76 years after the largest execution in the history of German concentration camps
On November 3, 2019, at the State Museum at Majdanek we commemorated the 76th anniversary of the "Erntefest" operation. By laying wreaths and white stones as well as by burning candles at the obelisk symbolizing the exterminated prisoners, the gathered guests paid homage to the victims of the brutal murder that took place in the Lublin region on November 3 and 4, 1943.
76 years ago, the Germans carried out mass execution in KL Lublin (Majdanek), labor camps in Trawniki and Poniatowa, as well as in several smaller workplaces in the Lublin region. The operation was codenamed "Aktion Erntefest" ("Harvest Festival") and was the result of the order of Heinrich Himmler. In the face of the growing dispute between the SS and other institutions of the Nazi state regarding to the availability of Jewish workers who remained alive, Himmler guided by his own ambitions ordered them to be executed, despite economic calculations. Almost all Jewish prisoners were murdered and the number of victims reached about 42,000. Among them were children, women and men.
The convenient pretext for carrying out the mass execution were successful uprisings in the extermination camps in Treblinka (August 2) and Sobibór (October 14). The order was delegated to the SS and police commander in the Lublin District Jakob Sporrenberg, who replaced the infamous Odilo Globocnik. He had at his disposal the forces of Waffen SS, order police, and the German security police – a total of over 2,000 people.
At the end of October, prisoners were forced to dig irregular shaped ditches in different concentration camps. Three such structures were created at Majdanek behind field V near the crematorium. According to the rumor, they were supposed to have defensive functions. The true purpose came out on the day of the mass execution.
On November 3, the area of KL Lublin was surrounded by designated units, while the role of SS men from the camp crew was limited to selecting Jews in prisoner fields and escorting them to the assembly point on Field V. There, the victims had to undress, and then they were driven naked to the execution ditches, in which they lay face down to the ground, while security police officers positioned above their edge were shooting in prisoners’ necks or the backs of their heads. Executions in other places had a similar course. Inside the concentration camp loud music and military marches were broadcast to suppress screams of the murdered.
On that day, Jews deported from the camps on Lipowa street (now the Plaza shopping center), Flugplatz (former aircraft factory at Wrońska Street) and Sportplatz were also murdered. In just a few hours about 18 thousand were shot at Majdanek and in Trawniki another 10,000 people. On November 4, Jewish prisoners of the Poniatowa labor camp were executed. A small group resisted, however, it was quickly suppressed by the Germans. On this day, about 14,000 people were killed.
About 600 Jewish prisoners were left alive at Majdanek. Women were employed to segregate victims' property. In mid-April 1944, they were transported to KL Auschwitz, where soon after they were murdered in a gas chamber. Men were forced to burn bodies in KL Lublin, Poniatowa and the Borek forest near Chełm. Almost everyone was shot after doing this gruesome work. Only a very few escaped prisoners (men and women) survived the war.
"Aktion Erntefest" was the largest mass execution in the history of German concentration camps. It completely changed the structure of prisoner population at Majdanek, in which Poles, from that moment, began to dominate. Due to the lack of workers, the camps in Flugplatz, as well as in Poniatowa and Trawniki, were liquidated. Among the victims were also people hiding on so-called "Aryan papers" – executed due to denunciation.
"Aktion Erntefest" ended the extermination of the Jewish population started in mid-March 1942 as part of "Aktion Reinhardt", which the Germans began with the liquidation of the Lublin ghetto. Therefore, it should be remembered that this genocidal operation had its beginning and its end in Lublin.