“Operation Reinhard”: The Extermination Camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka
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2. The Personnel of Operation Reinhard
3. The Construction of Belzec
4. The Construction of Sobibor
5. The Construction of Treblinka
6. Belzec, from March 17 til June 1942
7. Sobibor - from May to July 1942
8. Treblinka - from July 23 to August 28, 1942
9. The Construction of Larger Gas Chambers
10. The Attempt to Remove Traces
11. The Liquidation of the Camps
SOON AFTER THE task forces had began their campaign of extermination in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union, the deputy of the Governor General Hans Frank, Secretary of State Dr. Bu"hler, remarked at the Wannsee Conference:
that the General Government would welcome it if a start were to be made on the final solution of this question in the General Government, because here transportation does not pose a real problem nor would the deployment of a labor force interfere with the process of this operation Jews should be removed from the area of the General Government as quickly as possible, because it is here that the Jew represents a serious danger as a carrier of epidemics, and in addition his incessant black marketeering constantly upsets the country's economic structure. Of the approximately 2.5 million Jews in question, the majority are anyway unfit for work.
Dr. Bu"hler's request was given a positive response. The General Government consisted of the districts of Warsaw, Cracow, Lublin, Radom, and Lvov. According to the estimate of the German authorities, they were inhabited by approximately 2,284,000 Jews. A special organization was set up in Lublin to prepare for their extermination. The actual killing was to be carried out in three death camps -- Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, at the eastern border of the General Government.
The geographical location of the extermination sites also served as a pretext for the claim that the Jews were to be deported to ghettos in the East. Their disappearance could thus be explained in terms of their transportation to labor camps in the huge areas then occupied by the German armed forces in the Soviet Union.
SS-Brigadefu"hrer Otto Globocnik was entrusted with conducting Operation Reinhard -- named after Reinhard Heydrich who had been assassinated on May 2, 1942. In this office he was Himmler's immediate subordinate; as the commandant of SS and Police in the Lublin district he was subordinate to the Supreme SS- and Polizeifu"hrer of the General Government, Obergruppenfu"hrer Friedrich Kruger.
The principal tasks of Globocnik and his staff in Operation Reinhard were: the overall planning of the deportations and of the extermination operations; the construction of extermination camps; to coordinate the deportation of Jews from the different administrative districts to the extermination camps; the killing of the Jews in the camps; to secure their belongings and valuables and transfer them to the appropriate German authority.
Headquarters of Operation Reinhard was responsible for coordinating the timing of the transports with the absorption capacity of the camps.
The organization and supervision of the respective transports from the entire area of the General Government and later on also from other European countries was the task of the RSHA and its departments as well as of the supreme commandant of the SS and Police and his subordinate departments.
To date no written orders by Himmler to Globocnik
concerning Operation Reinhard have been discovered. A reason for this
may be that either Himmler issued no written statement on this subject,
or that any orders and directives were destroyed. (Nuremberg Document
Preparations for Operation Reinhard were initiated more than six months before Himmler's order to commence the Aktion and at the latest two months prior to the Wannsee Conference. The first tasks were to organize the labor force and to construct the extermination centers. Upon completion of his task, Globocnik, in a letter dated October 27, 1943 to the Personnel Headquarters in Berlin, provided a detailed report, which sets out the total number of personnel involved in this operation -- 434 men. (Original in the US Documentation Center, Berlin.)
In the construction and handling of the gassing installations, experienced former workers from the "Euthanasia" programs occupied leading positions in the planning, building, and administration of the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka extermination camps. In the late autumn of 1941 the Belzec and later the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps were set up, as was a training ca np for "foreign" personnel -- Ukrainian volunteers -- in Trawniki, as well as the camp in the "old airport" of Lublin where the clothes and movable belongings of the victims were stored.
As head of the main department on Globocnik's staff, SS- Sturmbannfu"hrer Ho"fle was responsible for organizing and deploying the work force. He also coordinated the timing of the arrival of the extermination transports at the different camps. During the first months of Operation Reinhard, all extermination camps were under Globocnik's direct control; at the beginning of August 1942 Christian Wirth was appointed Inspector of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. (The documents do not specify that Wirth's area of command extended also to Kulmhof.)
About twenty to thirty SS-men served in each camp. Most of them had formerly been engaged in the "Euthanasia" Operation. The camp commandants held the rank of SS-Ober- or Hauptsturmfu"hrer. The others also held noncommissioned officer ranks. No rank-and-file SS-men were employed in any of the camps.
Units composed of Ukrainians with some volksleutsche
(ethnic Germans) were assigned to assist the German camp personnel.
The formation and training of such units took place in the "Trawniki
SS-Training-Camp" which had been set up in the autumn of 1941.
Afterwards, they were distributed among the camps in groups of 60 to
120 men with their own leaders, usually ethnic Germans. Some of the
units assembled in Trawniki were also brought into action in the ghettoes
during the deportation of Jews, for example, at the time of the transportation
of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp.
(StA Wiesbaden AZ: 8Js 1145-60 with plentiful evidence
When the organized mass gassings began, the camp administration needed more and more workers from amongst the death transports. A few, especially skilled workers, were employed in the extermination camps according to the specific directives of the German and Ukrainian camp leaders. Others had to work in the gas chambers, removing and incinerating the corpses, and also sorting the clothes and baggage of the victims. In the initial period, in particular, they were kept alive for only a few days or weeks before being killed and replaced by Jews from newly arrived transports. In each of the camps the Jewish labor force consisted of 600 to 1,000 prisoners. At a later stage Jewish prisoners became part of the permanent staff of the camp. While members of the German or Ukrainian camp personnel were occasionally transferred to other camps, once Jewish prisoners had entered a camp they never left it again.
Belzec, a small town in the southeast of the district of Lublin, close to the border of the district of Lvov and on the Lublin- Zamosc-Rawa Ruska-Lvov railroad line, was selected as the locality for the first extermination camp. The area specified for the camp was a railroad siding half a kilometer from the Belzec railroad station.
The Pole Stanislaw Kozak described the beginning of its construction:
In the second half of December, Christian Wirth was appointed Camp Commandant of Belzec, with Josef Oberhauser as his adjutant. SS-Scharfu"hrer Erich Fuchs reported on Wirth's arrival in Belzec:
Wirth developed his own ideas on the basis of the experience he had gained in the "Euthanasia" program. Thus, in Belzec he decided to supply the fixed gas chamber with gas produced by the internal- combustion engine of a motorcar. Wirth rejected Cyanide B which was later used at Auschwitz. This gas was produced by private firms and its extensive use in Belzec might have aroused suspicion and led to problems of supply. He therefore preferred a system of extermination based on ordinary, universally available gasoline and diesel fuel.
At the end of Febraury 1942 the installations for
mass extermination were completed. The first two or three transports,
each consisting of four to six freight cars fully loaded with a hundred
or more Jews, were used for trial killings in order to test the capacity
and efficiency of the gas chambers and the technique of the extermination
process. The tests lasted several days. The last group to be killed
consisted of the Jewish prisoners who had taken part in building the
camp. (See note 6
Bottled carbon monoxide was used for these experiments. However, a short while later the gassings were carried out with carbon monoxide from the exhaust fumes a of motorcar engine. The engine from an armored vehicle ("250 h.p.") was installed in a shed outside the gas chamber, whence the gas was piped into the gas chamber. Wirth continued to experiment in his search for the most effective method of handling the transports of Jews, from their arrival at the camp to their extermination and the subsequent removal of the corpses. Everything was arranged in such a way that the victims should remain unaware of their impending doom. The intention was to convey to them the impression that they had arrived at a work or transit camp from which they would be sent on to another camp.
In addition, everything was to proceed at top speed so that the victims would have no chance to grasp what was going on. Their reactions were to be paralyzed to prevent escape attempts or acts of resistance.
The speedy process was to increase the camp's extermination capacity. In this way, several transports could be received and liquidated on one and the same day.
The entire camp covered a relatively small, flat, rectangular area. Its southern side measured 265 m., the other sides ca. 275 m. It was surrounded by a high wire fence, with barbed wire attached at the top and camouflaged with branches. Young trees were pianted along the fence so that no one would be able to look into the camp from the outside. There were three watchtowers in the corners, two of them on the eastern perimeter and the third on the southwestern one. There was an additional watch tower in the center of the camp, near the gas chambers. A railroad track some 500 m. in length led from the Belzec railroad station into the camp through the gate on its northern side. The southern and eastern boundaries were lined with conifers.
Belzec was divided into two areas. Camp I, in the northwest, was the reception and administrative sector; Camp II, in the eastern section, was the extermination sector.
The reception sector comprised the railroad ramp, which had room for twenty freight cars, and two huts for the arrivals -- one for undressing and the other for storing clothes and baggage. Camp II, the extermination sector, comprised the gas chambers and the mass graves which were located in the eastern and northeastern part. The gas chambers were surrounded by trees and a camouflage net was spread over their roof to prevent observation from the air. There were also two huts in this sector for the Jewish prisoners working here: one served as their living quarters, the other as the kitchen. Camp II was completely separated from the other sector by a strictly guarded gate.
A low path, 2 m. wide and 50-70m. Iong, known as the "tube," fenced in on both sides with barbed wire and partly partitioned off by a wooden fence, connected the hut in Camp I where the arrivals undressed with the gas chambers in Camp II. The living quarters of the SS-men were at a distance of ca. 500 m. from the camp, near the Belzec railroad station. All the SS-men were employed in the camp administration. Each SS- man had his specific job and some of them were assigned more than one task. From time to time there was an exchange in the spheres of responsibility. (Ibid., vol. VII, pp. 1288,1384; vol VIII, p. 1465)
SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Gottfried Schwarz was the Deputy Camp Commandant, SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Niemann was in charge of the extermination sector of Camp II, and SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Josef Oberhauser, Wirth's adjutant, held responsibility for the con- struction of the camp. SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Lorenz Hackenholt, together with two Ukrainians working under him, was responsible for the operation of the gas chambers.
The Ukrainian unit numbered 60-80 men, divided into two groups. The Ukrainians served as security guards inside the camp, at the entrance gate, and on the four watch towers; they also carried out several patrols. Some of them assisted in operat- ing the gas chambers. Before the arrival of a transport, the Ukrainians were deployed as guards around the ramp, at the hut for undressing and along the "tube," as iar as the gas chambers. During the experimental killings they had to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and bury them. Later on,Jewish prisoners were forced to do this work.
Sobibor, a village in a thinly populated region on
the Chelm- Wlodawa railroad line, was chosen by the Central Building
Administration (SS-Zenttalbauverwaltung) in Lublin as a suitable locality
for an additional extermination camp. (Verdict of LG Hagen AZ:II Ks
The camp extended westward from the Sobibor railroad station, along the railroad track, and was surrounded by a thin coniferous wood. Near the railroad station buildings a siding led into the camp where the deportation trains were unloaded. Originally there were two wooden houses in this locality, a former forester's house and a two-storey post office. The total area of the camp measured 12 hectares, forming a 600 x 400 m. rectangle. Later on the area was enlarged.
Construction of the camp began in March 1942 after the extermination operations in Belzec had already started. Richard Thomalla, head of the Central Building Administration in Lublin, was in charge of its construction. The workers employed for this purpose were local people from the neighborhood.
At the beginning of April 1942 the building operations
slowed down. In order to speed up the work, Globocnik appointed SS-Obersturmfu"hrer
Franz Stangl as camp commandant. However, he first sent him to Belzec
to gain experience in operating a camp. (Gitta Sereny, Into the Darkness,
The first gas chambers in Sobibor were housed in a strong brick building with concrete foundations, in the northeastern part of the camp. Inside were three gas chambers; each measured 4 x 4 m. and could hold 150-200 people at a time. Each chamber had a separate entrance door leading off from a platform on the long side of the terrain. Opposite the entrance was another door through which the corpses were removed. As in Belzec, the exhaust fumes were conducted through pipes from a nearby shed into the gas chambers.
Upon completion of the construction work, extermination tests were conducted in mid-April 1942. Wirth came to Sobibor in order to follow the experiments. He was accompanied by a chemist whose pseudonym was Dr. Blaurock (or Blaubacke). SS-Unterscharfu"hrer Erich Fuchs, who served in Belzec, described the preparations for the first gassing trials:
After this experiment, which confirmed the smooth functioning of the gas chambers, and the completion of some other construction work, the Sobibor extermination camp was ready to operate. It was an improved version of Belzec. The camp was divided into three parts: an administration sector, a reception sector, and an extermination sector. The administration and reception sectors were near the railroad station, while the extermination sector was ill a distant part of the camp, even more isolated than in Belzec.
The administration area in the southeastern part was subdivided into two camps: the "Pre-Camp" ( Vorlager) and Camp I. The Pre-Camp consisted of the entrance gate, the railroad ramp, and the living quarters of the SS-men, the Ukrainians, and their servants--in contrast to Belzec, here all the SS-men lived inside the camp. Camp I was the area set aside for the Jewish prisoners who worked in Sobibor. This is where their living quarters and workshops were located and where a few of them worked as shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, etc.
The reception sector was called Camp II. After being unloaded, the new arrivals were chased into this area where the huts for undressing and the storage sheds for their valuables were situated. The former forester's house, which was also in this area, served as camp offices and apartments for some of the SS-men. A high wooden fence separated the forester's house from the reception sector.
The "tube," which connected Camp II with the extermination sector, began at the northernmost corner of this fence: it was a narrow path, ca. 3-4 m. wide and 150 m. long, fenced in on both sides with barbed wire intertwined with branches. Along this path the victims were chased into the gas chambers which were located at the other end of the "tube."
Near the entrance to the "tube" were a cow shed, a pigsty, and a chicken pen. Halfway along the "tube" stood a hut known as the "hairdresser's," where the Jewish women had their hair cropped before entering the gas chambers.
The extermination sector, designated as Camp III, was in the northwestern part. It comprised the gas chambers, the mass graves, and separate barracks for the Jewish prisoners working there and for the guards. The mass graves were 50-60 m. Iong, 10-15 m. wide, and 5-7 m. deep. The sidewalls of the ditches sloped in order to facilitate the unloading of the corpses. A narrow track for a trolley ran from the railroad station, past the gas chambers, to the ditches. People who had died in the trains or were too weak to walk from the ramp to the gas chamber were driven in this trolley.
The extermination sector was surrounded on all sides by barbed wire with intertwined camouflage material. Watch towers were located along the fence and in the corners of the camp.
The staffing of the camp was settled simultaneously with the completion of its basic installations. Stangl's deputy was SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Herrmann Michel, replaced a few months later by SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Gustav Wagner.
The Ukrainian company of guards in Sobibor was made up of three platoons. Erich Lachmann, a former police official who had trained the Ukrainians in Trawniki, was placed in charge of this unit. Being an outsider among the "Euthanasia" group, he was replaced by Kurt Bolender in the autumn of 1942. In Sobibor, as in Belzec, each member of the German personnel had a specific function. Upon the arrival of a transport most of the SS-men were given additional, specific tasks connected with the extermination procedure. SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Erich Bauer later testified at his trial:
Construction of Treblinka began after Belzec and Sobibor were in operation. The experience gained from the installation and the extermination procedures in those two camps was taken into consideration in the planning and building of Treblinka. Thus, it became the most "perfect" extermination camp of Operation Reinhard.
The camp was situated in the northeastern part of the General Government, not far from Malkinia, a town with a railroad station on the main Warsaw-Bialystok line and close to the Malkinia-Siedlce line.
The camp was erected in a sparsely populated region, 4 km. from the village of Treblinka and the railroad station. The site chosen for the camp was wooded and thus naturally concealed. Since the spring of 1941 a punishment camp had been located a few kilometers away, where Polish and Jewish prisoners were made to process raw material from a gravel pit for frontier fortifications.
At the end of April or the beginning of May 1942, an SS-unit decided on the location. The size and master plan of Treblinka were identical to those of Sobibor. The construction of the extermination camp began at the end of May or beginning of June 1942. Richard Thomalla was in charge; he had completed his construction job in Sobibor and had been relieved by Stangl in April 1942. In building the gas chambers he was assisted by SS-Unterscharfu"hrer Erwin Lambert, a chief-of-construction for technical matters from the "Euthanasia" program. The extermination sector was located in the southwest, in an area measuring 200 x 250 m., totally separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire. As on the outside, branches were intertwined with the barbed wire to hide it from view. For the same reason, the entrances were placed behind a special partition. The gas chambers were housed in a massive brick building in the center. The access paths, including the "tube," in Treblinka named "Street to Heaven" by the SS-men, were model led on those in Belzec and Sobibor; the same applied to the "reception camp" and "accommodation camp."
During the first stage, three gas chambers were in operation, each of them, much like those in Sobibor,4 x 4 m. in size and 2.6 m. high. A diesel engine producing poisonous carbon monoxide, as well as a generator which supplied the whole camp with electricity, were housed in a built-on room. The entrance doors of the gas chambers opened into a passage in front of the building; each door was 1.8 m. high and 90 cm. wide. They could be hermetically closed and bolted from the outside. Inside each gas chamber, opposite the entrance door, was a thick door made of wooden beams, 2.5 m. high and 1.8 m. wide, which could also be hermetically closed. The walls in the gas chambers were covered with white tiles up to a certain height, shower heads had been installed, and water pipes ran along the ceiling--all this so as to maintain the "showers" fiction. In reality the pipes conducted the poisonous gas into the chambers. When the doors were shut, it was completely dark inside.
To the east of the gas chambers were huge ditches into which the corpses were thrown. They had been dug with an excavator from the gravel pit in Treblinka. Prisoners had to participate in this work. The ditches were 50 m. long, 25 m. wide, and 10 m. deep. A narrow-gauge track had been laid from the gas chambers to transport the corpses to the ditches. Prisoners had to push the trolleys.
The main extermination installations were completed by mid-June 1942. The murder operations began on July 23, 1942.
Organized mass extermination began with the deportation of the Jews of Lublin on March 17,1942. This date marks the actual onset of Operation Reinhard.
When the train entered Belzec station, its 40-60 freight
cars were rearranged into several separate transports because the reception
capacity inside the camp was 20 cars at the most. Only after a set of
cars had been unloaded and sent back empty was another section of the
transport driven into the camp. The accompanying security guards as
well as the German and Polish railroad personnel were forbidden to enter
the camp. (See note 6
The train was brought into the camp by a specially selected and reliable team of railroad workers. According to the concept of the extermination process, the procedure was as follows:
The gas chambers resembled baths. A group of young and strong Jews, a few dozen, occasionally even a hundred, was usually selected during the unloading of a transport. Most of them were taken to Camp II. They were forced to drag the corpses from the gas chambers and to carry them to the open ditches. Several prisoners were employed in collecting the victims' clothes and belongings and carrying them to the sorting point. Others had to remove from the train those who had died during the transport and to take those unable to walk to the ditches in Camp II. These Jews were organized into work teams with their own Capos. They did this work for a few days or weeks. Each day some of them were killed and replaced by new arrivals.
SS-man Karl Alfred Schluch, a former "Euthanasia" worker, who spent ca. sixteen months in Belzec from the very beginning, described what else happened to the transports inside the camp:
It is difficult to establish exactly how many of the gas chambers were in operation during the first three months of the mass extermination in Belzec. At times not all three gas chambers functioned because of technical problems or actual defects. Problems also arose with the burial of the victims. When a ditch was filled with corpses, it was covered with a thin layer of soil. As a result of the heat, the decomposition process, and sometimes also because water seeped into the ditches, the bodies swelled up and the thin layer of soil burst open.
Those no longer able to walk were led directly to the ditch where they were shot. Robert Juhrs, an SS-man who started his service in Belzec in the summer of 1942, described how such shootings were conducted:
The first large Jewish community taken to Belzec for extermination came from Lublin. Within four weeks, from March 17 to April 14, close to 30,000 of the 37,000 inhabitants of the ghetto were deported to Belzec. Within the same period of time an additional 18,000 - 20,000 Jews from the Lublin Bezirk were sent to Belzec.
The first Jewish transport from the Lvov Bezirk came from Zolkiew, a town 50 km. southwest of Belzec. This transport consisted of approximately 700 Jews and reached Belzec on March 25 or 26,1942. Subsequently, within the two weeks up to April 6, 1942, some 30,000 other Jews from the Lvov Bezirk arrived in Belzec.
After 80,000 Jews had been murdered in a major operation, which lasted about four weeks, the transports were discontinued. Toward the end of April or the beginning of May 1942, Wirth and his SS-men left the camp.
At the beginning of May 1942 SS-Obe~fu"hrer Brack from Berlin visited Globocnik in Lublin. Globocnik requested the return of Wirth and his staff, and also asked for additional personnel from the "Euthanasia" program.
In mid-May 1942 Wirth returned to Belzec. Until the end of June more transports arrived from the Lublin and Krakow districts with about 22,000 Jews.
With the onset of the deportations from the Bezirks of Cracow, Lvov, and Lublin, Wirth realized that the wooden gas chambers could not cope with the arrival of the increasing number of victirns. Deportations to Belzec therefore ceased in mid-June 1942, while new gas chambers were being built there. This concluded the first period of the operation in Belzec.
The extermination installations in Sobibor had been tested in April 1942, and mass exterminations began during the first days of May. Commandant Stangl introduced into his camp the extermination techniques employed in Belzec. He received additional advice and guidance when Wirth visited Sobibor. (Sereny, pp. 110,113.)
Ada Lichtmann, a survivor from Sobibor, reported how the arrivals were "greeted":
Older people, the sick and invalids, and those unable
to walk were told that they would enter an infirmary for medical treatment.
In reality, they were taken on carts, pulled by men or horses, into
Camp II, straight to the open ditches where they were shot. (StA Dortmund
AZ: 45Js 27/61
During the first weeks the arrivals had to undress
in the open square in Camp Il. Later, a hut was erected for this purpose.
(See plan of Sobibor in the appendix provided with the printed material)
There were signs pointing toward the "Cash Office" and the
"Baths." At the "Cash Office" the Jews had to deposit
their money and valuables. It was located in the former forester's house,
on the route along which the naked people had to walk on their way to
the "tube" and eke gas chambers. The victims handed over their
money and valuables through the window of this room. They had been warned
that those trying to hide something would be shot. When time permitted,
the Jews were given numbers as receipts for the items handed over, so
as to lull them into a sense of security that afterwards everything
would be returned to them. (Verdict of LG Hagen AZ: 11 Ks 1/64, p. 243
Transports which arrived in the evening or at night were unloaded and kept under guard in Camp II until the morning, when the people were taken to the undressing huts and then led into the gas chambers. (Yad Vashem Archives M-2/236, p. 2.) Extermination operations did not normally take place at night.
Frequently, the entire procedure, from the unloading to entry into the gas chambers, was accompanied by beatings and other acts of cruelty on the part of the Germans and the Ukrainians. There was a dog called Barry whom the SS-men had trained to bite Jews upon being called to do so, especially when they were naked. The beatings, Barry's bites, and the shouting and scream- ing by the guards made the Jews run through the "tube" and of their own accord push on into the "baths" -- in the hope of escaping from the hell around them.
Occasionally, a restricted number of skilled workers were selected from some transports. These included carpenters, tailors, and shoemakers, as well as a few dozen strong young men and women. They had to do all the physical work. For months on end, the extermination machinery in Sobibor operated smoothly and uninterruptedly. It should be recalled that fewer transports came to Sobibor than to Belzec, and generally with fewer deportees per train. Usually only one deportation train arrived each day; there were also days without a transport. The size of a transport rarely exceeded 20 freight cars, conveying 2,000 - 2,500 persons.
Stangl, the leading figure, supervised operations. His personality and experience of many years as a police officer in the "Euthanasia" program made him a very suitable camp commandant.
The first phase of operations in Sobibor lasted from May until the end of July 1942. During this period the Jews from the ghettoes of Lublin district were taken there. Among these were also Czech and Austrian Jews who had first been deported to these Polish ghettoes. Altogether, 61,330 Jews from Bezirk Lublin were taken to Sobibor. Simultaneously, transports arrived with 10,000 Jews from Austria, 6,000 from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and part of the 24,378 Slovak Jews who were murdered in this camp by the end of 1942. The first wave of extermination in Sobibor lasted three months, claiming at least 77,000 Jewish victims, excluding those deported from Slovakia.
At the end of July 1942 the large deportations to Sobibor were halted due to repair work on the railway line between Lublin and Chelm. At the beginning of August several transports reached the camp from the ghettoes in the neighborhood; they travel led along the eastern sector of the line which was again open to traffic.
The procedure adopted upon the arrival of the trains was the same as that in Sobibor: two German railroad workers, classified as being reliable, took over the transport from the Treblinka station to the extermination camp, a distance of 4 km. The Pole Franciszek Zabecki described the arrival of the deportation train from the Warsaw ghetto:
As the train approached the extermination camp, the engine blew a prolonged whistle which was the signal for the Ukrainians to man their position in the reception sector and on the roofs of the buildings. One group of SS-men and Ukrainians took up positions on the station platform. As soon as the train was moving along the tracks inside the camp, the gates behind it were closed. The deportees were taken out of the freight cars and conducted through a gate to a fenced-in square inside the camp. At the gate they were separated: men to the right, women and children to the left. A large placard announced in Polish and German:
The undressing procedure and the manner in which the victims were led to the gas chambers were almost identical to those described for the Sobibor camp.
During this first phase, from the beginning to the middle of August, 5,000 - 7,000 Jews arrived every day in Treblinka. Then the pace of the transports increased; there were days on which 10,000 - 12,000 deportees reached the camp, together with thousands who were already dead and others who were utterly exhausted.
Abraham Goldfarb, who arrived there on August 25, described the scene:
Breakdowns and interruptions occurred in the operation of the gas chambers. During the initial phase the personnel did not know how long it would take to asphyxiate the victims. On occasion the doors were opened too early and the victims were still alive, so that the doors had to be closed again. The engines which produced the gas occasionally failed. If such mishaps occurred when the victims were already inside the gas chambers, they were left standing there until the engines had been repaired. Some 268,000 Jews met their deaths in the first extermination wave in Treblinka, which lasted five weeks--from July 23 to August 28.
The gas chambers with their technical breakdowns were unable to cope with such enormous numbers. Those who could not be pressed inside were shot in the reception camp. Many prisoners and additional ditches were needed in order to bury all those who had been shot, in addition to the thousands who had died during the transports. An excavator from the gravel pit in the nearby Treblinka punishment camp was used for digging additional mass graves. But this did not solve the problem and at the end of August chaos still reigned in Treblinka. Reports of what went on in the camp reached headquarters. Globocnik and Wirth arrived, assessed the situation, and dismissed Eberl, the camp commandant. Stangl, from Sobibor, who was without work because of repairs on the tracks, was appointed commandant of Treblinka.
The first period of operation in Belzec and Sobibor lasted about three months, in Treblinka five weeks. After this initial phase, those holding key positions in Operation Reinhard decided to introduce "improvements" into the camps so as to increase their extermination capacity. This decision was brought on by Himmler's order of July 19, 1942 that all the Jews in the General Government, with a few exceptions, were to be eradicated by the end of that year.
The main problem was finding a way to speed up the extermination procedure, i.e., increasing the absorption capacity of the gas chambers.
Belzec was the first camp in which large gas chambers were built. The old wooden structure containing the three gas chambers was demolished, and on the same spot a larger, strong building was erected, which was 24 m. Iong and 10 m. wide. It contained six gas chambers. Statements differ as to their size; they fluctuate between 4 x 4 m. and 4 x 8 m. The new gas chambers were completed in mid July. (StA Munich 1, AZ: 22 Js 68/61, pp. 2602, 2613.)
Rudolf Reder was the only one to have survived the Belzec extermination camp. He described the new gas chambers:
These new gas chambers were able to take in 1,500 persons at one and the same time, i.e., a transport of about 15 freight cars. (Verdict of LG Munich 1, AZ: 110 Ks 3/64, p.10.)
After he had completed the rebuilding of the Belzec gas chambers, Christian Wirth was appointed inspector of all three extermination camps. He was replaced in Belzec by SS-Hauptsturmfu"hrer Gottlieb Hering. Wirth's new headquarters was now in Lublin.
The most urgent need for an increase in the absorption capacity was felt in Treblinka already in the first months of operation, because the small gas chambers there constantly led to chaos in the extermination process. Newly appointed Commandant Stangl therefore ordered the construction of a new building next to the old one. At the same time, the old gas chambers continued to function. Within the framework of this reorganization, he also put an end to the chaotic conditions that had prevailed when the deportees arrived, and he introduced soothing means of deception.
Wirth, in his role as Inspector of the Extermination Camps, sent SS-Unterscharfu"hrer Erwin Lambert and Scharfu"hrer Lorenz Hackenholt, who was responsible for the gas chambers in Belzec, to Treblinka to assist in the construction of the new gas chambers.
The new building comprised 10 gas chambers. In place of the three old ones which together measured 48 sq.m., the area now covered was 320 sq.m. The new rooms were 2 m. high, i.e., ca. 60 cm. lower than the old ones. A low ceiling reduced the volume of the room and hence also the amount of gas needed for killing the victims. In addition, it shortened the asphyxiation time.
The new building was rectangular. A dark curtain from a synagogue hung at the entrance to the passage. It had written on it in Hebrew: "This is the gate, through which the righteous may enter."
The pediment above the entrance door bore a Shield of David. Five steps led up to it, both sides of which were decorated with pot plants. The new building, with its idyllic flight of stairs, plants and curtain, stood at the end of the "tube. " The victims who had been chased through the "tube," ran up the stairs to the entrance and into the passage. The engine producing the gas was located at the end of the building, near the old gas chambers.
In order to speed up the construction, a group of Jewish masons was brought from Warsaw. They had been selected from a transport intended for the beginning of September 1942. A total of 40 Jewish prisoners worked on the gas chambers. Jankiel Wiernik described their feelings: The construction of the new building took five weeks. To us it seemed like eternity. The work continued from sunrise to sunset, accompanied by lashes from whips and blows from rifle butts. Woronikow, one of the guards, beat and ill-treated us mercilessly. Every day several workers were murdered. The extent of our physical fatigue was beyond human imagination, hut our mental agony was still greater. New transports arrived daily; the deportees were ordered to undress, then they were taken to the three old gas chambers. They were led past the building site. Several of us recognized our children, wives or relatives among the victims. If, in his agony, someone ran to his family, he was shot on the spot. Thus we built the death chambers for ourselves and for our brothers! (Jankiel Wiernik, 'Rok w Treblmce', Warsaw, l944.)
The new gas chambers were able to accommodate 4,000 persons at a time, the old ones only 600.
Sobibor was the last camp to be provided with larger gas chambers. This construction program was carried out in September 1942 under the supervision of SS-Unterscharfu'hrer Erwin Lambert, who had erected the new gas chambers in Treblinka, and SS-Scharfu"hrer Lorenz Hackenholt, who was in charge of the gas chambers in Belzec. They had both been posted to Sobibor by Christian Wirth.
The new building had six gas chambers, three rooms on each side. Its layout was similar to that in Belzec and Treblinka, where the entrances to the gas chambers branched off from a central passage. The new rooms here were not larger than the old ones, i.e., 4 x 4 m., but the extermination capacity was increased to 1,200-1,300 persons.
Another important technical change in Sobibor was
a narrow-gauge mine-track which ran from the railroad platform to the
mass graves in Camp III. It was to replace the trolleys pulled by prisoners
or horses, which had transported the dead, the sick, and the invalids
from the train to the ditches. According to Oberscharfu"hrer Hubert
Gomerski, who was responsible for Camp III, the narrow-gauge track was
about 300 400 m. long. It had 5 or 6 wagons and a small diesel locomotive.
(StA Dortmund AZ:45 Js 27/61
Hundreds of thousands of corpses of people murdered in the death camps during the spring and summer of 1942 lay in huge mass graves. In the autumn of 1942 the camp commandants of Sobibor and Belzec decided to incinerate the corpses; in Treblinka, a start on this was made only in 1943. However, the idea to remove all signs of the crimes was not new. In the spring of 1942 Himmler had decided that in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, the corpses of the murdered Jews and Russian prisoners of war were to be exhumed from the graves and incinerated without leaving any traces. The same was to be done with the past and future victims of the extermination camps.
In June 1942 SS-Gruppenfu"hrer Muller, Chief of the Gestapo, charged SS-Standartenfu"hrer Blobel with removing all traces of the mass executions in the East carried out by the Einsatzgruppen. This order was a "State Secret" and Blobel was instructed to refrain from any writtencorrespondence on the subject. The operation was given the code name "Sonderaktion 1005."
Upon his appointment, Blobel, together with a small staff of three or four men, initiated experiments involving the incineration of corpses. The place chosen for them was Kulmhof. For this purpose the ditches were opened and the corpses burnt by means of incendiary bombs, but this led to big fires in the surrounding forests. Subsequently an attempt was made to burn the corpses together with wood on open fires. This method came to be adopted in all the camps of Operation Reinhard. The corpses were carried to the open fires straight from the gas chambers. At the same time, the existing mass graves were opened and those buried there were also incinerated. This cover-up operation was initially introduced in Sobibor.
In Belzec, the incineration of corpses began in November 1942, toward the end of the mass murder. SS-Scharfu"hrer Heinrich Gley testified:
The vacated ditch area was levelled and sown with lupins! SS-Oberscharfu"hrer Heinrich Matthes, who was responsible for the extermination sector in Treblinka, testifies:
The camp leadership was faced with the problem of how to get rid of the huge heaps of ash and bone fragments. Experiments at mixing the ashes with dust and sand, in an effort to conceal them, proved unsuccessful. Finally it was decided to pour the ash and bone fragments back into the empty ditches and to cover them with a thick layer of sand and garbage. Alternate layers of ash and sand were poured into the ditches. The top layer consisted of 2 m. of earth.
Himmler's order of July 19, 1942, stipulated that the deportations from the General Government were to be concluded by December 31, 1942. A limited number of Jews were to be kept back for work in the assembly camps (Sammellager). On November 10, 1942, Kruger, the Supreme SS- and Police Chief of the General Government, decreed the places where the employed Jews and their families were to remain in the ghettoes and camps. By the end of 1942, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population in the General Government had been annihilated. The continued operation of the three special extermination camps was therefore no longer required. At the time Auschwitz-Birkenau increased its extermination capacity, taking in Jewish transports from the various countries of occupied Europe.
Belzec was the first camp where the exterminations were stoppedat the beginning of December 1942. The camp continued to operate till March 1943, and in this final phase the mass graves were opened and the corpses incinerated. During this period the gas chambers and other buildings were destroyed. The Jewish prisoners were taken from Belzec to Sobibor where they were killed.
The dismantlement of Treblinka began after Himmler's visit to the headquarters of Operation Reinhard and to the death camps at the end of February--beginning of March 1943. Prior to that 800,000 victims still had to be exhumed and incinerated and also other work still needed to be done in order to obliterate all traces. In March and April 1943 several transports continued to arrive from the destroyed Warsaw ghetto, from Yugoslavia and from Greece, but this hardly delayed the razing of the camp.
The revolt of the Jewish prisoners in Treblinka on August 2, 1943, occurred in the final phase of the camp's existence and speeded up its liquidation. On August 18 and 19 the last two transports from the ghetto of Bialystok, with 8,000 victims, arrived in Treblinka.
On July 5, 1943, shortly before the dispatch of the last transports of Dutch Jews, Himmler decreed that the Sobibor extermination camp was to be converted into a concentration camp where captured arms were to be stored and processed. While the exterminations continued there on a smaller scale, and in September 1943 transports still arrived from the East, a start was made on the construction of munitions' camps. However, even before the conversion from extermination to concentration camp was completed, the revolt of the Jewish prisoners on October 14, 1943, put an end to the Sobibor camp.
At the end of August 1943, Globocnik was appointed Supreme SS- and Police Chief of Istria, in the region of Trieste. Wirth, Stangl, and the majority of the German personnel from the extermination camps were transferred there together with him. With Globocnik's departure, Operation Reinhard came to an end, as he confirmed in a letter to Himrnler from Trieste dated November 4, 1943: On October 10, 1943:
The terrain of the former extermination camps was ploughed up, trees were planted, and peaceful-looking farm steads constructed. A number of Ukrainians from the camp commandos settled there. No traces whatsoever were to remain which might bear witness to the atrocities committed in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, and to which, according to a conservative estimate, ca. 1,700,000 human beings had fallen victim. Written records had been extensively destroyed as early as the end of 1943. (See note 3.)
Nevertheless, in the postwar interrogations initiated by the German Federal Republic in order to investigate and criminally prosecute former members of the German personnel of these extermination camps, all the people questioned in these proceedings, without exception, irrespective of whether they had at the time spent a prolonged or only a short period in or near one of the camps, testified to the existence and the operation of the gas chambers installed there for the purpose of killing people. In isolated cases, those accused of direct involvement in the mass murders denied their participation in especially extreme acts. However, they did not deny the extermination of Jews and Gypsies in the gas chambers. Moreover, quite independently of one another, they invariably gave detailed descriptions of the purpose of the camps and of the murderous procedures which had been practiced there.
According to Polish official publications based on
the data of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes
in Poland and the trials of Nazi war crimminals, the total number of
victims killed in Treblinka was 850,000, (Yitzhak Arad, Treblinka, Hell