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Introduction to an exhibition catalogue “They Arrived at the Ghetto… And Went into the Unknown…” of 2012

This publication documents an open-air exhibition organized by the State Museum at Majdanek in 2012 to mark the 70th anniversary of Jews extermination in the course of “Aktion Reinhardt.” The exhibition entitled “They Arrived at the Ghetto… And Went into the Unknown…” was intended to be a reminder of the most important events and places relating to the persecution and extermination of Jews in German-occupied territories of central, southern and south-eastern Poland. This area made up the General Government (GG) serving the Third Reich as a testing ground for a ruthless economic and Germanization policy. It also played a tragic role during the implementation of the “final solution to the Jewish question” – a Nazi plan to exterminate 11 million European Jews.

The consciousness of the Holocaust is prominent among contemporary Europeans, but it is associated mainly with the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The fact that mass murders of Jewish children, women and men were perpetrated in many places in the occupied Europe is, however, almost absent from the collective memory of Poland and around the world. What is more, only few people know that ghettos and camps related to “Aktion Reinhardt” claimed vast numbers of Jewish victims. This has been confirmed through research conducted on behalf of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk in 2009. In the survey, 57.5 per cent of those polled reported that Auschwitz was a historical site deserving to be commemorated regarding its significance to the history of the Holocaust, whereas only 13.8 per cent of respondents mentioned Treblinka, where almost as many Jews perished as in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Just 0.9 per cent of those surveyed named the Bełżec camp, where nearly half a million men were murdered in less than 10 months in 1942.[1]

“Aktion Reinhardt” was an integral part of the Nazi extermination policy. In the summer of 1941, the physical genocide of Jews was initiated by the units of German police and security service in the Eastern Borderlands of Poland, which had been seized two years earlier by the Soviets, and in the eastern territories of the then Soviet Union. A dozen or so weeks later, a decision to systematically kill Jewish inhabitants of the General Government was taken, and the first preparations were made. On January 20, 1942, a group of Nazi dignitaries headed by Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), held a meeting to discuss the most important issues concerning logistics of Jewish genocide in Europe. According to the protocol of the meeting – named the Wannsee Conference after the place it was held – State Secretary of the General Government, Dr. Joseph Bühler, insisted on introducing the “solution to the Jewish question,” starting within the GG.[2]

The mass murder, carried out since June 1942 under the code name “Aktion Reinhard(t)” or “Einsatz Reinhard(t),” was initiated with deportations of the Jewish population of Lublin and Lvov to the Bełżec death camp in March 1942. The extermination intensified in May, when the Sobibór camp was put into operation, and starting from the end of July – following some modernization works in Bełżec and opening of the Treblinka death camp – genocide of Jews turned into total extermination. Some historians believe that the revolt and escape of prisoners in the death camp in Sobibór on October 14, 1943, brought an end to “Aktion Reinhardt,” others think that the operation was finished with the November 3 and 4, 1943 mass shootings of Jews in the Majdanek concentration camp and forced labor camps in Trawniki and Poniatowa.[3]

Within the scope of “Aktion Reinhardt,” there were five districts of the General Government, as well as Bezirk Białystok and Jews deported from abroad – mainly from Slovakia, Bohemia, Germany and the Netherlands. There were attempts to include Jews from other parts of Poland (Łódź ghetto) and other countries, as it was intened to deport Jews from Romania to the Bełżec camp. Essentially, it was a global undertaking: mass genocide was linked with the exploitation of labor and plunder of the victims’ property. As it was expressed by Odilo Globocnik, the head of SS and police in the Lublin District who coordinated the whole operation, apart from the most important aim to annihilate Jews, “Aktion” included four tasks: a) dislocations; b) exploitation of labor force; c) utilization of personal possessions; d) seizure of hidden property and real estate.[4]

The relation between “Aktion Reinhardt” and KL Auschwitz has still not been fully explained. KL Auschwitz files and external provenance records concerning its functioning contain the code name “Aktion Reinhardt.”[5] The extermination process is in both cases related with Heinrich Himmler, which is proved with his schedule of July 1942, when systematic extermination of Jews started in Auschwitz and “Aktion Reinhardt” camps were under reconstruction. On July 17, 1942, the Reichsführer SS carried out an inspection in Auschwitz – he watched selection of Dutch Jews at the railway ramp in Birkenau and then their killing in the gas chambers. The next day, he discussed issues connected with extermination of Jews with Globocnik in Lublin, and on July 19, he gave his notorious command to accelerate genocide of Jews in the GG. [6]

A historical analysis of “Einsatz Reinhardt” should contain a multitude of anti-Jewish policies by the Third Reich: deportations of Jews in the course of the so-called evacuation to the East, ghettos, exploitation of the Jewish labor force in the forced labor camps, as well as plunder and industrial use of the victims’ property. At the center of discussion remains the mass extermination carried out in the three above mentioned death camps: Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka,[7] and to some extent also in the Majdanek concentration camp.[8] However, it should be borne in mind that many victims died as a result of disastrous living conditions in the ghettos or in mass shootings that accompanied majority of ghetto liquidations.[9]

The listed places outline the scene of the main events of “Aktion Reinhardt.” Its center was in Lublin, the then capital of the Lublin District, where the operation headquarters and complex of camps and warehouses were located. The majority of buildings used by Globocnik and his administration survived the war. Partially preserved are also the shop floors used as sorting plants and workshops on the grounds of the so called Flugplatz (on Wrońska Street), where the railway ramp was located. Trains with Jews deported to the Lublin region stopped there. Similarly, Trawniki played a special role in the history of Jewish annihilation, as there were a forced labor camp and training camp for the units guarding the death camps. Considerably less material evidence is preserved in places where ghettos, especially transitory ghettos in Piaski or Izbica, were set up. Despite that, there still exist many remains of the tragic wartime events. Recently conducted archeological research in Bełżec and Sobibór has shown that attempts to erase all traces of the monstrous acts perpetrated in these sites were not fully successful. [10]

The role which Austrian Odilo Globocnik played in the organization of extermination has already been analyzed a number of times. An academic biography entitled tellingly Creator of Nazi Death Camps: The Life of Odilo Globocnik sheds more light on this figure, especially his private life.[11] However, it does not present any new findings on the planning and course of “Aktion Reinhardt,” but it confirms megalomania and radical anti-Semitism of the head of SS and police in the Lublin District already mentioned in sources and other works.[12]

Globocnik is a typical example of a slavophobic and anti-Semitic desk perpetrator, and yet a fanatic executor of Himmler’s radical policy concerning Jews. Hermann Höfle, his fellow countryman and chief of his headquarters, is not so well-known. He was responsible, among other things, for coordinating deportations to the death camps. Regarding his duties, he is sometimes compared with Adolf Eichmann, also from Austria, who was the main coordinator of the “final solution” in RSHA. Unlike Globocnik, Hermann Höfle survived the war. Following a short-term imprisonment, he was hiding in Germany and collaborating with the American secret service. He was rearrested by 1961. A year later, shortly before the trial, he committed suicide in prison in Vienna.[13]

Globocnik’s headquarters, which employed 450 people, was in charge of the organization and implementation of “Aktion Reinhardt.” Among those employed were 92 functionaries transferred by the Hitler’s office in Berlin, who had earlier participated in killing the ill and disabled with carbon monoxide as part of the so-called operation “T4,” headed by Christian Wirth – the later inspector of SS-Sonderkommandos “Aktion Reinhardt”.[14]

A separate group of perpetrators was made up of guards at the death camps. The majority of them constituted captured Red Army soldiers, mainly Ukrainians, Russians and Soviets of German descent. They were trained for their new service in the already mentioned training camp in Trawniki. According to some research by American historian Peter Black, it appears that a total of 5000 people were trained there. These functionaries were assigned to guard various types of camps and economic facilities, but first of all they were “soldiers of the final solution” in the GG: they carried out violent dislocations and bloody liquidations of ghettos, performed executions and mass shootings, and did many tasks concerning extermination of victims in the “Aktion Reinhardt” camps. [15]

Perpetrator research (Täterforschung) clearly shows that its spectrum concerning the Nazi crimes is very broad. It applies also to executors of “Aktion Reinhardt” – Shoah perpetrators, to use the title of a book on this subject.[16] Therefore, it must be kept in view that Jewish extermination was a result of a decision making process in which participated various state structures and many governing bodies of the Third Reich. The operation, consisting of a few phases, was implemented in many places, and was participated in by not only “Hitler’s fervent butchers,” but also “ordinary people.” Not only the SS and police took part in the genocide, but also some civil institutions, especially administration of the occupied territories with local administrators and officials employed in the Population and Welfare Department. Many of them not only insisted on killing Jews inhabiting territories subordinated to them, but also eagerly participated in such atrocities.[17]

The history of the Holocaust is inextricably linked with the Lublin region. This connection was described by the leading researcher in this field – Dieter Pohl, who concluded his analysis as follows: “When it comes to the victims total, the Lublin District with its camps can be compared to Auschwitz, as most probably about 700,000 Jews died here. Undoubtedly, the Lublin region played a special role in the course of killing European Jews. The region was a testing ground and a scene of important events. In charge of that was mainly Odilo Globocnik, who was the key actor of the “final solution” during its transitory period – between the spring of 1941 and the spring of 1942 [...]. Globocnik increased the pace of crimes and selected venues for the events. His inclination to radical actions and obsession with implementing great plans made that he, as hardly anyone, embodied connection between the center and periphery in perpetrating the Nazi crimes.”[18] Pertaining to macrohistory, it is also crucial that, based on the Nazi policy implemented in the General Government, especially in the Lublin District, there is a link between extermination of Jews, as well as settlement and Germanization plans concerning East-Central Europe.

The exact number of victims of “Aktion Reinhardt” will probably be further researched. The radiogram disclosed in 2001 with the number of Jews killed by the end of 1942 in four camps operating in the GG allowed revision of the previous findings, but did not, however, answer all questions concerning the extent of the genocide.[19] The biggest discrepancies appear with reference to the death camp in Sobibór. The estimates of the killed during liquidations of ghettos are just ballpark figures. To a large extent, calculations by a German researcher and expert witness, Wolfgang Scheffler, are still relevant. In his expert evaluation of July 3, 1973, he provided that 1.6 million to 1.7 million people in total could have died in Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibór – including a roughly estimated number of those killed en route.[20]

The figure does not contain those who died in ghettos, were killed at Majdanek, and shot in mass executions. Due to insufficient sources, it is not possible to precisely estimate numbers of victims in all the cases. However, it may be assumed that extermination of Jews carried out in the General Government in 1942-1943 claimed about 2 million people in total. [21]

As a result of “Aktion Reinhardt” a large portion of Polish Jews died, but also – as proved with the sociological research mentioned at the beginning – faded away the memory of their tragic fates. As organizers of the exhibition “They Arrived at the Ghetto… And Went into the Unknown…,” we express hope that the exposition and the accompanying catalogue will contribute to restoring the memory of the Polish Jews who were killed during the Second World War. We also believe that the social interest in the sites related with their suffering and death will increase. Such places are important not only for Poland, but also for Holocaust memory in Europe.

Tomasz Kranz

Director of the State Museum at Majdanek

[1] L.M. Nijakowski, Pamięć o II wojnie światowej a relacje Polaków z innymi narodami, in: P.T. Kwiatkowski, L.M. Nijakowski, B. Szacka, A. Szpociński, Między codziennością a wielką historią. Druga wojna światowa w pamięci zbiorowej społeczeństwa polskiego, introduction by P. Machcewicz, historian’s comments by M. Kula, Gdańsk-Warsaw, 2010, p. 277.

[2] Eksterminacja Żydów na ziemiach polskich w okresie okupacji hitlerowskiej. Zbiór dokumentów. Collected and edited by T. Berenstein, A. Eisenbach, A. Rutkowski, Warsaw, 1957, pp. 268-276. For more on the on the course and arrangements of the Wannsee Conference see M. Roseman, The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting. Wannsee and the Final Solution, London, 2002.

[3] Research on the Holocaust conducted in Poland has recently resulted in many valuable works published in e.g. a yearbook Holocaust Studies and Materials issued by the Polish Center for Holocaust Research at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. However, it still lacks a new and comprehensive presentation of the subject in a monograph of “Aktion Reinhardt” or a further synthesis concerning persecution, exploitation and extermination of Polish Jews during the Second World War. At this point it is worth mentioning the newest publications by the State Museum at Majdanek: Erntefest 3-4 listopada 1943 – zapomniany epizod Zagłady, ed. W. Lenarczyk, D. Libionka, Lublin, 2009; R. Kuwałek, Obóz zagłady w Bełżcu, Lublin, 2010; Obóz zagłady w Bełżcu w relacjach ocalonych i zeznaniach polskich świadków, ed. D. Libionka, Lublin, 2013.

[4] S. Piotrowski, Misja Odyla Globocnika. Sprawozdania o wynikach finansowych zagłady Żydów w Polsce, Warsaw, 1949, p. 24.

[5] B. Perz, T. Sandkühler, “Auschwitz und die “Aktion Reinhard“ 1942-45. Judenmord und Raubpraxis in neuer Sicht,“ Zeitgeschichte, H. 5, 1999, pp. 283-316.

[6] Der Dienstkalender Heinrich Himmlers 1941/42, bearbeitet, kommentiert und eingeleitet von P. Witte et al., Hamburg, 1999, pp. 491-496.

[7] J. Marszałek, “System obozów śmierci w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie i jego funkcje,” Zeszyty Majdanka, vol. XVII, 1996, pp. 17-38.

[8] T. Kranz, “Eksterminacja Żydów na Majdanku i rola obozu w realizacji ‘Akcji Reinhardt’,” Zeszyty Majdanka, vol. XXII, 2003, pp. 7-55.

[9] See for example J.A. Młynarczyk, “Akcja Reinhard” w gettach prowincjonalnych dystryktu warszawskiego 1942-1943, in: prowincja noc. Życie i zagłada Żydów w dystrykcie warszawskim, ed. B. Engelking, J. Leociak, D. Libionka, Warsaw, 2007, pp. 39-74.

[10] A. Kola, The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archaeological Sources: Excavations 1997-1999, Warsaw-Washington, 2000; M. Bem, W. Mazurek, Sobibór – archeological research conducted on the site of the former German extermination centre in Sobibór 2000-2011, Warsaw-Włodawa, 2012.

[11] B. Rieger, Creator of Nazi Death Camps: The Life of Odilo Globocnik, Portland, 2007.

[12] See for example Z. Mańkowski, “Obozy zagłady na terenie dystryktu lubelskiego. Ich system i funkcje,” Zeszyty Majdanka, vol. XVII, 1996, pp. 39-50.

[13] P. Witte, “’… zusammen 1 274 166’. Der Funkspruch des SS-Sturmbannführers Hermann Höfle liefert ein Schlüsseldokument des Holocaust,” Die Zeit of 10.01.2002, p. 82

[14] P. Herberer, Von der „Aktion T4”. Zum Massenmord an den europäischen Juden. Der Transfer des Tötungspersonals, in: Neue Studien zu nationalsozialistischen Massentötungen durch Giftgas. Historische Bedeutung, technische Entwicklung, revisionistische Leugnung, hrsg. von G. Morsch und B. Perz unter Mitarbeit von A. Ley, Berlin, 2011, pp. 165-175.

[15] P. Black, Prosty żołnierz „akcji Reinhardt”. Oddziały z Trawnik i eksterminacja polskich Żydów, in: Akcja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie, ed. D. Libionka, Warsaw, 2004, pp. 103-131; R. Kuwałek, Obóz zagłady w Bełżcu, pp. 77-91.

[16] G. Paul (ed.), Die Täter der Shoah. Fanatische Nationalsozialisten oder ganz normale Deutsche?, Göttingen, 2002.

[17] R. Hilberg, Sprawcy. Ofiary. Świadkowie. Zagłada Żydów 1939-1945, Warsaw, 2007, pp. 17-159; B. Musial, Deutsche Zivilverwaltung und Judenverfolgung im Generalgouvernement. Eine Fallstudie zum Distrikt Lublin 1939-1944, Stuttgart, 1999.

[18] D. Pohl, Znaczenie dystryktu lubelskiego w “ostatecznym rozwiązaniu kwestii żydowskiej”, in: Akcja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów…, p. 53.

[19] P. Witte, S. Tyas, “A New Document on the Deportation and Murder of Jews during ‘Einsatz Reinhardt’ 1942,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Winter 2001, pp. 468-486.

[20] Zur Zahl der in den Vernichtungslagern der „Aktion Reinhard” ermordeten Juden. Wissenschaftliches Gutachten erstattet von Dr. Wolfgang Scheffler am 3. Juli 1973 vor dem Schwurgericht Hamburg AZ.: (50) 8/72, in: H. Grabitz, Justizbehörde Hamburg (Hg.), Täter und Gehilfen des Endlösungswahns. Hamburger Verfahren wegen NS-Gewaltverbrechen 1946-1996, Hamburg, 1999, pp. 215-241.

[21] Akcja Reinhardt. Zagłada Żydów…, p. 7.