eliminate those deemed no longer fit to work. Unlike many of the new arrivals, these victims knew what lay in store for many of them; terrible scenes often followed, as they wept, begged for mercy, or tried to resist attempts to push them into the gas chamber. 274

Those selected for killing were marched over to the gas chamber from the selection area. The two bunkers had a capacity of 800 and 1,200 people respectively. Over the course of 1942-3, the gassing facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau were extended and refined. A purpose-designed gas chamber already ordered for the main camp in October 1941 was delivered to Birkenau instead, and three more crematoria were also built. All four were redesignated Crematoria I, II, III and IV when the two gas chambers in the main camp were closed down in July 1943 (one was destroyed, the other mothballed). More were planned but never built. All the new crematoria were located some distance from the prisoners’ barracks. They were disguised by trees and shrubs. Two of them were known by the SS as the ‘forest crematoria’. The new gas chambers were completed between March and June 1943. Small transports of fewer than 200 people were taken into a washroom in Crematorium II or III after ‘selection’ and shot in the back of the neck. Larger groups were gassed. In each facility, the gas chamber was mostly below surface level, disguised in the usual fashion as a shower and sealed by an airtight door with a peephole. The Jews selected for killing were taken to a disrobing room, told they would go into a disinfecting shower, and made to undress. ‘It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm,’ Ḧss wrote later. Members of the Special Detachments of Jewish prisoners detailed to deal with the bodies after the gassing chatted to the victims and did their best to reassure them. Those who were reluctant to undress were ‘helped’, and the refractory were ‘calmed down’, or, if they began to shout and scream, taken out and shot in the back of the neck. Many were not deceived. Mothers sometimes tried to hide their babies in the piles of clothes. Children often cried, but most ‘entered the gas chambers, playing or joking with one another and carrying their toys’, Ḧss noted. Occasionally Jews would address him as he stood supervising the procedure. ‘One woman approached me as she walked past,’ he recalled later, ‘and, pointing to her four children who were manfully helping the smallest ones over the rough ground, whispered: “How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful, darling children? Have you no heart at all?” ’275

Once the victims had been herded into the gas chamber, SS men standing on the reinforced concrete roof lowered canisters of Zyklon-B pellets through four openings into wire-mesh columns, which allowed the pellets to dissolve into deadly gas as soon as the body-heat of the victims had warmed up the air. After twenty minutes or so, the canisters were pulled up again, to remove the possibility of any more gas escaping, while the chamber was ventilated and a Special Detachment of Jewish prisoners dragged the corpses out into another room, pulled out gold teeth and fillings, cut the women’s hair off, removed gold rings, spectacles, prosthetic limbs and other encumbrances, and put the bodies into elevators that took them up to the crematorium room on the ground floor, where they were put into the incinerating ovens and reduced to ashes. Any remaining bones were ground up and the ashes used as fertilizer or thrown away in nearby woods and streams. These facilities, designed and supplied by the firm Topf and Sons of Erfurt, were patented for future use by their inventor, the engineer Kurt Pr̈fer, who came to Auschwitz on numerous occasions to supervise their construction, testing and initial operation. He introduced numerous small technical innovations, including, for example, the installation of heating in Crematorium II to speed up the dissolution of the Zyklon B on cold winter days. His plans have survived and have provided historians with important documentary evidence for the Crematorium’s modus operandi.276 Yet Pr̈fer’s designs did not withstand the test of constant use. Very soon, the numbers of corpses proved too great for the crematorium ovens to deal with. The brickwork began to crack, and the ovens were damaged by overheating. Before the construction of the new facilities, most corpses had been buried in the ground, but from September 1942 onwards the SS, under the command of Paul Blobel, who was in charge of similar operations at other camps, began to have them dug up by the Special Detachments of prisoners and burned on metal grilles laid over ditches, in the manner followed in the Reinhard Action camps shortly afterwards. By the end of the year, he had disposed of 100,000 bodies in this way, in an attempt to conceal the traces of the murder from posterity. This method also had to be used whenever the crematorium ovens proved unable to cope with the numbers of corpses arriving.277

In Auschwitz, as in the Reinhardt Action camps, the Special Detachments were killed at regular intervals and replaced by other young, able-bodied prisoners. Some of these, including former members of the French resistance and the Polish Communist underground, formed a clandestine prisoners’ organization that managed to make contact with a larger secret resistance movement among the regular prisoners some time during the late summer of 1943. A rebellion aimed at opening the way for a mass breakout was frustrated by the drafting-in of SS reinforcements. However, in 1944, after the SS camp guards had killed 200 members of the Special Detachments following an unsuccessful escape attempt, a further 300 who were selected for gassing on 7 October 1944 attacked the SS men as they approached Crematorium IV, using whatever they could lay their hands on, including stones and iron bars. They set the building alight and destroyed it. The smoke alerted other members of the camp resistance, and some managed to break through the barbed wire surrounding Crematorium II, though none succeeded in reaching freedom; they were all killed, including a group who had sought shelter in a barn and were burned alive by the SS. Meanwhile, the SS had set up machine-gun positions in the camp and started firing indiscriminately; altogether some 425 Special Detachment prisoners were murdered over the next three days.278


The first transports to arrive at Auschwitz, in March 1942, were from Slovakia and from France. Initially they were registered and admitted, in the belief that they might be used for labour purposes; but before long, in May 1942, systematic extermination began, killing not only the French and Slovakian Jews but also other Jews from Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was a transport from Holland that Himmler watched being selected and murdered during his visit on 17 and 18 July 1942. ‘He had no criticisms to make,’ recorded Ḧss; indeed, the visit ended with the Reich Leader of the SS awarding the camp commandant a promotion. At an evening reception, Ḧss noted that Himmler ‘was in the best of spirits, took a leading part in the conversation and was extremely amiable, especially towards the ladies’. The next day Himmler went to the women’s camp, ‘attended the whipping of a female criminal’ and ‘talked with some female Jehovah’s Witnesses and discussed with them their fanatical beliefs’. In his final address before departing, Himmler ordered an intensification of the killing and urged Ḧss to complete the construction of the new camp at Birkenau as quickly as possible.279 From July onwards, German Jews began to arrive, first from Vienna and then, in November and December, from Berlin. Trains began to deliver Jews from Romania, Croatia, Finland, Norway, then Bulgaria, Italy and Hungary, Serbia, Denmark, Greece and southern France.280

Most of the Jews were transported directly to Auschwitz from their country of origin, but some came from a special camp set up in the northern Czech town of Terezin, known to the Germans as Theresienstadt, where the central prison of the Gestapo in the Protectorate had been established. Work began on this new camp in November 1941, and the first 10,000 Jews arrived at the beginning of January 1942. Its initial purpose was to act as a collection centre for Czech Jews, and it was organized on the lines of a ghetto, with a Jewish Council led by an Elder, the Zionist Jakob Edelstein, who was well known to Adolf Eichmann as a leading figure among Czech Jews. Under Edelstein’s leadership, the camp developed a wide range of cultural and sporting activities, established a welfare system, and received sufficient money from the German authorities to function as a kind of model ghetto, to be filmed for international newsreels and displayed to visiting delegations of organizations like the Red Cross. One movie completed towards the end of November 1944 showed parks, swimming pools, sporting activities, schools, concerts and happy faces everywhere. Entitled The Leader Gives the Jews a Camp, it was never actually shown. Its director was the German-Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, who had achieved fame towards the end of the Weimar Republic by singing the part of Mack the Knife in the first recording of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera and starring with Emil Jannings opposite Marlene Dietrich in the film The Blue Angel. In 1933 he had fled first to Paris and then to Holland, where he continued making films; but following the Nazi invasion he was interned along with other Jews and sent to Theresienstadt. Gerron organized a cabaret show in the camp, entitled The Carousel, an enterprise so successful that he seemed a natural choice to direct the film, which he did under duress. After it was completed, Gerron was taken to Auschwitz on the last transport to leave the camp, on 18 October 1944, and gassed.281

The portrayal of the ghetto-camp’s active cultural life, unlike other aspects of the movie, did not lie. On the same transport as Gerron in October 1944 was the Czech-Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann, a follower of Arnold Schoenberg, who had been taken to Theresienstadt two years previously. Among other things Ullmann composed an opera, The Emperor of Atlantis, that was performed successfully in the camp, along with chamber music and piano works. Later on, Ullmann was reduced to writing his compositions on the back of lists of inmates slated for deportation to Auschwitz. Friends somehow managed to preserve many of them until the war was over. Jewish artists in the camp gave drawing and painting lessons to the children among the inmates; many of their drawings too have survived. Despite such cultural activities, conditions in the camp were generally poor and deteriorated as time went on. From July 1942, trainloads of elderly Jews from the Reich began to arrive in the camp. Many were weak, exhausted or sick, and they died in their hundreds. In September 1942 alone, 3,900 people died out of a total of 58,000. The inmates of Theresienstadt also included Jewish veterans from the First World War with their families, and Jewish spouses from ‘mixed marriages’ that had been dissolved. On 8 September 1943, no fewer than 18,000 inmates were taken to Auschwitz. They were allowed to keep their clothes and effects. They were housed there in a specially designed ‘family camp’ with a school and a kindergarten, living in relatively superior accommodation which they were allowed to decorate. The purpose of the ‘family camp’ was to impress visitors and provide material for international propaganda. After six months it was closed down; in two separate actions in March and July 1944, the inmates were almost all taken to the gas chamber, except for 3,000 who were transferred to another camp.282 Then in October 1944 twelve transports alone left Theresienstadt for Auschwitz, leaving a population of just over 11,000 where there had been nearly 30,000 in mid-September. Within a few weeks, however, the numbers had risen to 30,000 again with a fresh influx of deportees from Slovakia, the Czech lands and the Reich, many of them ‘mixed-race’. In February 1945 the camp authorities built a huge hall that could be hermetically sealed, and an enormous covered pit. The remaining inmates could all be exterminated on the spot if it was felt desirable or necessary. In the event this did not happen. Nevertheless, out of just over 140,000 people who had been transported to Theresienstadt in the course of its existence, fewer than 17,000 were left alive by the end of the war.283

If Theresienstadt was a model ghetto, then Auschwitz in many ways was a model German town in the newly conquered east. By March 1941 there were 700 SS guards working in the camp, a number that had grown to more than 2,000 by June 1942; in all, over the period of the camp’s existence, some 7,000 SS men worked there at one time or another. The SS and their families, if they had them, lived in the town, along with secretaries and administrators; there were concert parties, theatrical performances by visiting companies like the Dresden State Theatre, a pub (with an upstairs flat for Himmler, which in fact he never used) and a medical centre. The SS men were supplied with plenty to eat, and were allowed regular periods of leave. If they were unmarried, they could receive visits from their girl-friends, or, if they were married and their families lived elsewhere in the Reich, from their wives, usually during the warmer weather in summer. New houses were built for the camp staff, and nearby there was the gigantic I. G. Farben chemical plant at Monowitz, which made Auschwitz into a major economic centre and employed German managers, scientists, administrators and secretaries. The creation in a single complex of a residential area, a factory, a labour camp and an extermination centre looked forward to the kind of urban community that might have been founded in other parts of the German east, at least until the General Plan for the East was carried out completely. The only cause for complaint on the part of the town’s inhabitants was the unpleasant smell that wafted across to the town and the SS living quarters from the camp crematoria.284

Over the whole period of the camp’s existence, at least 1.1 million and possibly as many as 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz; 90 per cent of them, probably about 960,000, were Jews, amounting to between a fifth and a quarter of all Jews killed in the war. They included 300,000 Jews from Poland, 69,000 from France, 60,000 from Holland, 55,000 from Greece, 46,000 from Czechoslovakia (the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), 27,000 from Slovakia, 25,000 from Belgium, 23,000 from Germany (the ‘Old Reich’), 10,000 from Croatia, 6,000 from Italy, the same number from Belarus, 1,600 from Austria and 700 from Norway. At a late stage in the war, as we shall see, some 394,000 Hungarian Jews were taken to the gas chambers and put to death. More than 70,000 non-Jewish Poles were killed, 21,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 people of a whole variety of nationalities, mainly East Europeans. The minority who were ‘selected’ for work on arrival were registered, and a number tattooed on their forearm. There were about 400,000 of these, and about half of them were Jewish. At least half of the registered prisoners died from malnutrition, disease, exhaustion or hypothermia.285

Rudolf Ḧss later confessed he had found his duties as commandant of the biggest murder factory in the history of the world difficult to carry out with equanimity.

I had to see everything. I had to watch hour after hour, by day and by night, the removal and burning of the bodies, the extraction of the teeth, the cutting of the hair, the whole grisly, interminable business . . . I had to look through the peephole of the gas-chambers and watch the process of death itself, because the doctors wanted me to see it. I had to do all this because I was the one to whom everyone looked, because I had to show them all that I did not merely issue the orders and make the regulations but was also prepared myself to be present at whatever task I had assigned to my subordinates.286

His subordinates often asked him ‘is it necessary that we do all this? Is it necessary that hundreds of thousands of women and children be destroyed?’ Ḧss felt that he ‘had to tell them that this extermination of Jewry had to be, so that Germany and our posterity might be freed for ever from their relentless adversaries’.287 Antisemitic to the end, Ḧss reflected after the war that antisemitism had ‘only come into the limelight when the Jews have pushed themselves forward too much in their quest for power, and when their evil machinations have become too obvious for the general public to stomach’.288 Bound by these beliefs to his job, Ḧss felt he had to suppress any doubts in carrying out what he believed to be Hitler’s orders. He owed it to his subordinates not to show any sign of weakness. ‘Hardness’ was after all a core value of the SS. ‘I had to appear cold and indifferent to events that must have wrung the heart of anyone possessed of human feelings,’ he later recalled. ‘I had to watch coldly, while the mothers with laughing or crying children went into the gas-chambers.’289 Particularly after an evening’s drinking with Adolf Eichmann, who ‘showed that he was completely obsessed with the idea of destroying every single Jew that he could lay his hands on’, Ḧss felt he had to suppress his human feelings: ‘after these conversations with Eichmann I almost came to regard such emotions as a betrayal of the Leader’.290

Ḧss could not help thinking of his own wife and children as he watched Jewish families go into the gas chamber. At home, he was haunted by memories of such scenes. But he also felt beleaguered in Auschwitz. The constant demands for expansion, the incompetence and deceitfulness of his subordinates and the ever-increasing number of prisoners to manage drove him into himself and he turned to drink. His wife, who lived in a house just outside the camp perimeter with him and their four children (a fifth was born in 1943), tried to organize parties and excursions to improve his quality of life, but Ḧss quickly became known for his bad temper, despite the fact that he was able to requisition whatever he wanted (illegally) from the camp stores. ‘My wife’s garden,’ he wrote later, ‘was a paradise of flowers . . . The children were perpetually begging me for cigarettes for the prisoners. They were particularly fond of the ones who worked in the garden.’ Ḧss’s children kept many animals in the garden, including tortoises and lizards; on Sundays he walked the family across the fields to visit their horses and foals, or, in summer, went swimming in the river that formed the eastern boundary of the camp complex.291


Many of the Jews who arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, especially in the later phases of the camp’s existence, were taken there directly from their home countries. But many others went through the transitional stage of confinement in a ghetto, as did all the Jews who were killed in the Reinhard Action camps. There they might survive for months or even years. The largest of the ghettos, as we have seen, were founded shortly after the conquest of Poland in 1939. Some of them lasted well into the second half of the war. In practice, of course, the conditions in the ghettos were so terrible that they already meant a slow death for many of their inhabitants. Starved of supplies, even for those in them who worked for the German war economy, they were desperately overcrowded, deprived of proper sanitation and rife with disease. Throughout the winter of 1941-2, Adam Czerniak’w, the Jewish Elder of the Warsaw ghetto, continued to do his best to combat the rapid deterioration of the situation under the impact of hunger and disease. ‘In the public assistance shelters,’ he noted on 19 November 1941, ‘mothers are hiding dead children under the beds for 8 days in order to receive a larger food ration.’ Meeting a group of children on 14 June 1942, Czerniak’w noted despairingly that they were ‘living skeletons . . . I am ashamed to admit it,’ he wrote, ‘but I wept as I have not wept for a long time.’ As large contingents of Jews deported from Germany began to arrive and stay in the ghetto for a few days before being transported to Treblinka, and rumours of the death camps began to spread, Czerniak’w did his best to try to halt the mounting panic. He even organized play activities for the ghetto children, comparing himself to the captain of the Titanic (‘a ship is sinking and the captain, to raise the spirits of the passengers, orders the orchestra to play a jazz piece. I had made up my mind to emulate the captain’).292

Assured repeatedly by the German authorities that the ‘terrifying rumours’ of imminent deportations were untrue, he toured the ghetto, trying to ‘calm the population’ (‘what it costs me they do not see’). But on 21 July 1942 the German Security Police began arresting members of the Jewish Council and other officials in his presence in order to hold them hostage for the collaboration of the rest. The next morning, the deportation specialist of the regional SS, Hermann Ḧfle, called Czerniak’w and the remaining leading Jewish officials in the ghetto to a meeting. While his young Jewish interpreter, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, typed the minutes, the sound of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, played by the SS on a portable gramophone in the street outside, drifted in through the open window. Czerniak’w was officially told that all the Jews would be deported, in consignments of 6,000 a day, starting immediately. Anyone who tried to stop the action would be shot. Throughout his time as Elder, Czerniak’w had kept a cyanide tablet ready to use if he received any orders he could not reconcile with his conscience. One of the SS officers in charge of the deportations had told him that children were included, and Czerniak’w could not agree to hand them over to be killed. ‘I am powerless,’ he wrote in a final letter, ‘my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do.’ Refusing to sign the deportation order, he swallowed the tablet and died instantly. Doubts about him in the ghetto community were immediately quelled. ‘His end justifies his beginning,’ wrote Chaim Kaplan. ‘Czerniak’w earned eternity in one moment.’293

The Catholic German army officer Wilm Hosenfeld, stationed in Warsaw and charged with organizing sporting activities for the troops, became aware of the deportations to Treblinka almost as soon as they began. ‘That a whole people, men, women, children, are simply being slaughtered, in the twentieth century, by us, us of all people, who are fighting a crusade against Bolshevism: this is such a dreadful blood-guilt that one wants to sink into the ground with the shame of it.’294 30,000 Jews were transported for mass extermination in the last week of July 1942 alone, he reported. Even in the days of the guillotine and the French Revolutionary Terror, he noted caustically, ‘such virtuosity in mass murder was never achieved’.295 The Jews, he told his son in August 1942, ‘are to be exterminated, and it’s already being done. What immeasurable quantities of human suffering are coming to light on the one hand, of human malice and bestiality on the other. How many innocent people have to die, who is demanding justice and legality? Does this all have to happen?’296 ‘Death paces the streets of the ghetto,’ Chaim Kaplan reported in his diary in June 1942. ‘Every day Polish Jewry is being brought to slaughter. It is estimated, and there is some basis for the figures, that three-quarters of a million Polish Jews have already passed from this earth.’ Kaplan recorded terrible scenes as people were rounded up and taken off to Treblinka every day in the repeated deportations of the summer of 1942. On 5 August 1942 it was the turn of the children living in orphanages and other children’s homes. These actions were neither orderly nor peaceful. German troops, SS men and auxiliaries used unbridled force in rounding up the Jews and forcing them on to the trains. Over 10,000 Jews were shot in the ghetto during the round-ups; some of them must have tried to resist. In early August 1942, visiting Warsaw, Zygmunt Klukowski was kept awake by the sound of machine-gun fire coming from the ghetto. ‘I was told that about 5,000 people a day were being killed.’297 By the time the round-ups came to an end on 12 September 1942, more than 253,000 inhabitants of the ghetto had been taken to Treblinka and gassed. Already in August 1942, fearing the worst for himself, Kaplan gave his diary to a friend. His friend smuggled it out of the ghetto and passed it on to a member of the Polish underground, who took it with him when he emigrated to New York in 1962, after which it was finally published. Kaplan’s own fears had been more than justified: he was rounded up not long after he passed the diary on, and perished with his wife in the gas chambers of Treblinka in December 1942 or January 1943.298

By November 1942, only 36,000 Jews were left in the Warsaw ghetto, all engaged on labour schemes of one kind or another.299 Few now doubted what would happen to those who were taken off in an ‘action’. They knew they were going to their death even if they were hazy about the way it was done. The mass deportations gave rise to anguished self-examination amongst politically active Jews. ‘Why did we allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter,’ was the agonized question that Emanuel Ringelblum asked himself.300 Ringelblum thought that the Jews had been terrorized by the extreme violence of the Germans into passivity. People knew that if they tried to revolt, many others who had not been involved would also be the target of German reprisals. Religious Jews, who probably formed the majority of the ghettos’ inhabitants, were perhaps inclined to regard suffering and death as merely transient, and to accept what was happening as the outcome of the Divine Will, however difficult that may have been. The role of the Jewish police in carrying out selections and deportations also made resistance more difficult. Often people trusted the ghetto leadership, which almost always tried to reassure them about the future rather than create problems by spreading alarm. Arms were hard to come by, the Polish resistance was often (though not always) reluctant to supply them, and weapons frequently had to be purchased on the black market at very high prices. There was always hope, and the need for it frequently meant that ghetto inhabitants preferred to disbelieve the stories of extermination camps that were told to them. Often, particularly in the early stages of the murder programme, the German authorities convinced those selected for deportation that they were merely being moved to another ghetto or another camp. The vast majority of Jews were too weakened by prolonged hunger, privation and disease, and too preoccupied with the daily struggle to stay alive, to offer any resistance. Nevertheless, young and politically active Jews in a number of ghettos formed clandestine resistance movements to prepare for armed revolt or to organize an escape to the forests to join the partisans, the favoured tactic of the Communists (but which also undercut the possibility of resistance within the ghetto itself). A group of this kind was particularly active in Vilna, but it was generally unable to act because of internal political divisions between Communists, socialists and Zionists, the disapproval of the Jewish Councils that ran the ghettos, and the violent intervention of the German authorities at the slightest hint of resistance.301

In Warsaw, however, the resistance did come to fruition. In the course of 1942, Jewish underground organizations began to form, and Polish Communists supplied them with arms. On 18 January 1943 insurgents attacked the German guards accompanying a deportation column, and the deportees escaped. Himmler now regarded the ghetto as a security risk and ordered its final ‘liquidation’ on 16 February 1943. But the raid had made the resistance movement widely known and admired amongst the remaining Jewish population in Warsaw, which now began collecting and hoarding food supplies and preparing for an uprising despite the hostility of the ghetto’s Jewish Council to any armed action. Alarmed at the prospect of an armed confrontation and concerned at the left-wing politics of some of the underground leaders in the ghetto, the Polish nationalist resistance rejected their call for help and offered instead to smuggle the Jewish fighters out to safety; the offer was refused. Fundamental to the resistance was the certainty that the entire population of the ghetto was about to be killed; there was no hope left, and the resisters, overwhelmingly young men, became convinced that it would be better to go down fighting and die with dignity than submit meekly to extermination. As the SS marched in to begin the final round-up on 19 April 1943, they were fired on at several points, and had to work their way forward in a series of bitter street-fights.302

J̈rgen Stroop, the SS officer in charge of putting down the revolt, described how his men fought day and night against the desperate resistance. On 23 April 1943, Himmler ordered him to proceed with ‘the greatest harshness, ruthlessness and toughness’. ‘I now therefore decided,’ Stroop wrote,

to undertake the total annihilation of the Jewish residential quarter by burning down all the housing blocks, including those belonging to the armaments factories . . . The Jews then almost always came out of their hiding-places and bunkers. Not infrequently the Jews stayed in the burning houses until, because of the heat and because they were afraid of being burned to death, they decided to jump out of the upper storeys, first flinging mattresses and other upholstered objects out of the burning houses onto the street. With broken bones they still tried to crawl across the street to housing blocks that were not yet alight or only partly in flames.303

Some fighters fled into the sewers underneath the ghetto, so Stroop had scores of manhole covers opened and put smoke-sticks down them, driving the fighters underground towards an area of the city where they could be cornered and shot. A few managed to flee across the boundary on to the Polish side of the city. The great majority were killed. By 16 May 1943, Stroop announced the end of the action by blowing up the main synagogue. The fight had been an unequal one. A mere fifteen German and auxiliary troops had been killed. This was almost certainly an underestimate, but with equal certainty the actual number, whatever it was, was out of all proportion to the number of Jews killed. 7,000 Jews, reported Stroop, had been ‘annihilated’ in the street-fighting, and up to 6,000 had been ‘annihilated’ as buildings were burned down or blown up. The rest of the ghetto’s inhabitants had been taken to Treblinka.304 ‘The last remnants of the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto have been eradicated,’ reported Wilm Hosenfeld on 16 June 1943. ‘An SS Storm Leader told me how they had mown down the Jews who rushed out of the burning houses. The whole ghetto is a fiery ruin. This is the way we intend to win the war. These beasts.’305

On 11 June 1943 Himmler ordered the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto to be razed to the ground. Cellars and sewers were to be filled in or walled up. After the work was completed, soil was to be poured over the site and a park constructed. Although the park was never even begun, the ruined buildings were destroyed over the next few months. Himmler and the SS pursued the survivors of the uprising relentlessly. Stroop offered a reward of a third of the ready cash found in the possession of any Jew in the Polish part of the city to the arresting policeman, and threatened execution to any Pole found sheltering a Jew. Warsaw’s Polish population, Stroop reported, had ‘in general welcomed the measures carried out against the Jews’. A substantial number of Jews survived for a time in hiding, protected by Poles. Among them was Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who had stolen a good deal of money from the safe of his employers, the Jewish Council, and handed most it over to the resistance. With the remainder, he and his wife bribed their way out of the ghetto in February 1943, and found a hiding place with a Polish typesetter and his wife on the outskirts of the city. Every time he ventured out, Reich-Ranicki felt himself in acute danger from young Poles who sought to earn money, or sometimes even just the jewellery or the winter clothing worn by their victims, by identifying Jews on the street and handing them over to the police.306

Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian whose assiduous collection of diaries, letters and documents has provided us with much of what we know about the Warsaw ghetto, also went into hiding. Ringelblum was arrested during the uprising and taken to Travniki Camp, from where a Polish railway worker and a Jewish contact sprang him in July 1943. Dressed as a railwayman, and equipped with false papers by the Polish underground, he made his way with his wife and twelve-year-old son back to Warsaw, where they were hidden along with thirty other Jews in a bunker under the greenhouses of a Polish market garden. From here he re-established contact with the Jewish resistance, and resumed his work of gathering information and writing reports on the evolving situation for posterity. On 7 March 1944, however, the bunker was betrayed, and the Gestapo arrested the inhabitants. Ringelblum was tortured for three days, then taken to the site of the ghetto, where he was forced to watch his wife and son being killed before being executed himself. The Germans had learned of the archive he had assembled, but they were unable in the end to lay their hands on it; Ringelblum had buried it under the ghetto during the uprising, but refused to reveal its whereabouts. Part of it was eventually located and dug up in September 1946; the rest was discovered in December 1950, with Ringelblum’s Notes sealed inside a milk-churn.307

Well before Ringelblum’s death, the original leaders of most of the Jewish ghetto communities had long since been removed from office and replaced by men more easily intimidated into doing the Germans’ bidding.308 Virtually the only choice open to such men was to try to preserve a minority of the ghetto inhabitants from the exterminatory zeal of the Nazis by arguing for their economic indispensability. Even this, however, would not count in the end, since Hitler and Himmler increasingly considered the security risk posed by the Jews to outweigh any value they might have for the war economy.309 The insoluble dilemmas faced by ghetto leaders by this time were graphically illustrated by Chaim Rumkowski, the controversial, self-willed Elder of the L’d’ ghetto. Rumkowski had initially preserved the ghetto by persuading the Germans to regard it as a centre of production. But this did not prevent the Germans from systematically depriving it of food supplies. The young student Dawid Sierakowiak’s diary recorded ‘hunger everywhere’ in the L’d’ ghetto already in April 1941. Life for him, as for others, was reduced to a never-ending quest for something to eat - mostly carrots and other root vegetables. Sierakowiak relieved the boredom by learning Esperanto with a group of Communist friends, before he was able to enrol in the ghetto school and start lessons again. With other inmates, Sierakowiak kept in touch with world events through listening in secret to BBC radio broadcasts and reading German newspapers smuggled in from outside. The news he heard only dampened his spirits further: one German victory followed another seemingly without end.

On 16 May 1941 he reported that a medical check-up had left him seriously concerned about his health: the doctor ‘was terrified at how thin I am . . . Lung disease is the latest hit in ghetto fashion; it sweeps people away as much as dysentery and typhus. As for the food, it’s worse and worse everywhere; it’s been a week since there were any potatoes.’ Somehow he managed to survive the year, occupying his mind by translating Ovid into Polish, and earning some money by giving private tutorials. Frequently ill, he stuck doggedly to his studies, completing them successfully in September 1941 and finding a job in a saddlery.310

Meanwhile, as more and more ghetto inmates were taken away by the Jewish ghetto police, never to return, Jews from other parts of Europe started to be shipped in. Rumkowski tried to persuade the German authorities that there was no room for them, but without effect. To the 143,000 Jews living in the L’d’ ghetto in the autumn of 1941 were now added, in October, 2,000 more from small towns near by, then 20,000 from the Reich and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, along with 5,000 Gypsies. Sierakowiak thought the new arrivals looked spectacularly well dressed. Yet the newcomers were soon reduced to selling their bespoke-tailored suits for small quantities of flour and bread. Meanwhile, on 6 December 1941, the gas vans at the newly constructed camp in Chelmno had begun operation. Rumkowski was ordered to register 20,000 ghetto residents supposedly for labour service outside the ghetto walls. He managed to persuade the Germans to halve this number and with a special committee selected prostitutes, criminals, people on welfare, the unemployed and Gypsies. In an attempt to reassure people, Rumkowski declared in a public address on 3 January 1942 that honest people had nothing to fear. On 12 January 1942 the first deportations took place. By 29 January 1942, more than 10,000 Jews had been taken from the ghetto straight to Chelmno and put to death in gas vans. By 2 April 1942 another 34,000 had been taken away and murdered; by May, the total had reached 55,000, including now over 10,000 Jews deported to L’d’ from the west.311

All the while, new transports of Jews were arriving, particularly from the Wartheland. The ghetto population thus remained at well over 100,000.312 By the middle of 1942, reported Sierakowiak, people were dying in large numbers of ‘ghetto disease’: ‘A person becomes thin (an “hourglass”) and pale in the face, then comes the swelling, a few days in bed or in the hospital, and that’s it. The person was living, the person is dead; we live and die like cattle.’ In September 1942 2,000 patients were seized from the ghetto hospitals with the co-operation of Rumkowski’s ghetto administration and taken off to be gassed; then all children under the age of ten, everybody over the age of sixty-five and all the unemployed, making another 16,000 in all. Sierakowiak’s mother was among them. Many were shot, suggesting growing resistance to deportations. Rumkowski justified his co-operation in the action in a speech to ghetto inhabitants on 4 September 1942: ‘I must amputate limbs in order to save the body!’ he said, weeping as he spoke. It was not clear whether he really believed this or not. Fearful and depressed, the majority of the remaining inhabitants were too concerned with the daily struggle for survival to react with anything but dull resignation. By November 1942 Sierakowiak’s father was ill, ‘completely covered with lice and scabs’; in March he died. In April 1943 things began to look up for Dawid Sierakowiak: he found a job in a bakery, a much-sought-after position since it enabled him to eat his fill of bread on the job. But it was too late. He was already sick with fever, malnutrition and tuberculosis, lice-ridden and suffering from scabies, so weak that he was sometimes unable to get out of bed in the morning. ‘There is really no way out of this for us,’ he wrote on 15 April 1943. It was his last diary entry. On 8 August 1943 he died, just two weeks after his nineteenth birthday.313

By this time, the days of the L’d’ ghetto were already numbered. Following the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Himmler had ordered the ‘liquidation’ of all remaining ghettos in the east on 21 June 1943. All remaining Jews in the Reich were to be deported.314 26,000 inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto were killed in the following months, and a further 9,000, all engaged on labour schemes, were dead by the end of the year.315 In Bialystok the final ‘liquidation’ began on 15 August 1943, taking the resistance movement that had formed there by surprise. Deep divisions between the Communists and Zionists in the resistance further hampered concerted action, and the resisters had little support from the general ghetto population. Nevertheless, the fighting lasted five days. Globocnik, who took personal charge of the operation, sent in tanks and, copying Stroop, burned all the buildings in the ghetto to the ground.316 In other ghettos, the process of dissolution had already begun before Himmler issued his order.317 In Lvov, 40,000 Jews were taken from a labour camp in mid-August 1942 and gassed in Belzec; the remaining Jews were put into a newly created ghetto in the city while twelve members of the Jewish Council were publicly hanged from lamp-posts in the street, or from the roof of the Council’s office building. Over the next few months, further actions took thousands more inhabitants of the ghetto off to the gas chambers of Belzec, until early in 1943 the ghetto was closed down and the remaining Jews transferred back to the labour camp. Only 3,400 out of a total population of 160,000 survived the war.318 Round-ups began in Vilna in April 1943, prompting, as elsewhere, the flight of many young members of the resistance, especially those with Communist beliefs, for whom the principal objective was to aid the Red Army by tying down German forces, into the nearby woods. Most of the ghetto’s remaining 20,000 inhabitants were taken off to be killed, many of them in Sobibor.

The last major ghetto to be closed was the L’d’ ghetto, which was wound down in the summer of 1944. Over 73,000 people were still living there. Deportations to Chelmno began in mid-July, even at this point still carried out with the participation of the Jewish ghetto police, and then from 3 August some 5,000 Jews were ordered to assemble at the railway station every day, with the promise that they would be relocated to better conditions. The trains all went directly to extermination camps. The last one, leaving the now virtually empty ghetto on 28 August 1944, carried on it the Ghetto Elder Chaim Rumkowski and his family. On arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were all sent to the gas chamber. Of nearly 70,000 Jews still living in the ghetto at the end of July 1944, only 877 were still there the following January, charged with the task of clearing up.319 All in all, over 90 per cent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews had been killed by this time. 320


The extermination of the Jews has sometimes been seen as a kind of industrialized, assembly-line kind of mass murder, and this picture has at least some element of truth to it. No other genocide in history has been carried out by mechanical means - gassing - in specially constructed facilities like those in operation at Auschwitz or Treblinka. At the same time, however, these facilities did not operate efficiently or effectively, and if the impression given by calling them industrialized is that they were automated or impersonal, then it is a false one. Men such as Ḧss and Stangl and their subordinates tried to insulate themselves from the human dimension of what they were doing by referring to their victims as ‘cargo’ or ‘items’. Talking to Gerhard Stabenow, the head of the SS Security Service in Warsaw, in September 1942, Wilm Hosenfeld noted how the language Stabenow used distanced himself from the fact that what he was involved in was the mass murder of human beings: ‘He speaks of the Jews as of ants or other vermin, of their “resettlement”, that means their mass murder, as he would of the extermination of bedbugs in the disinfestation of a house.’321 But at the same time such men were not immune from the human emotions they tried so hard to repress, and they remembered incidents in which individual women and children had appealed to their conscience, even if such appeals were in vain. The psychological strain that continual killing of unarmed civilians, including women and children, imposed on such men was considerable, just as it had been in the case of the SS Task Forces, whose troops had been shooting Jews in their hundreds of thousands before the first gas vans were deployed in an attempt not only to speed up the killing but also to make it somehow more impersonal.

What kept such men going was a belief that they were doing Hitler’s bidding, and killing the present and future enemies of the German race. They were not faceless bureaucrats or technologists of death; nor was the killing at any level simply the product of impersonal pressures to obey superior orders or the cold pursuit of material or military advantage for the Third Reich. The careers of SS men like Eichmann, Stangl and Ḧss revealed them to be hardened antisemites; the racial hatred of their subordinates, stoked and fuelled by years of propaganda, training and indoctrination, was scarcely less extreme. Translating visceral hatred of Jews in the abstract to violent acts of mass murder in reality proved not to be difficult for them, nor for a number of the SS Security Service bureaucrats who took over the leadership of the Task Forces in the east. Particularly in the lower ranks of the SS, but also in the regular army, Jews, when encountered individually or in small groups, frequently aroused a degree of personal, sadistic brutality, a desire to humiliate as well as destroy, that was seldom present when they dealt with ordinary Poles, Russians or other Slavs. Slav prisoners were not made to perform gymnastics or dance before they were shot, as Jews were; nor were they made to clean out latrines with their clothes or bare hands, as Jews were. Slavs were mere tools; it was the Jews who were supposedly behind the Stalin regime, who ordered the Soviet secret police to commit bestial massacres of German prisoners, who inspired the partisans to launch cruel and cowardly attacks on German troops from the rear. Rank-and-file German troops, both regular soldiers and SS men, were heavily influenced by propaganda and indoctrination and, if they were young, years of education in the school system of the Third Reich, to believe that Jews in general, and Eastern Jews in particular, were dirty, dangerous dishonest and diseased, the enemies of all civilization.322

The atrocities of the Soviet secret police confirmed German soldiers in their belief that Jews, whom they held to blame, were bestial killers who deserved no mercy. ‘Jewry is good for only one thing,’ wrote one sergeant,

annihilation . . . And I have confirmed to myself that the entire leadership of all [Soviet] institutions consisted of Jews. So their guilt is huge, the suffering they have caused unimaginable, their murderous deeds devilish. This can only be expiated by their annihilation. Up to now I have rejected this way of doing things as immoral. But after seeing the Soviet Paradise for myself I don’t know any other solution. In these Eastern Jews there live the dregs of every kind of criminality, and I am conscious of the uniqueness of our mission.323

Abusing and humiliating Jews could also serve as a compensation for the lowly status and daily privations of the ordinary soldier. ‘The best thing here,’ wrote one from an occupied eastern town in May 1942, ‘is that all the Jews doff their hats to us. If a Jew spots us 100m away, he already doffs his hat. If he doesn’t, then we teach him to. Here you feel yourself to be a soldier, for here we rule the roost.’324 Higher up the chain of command, the army often rationalized the killing of Jews as a step necessary for the maintenance of its own essential food supplies,325 but this claim should not be taken simply at face value. The need to feed the army and the German civilian population at home did at particular junctures create a perceived need to operate what in medical terms might be called atriage, distinguishing those thought to need food most urgently and in greatest quantities from those with a lower priority. But what put Jews at the bottom of this hierarchy was not any rationalistic calculation based on an estimate of their contribution to the economy. It derived above all from an obsessively pursued ideology that regarded the Jews not simply as the most dispensable of the inhabitants of occupied Eastern Europe, but as a positive threat to Germany in every respect, conspiring with Jews everywhere else in the world, and especially in Britain and the USA, to wage war on the Third Reich. Had the Jews merely been surplus consumers of scarce resources, Himmler would hardly have undertaken a personal journey to Finland to try to persuade the government there to hand over the very small number of Jews under its control for deportation and extermination.326

As this suggests, the extermination programme was directed and pushed on repeatedly from the centre, above all by Hitler’s continual rhetorical attacks on the Jews in the second half of 1941, repeated on other occasions as the Jews loomed in his mind as a threat once more. There was no single decision, implemented in a rationalistic, bureaucratic way; rather, the extermination programme emerged in a process lasting several months, in which Nazi propaganda created a genocidal mentality that spurred Himmler and other leading Nazis to push forward with the killing of Jews on an ever-wider scale. Altogether during the war, some 3 million Jews were murdered in the extermination camps. 700,000 were killed in mobile gas vans and 1.3 million were shot by SS Task Forces, police units and allied forces or auxiliary militias. Anything up to a million Jews died of hunger, disease or SS brutality and shootings in the concentration camps and especially the ghettos that the Third Reich established in the occupied territories. A precise total is impossible to arrive at, but it is certain that at least 5.5 million Jews were deliberatedly killed in one way or another by the Nazis and their allies. Since the opening of the archives in the former Soviet bloc in the 1990s it has become clear that the probable total is around 6 million, the figure given by Adolf Eichmann at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. ‘With this terrible murder of the Jews,’ wrote Wilm Hosenfeld on 16 June 1943, ‘we have lost the war. We have brought upon ourselves an indelible disgrace, a curse that can never be lifted. We deserve no mercy, we are all guilty.’327

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