Aktion 1005, also called Sonderaktion 1005 or Enterdungsaktion (“Exhumation action”), was an operation conducted by the Nazis during World War II, the aim of which was to hide traces of the widespread system of extermination and other places of mass murder that took place under the auspices of Aktion Reinhard.
Conducted in strict secret from June 1942 until late 1944, the Nazis needed a plan of action when reports of mass genocide started to reach the Western powers. Aktion 1005 made use of the slave laborers from the concentration camps, mainly Jews, by having them dispose of the corpses after a mass execution. Workers in this capacity were officially called Leichenkommando (“corpse units”); they were often put in chains in order to prevent escape.
In March 1942, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich met with SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel and placed him in charge of Aktion 1005. The assignment was initially delayed with Heydrich’s assassination in June 1942, but was initiated later that same month. Blobel was then officially tasked with the project by SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo.
Blobel began experimentation at Chelmno, digging up mass graves and using incendiary bombs, but this approach set the nearby forests on fire. Blobel then developed a more effective technique: alternating layers of bodies with firewood or the use of rails as giant grills, and then crushing the bones in a specialized machine. They built pyres made out of long wooden beams, soaked them with flammable liquid, arranged the corpses in layers between the beams, and burnt them. When this was finished, the area was flattened out, plowed, and replanted. The ash and bone fragments were then re-buried in the mass graves.
The operation was initiated in Sobibor, with slaves exhuming bodies from mass graves and burning them. While the principal effort was erasing evidence of Jewish exterminations, the Aktion also included places where non-Jewish victims were murdered. After the task in Sobibor was complete, the workers involved were executed, in accordance with the “top secret” mission, and the German police involved with the operation were not sent back to their units.
The process was then moved to Belzec in December 1942. Between the summers of 1942 and 1943, corpses were burnt in Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz. In June 1943, the Germans began burning corpses in the occupied Soviet Union and Poland. Two Sonderkommando prisoner units were organized. One worked in areas such as Berdichev in the Ukraine and Zamosc in Poland, the other in areas including Riga and Dvinsk in Latvia. Aktion 1005 was also carried out in Belorussia and the Baltic countries, where the corpses of Soviet prisoners of war were burnt. Aktion 1005 was also carried out in Yugoslavia.
As newer extermination camps (such as Auschwitz) set up crematoria to dispose of bodies, the Aktion 1005 groups were dispatched to the scene of earlier mass killings, such as Babi Yar and the Ninth Fort.
By mid-1944, with Soviet armies advancing, SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Koppe, head of the Reichsgau Wartheland (Nazi name for the largest subdivision in Greater Poland), ordered that each of the Generalgouvernement’s five districts set up its own Aktion 1005 group to begin “cleaning” mass graves in those areas of Poland annexed to Germany. The operations were not entirely successful, as advancing Soviet troops reached some sites before they could be “cleaned”; additionally, Leichenkommado laborers occasionally managed to sabotage operations.
In his affadavit submitted at the Nuremberg Trials, SS-Hauptsturmführer Dieter Wisliceny — a deputy of Adolf Eichmann involved in the Final Solution — submitted the following testimony regarding Aktion 1005: