Sign from Treblinka railway station on display at Yad Vashem
|Also known as||German: Aktion Reinhardt
or Einsatz Reinhard
|Date||October 1941 - November 1943|
|Incident type||Mass deportations to extermination camps|
|Perpetrators||Odilo Globocnik, Hermann Höfle, Richard Thomalla, Erwin Lambert, Christian Wirth, Heinrich Himmler, Franz Stangl and others.|
|Organizations||Schutzstaffel, Orpo Battalions, Sicherheitsdienst, Trawnikis|
|Ghetto||European, and Jewish ghettos in German-occupied Poland including Białystok, Częstochowa, Kraków, Lublin, Łódź, Warsaw and others|
|Victims||Approximately 2 million|
|Memorials||On camp sites and deportation points|
|Notes||This was the most lethal phase of the Holocaust.|
Operation Reinhard or Operation Reinhardt (German: Aktion Reinhard or Aktion Reinhardt also Einsatz Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhardt) was the codename given to the secretive Nazi plan to mass murder European as well as most Polish Jews in the General Government district. The operation marked the deadliest phase of the Holocaust with the introduction of extermination camps. As many as two million people, almost all of whom were Jews, were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka set up specifically for Operation Reinhard, to be put to death in gas chambers built for that purpose. In addition, mass killing facilities were developed at the Majdanek concentration camp, and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau near the existing Auschwitz I camp, at about the same time.
The first concentration camps in Nazi Germany were established in 1933 as soon as the National Socialist regime developed. They were used for coercion, forced labour and imprisonment, not for mass murder. The camp system expanded dramatically with the onset of World War II. The foreign prisoners sent to these brand new concentration camps built for the purpose of exploitation in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe, were dying by summary executions, from starvation, and untreated disease, by the tens of thousands already since the beginning of war, as in Soldau concentration camp, or at Stutthof, with 40 sub-camps set up contingently. Some of the most notorious slave labour camps included Mauthausen-Gusen I, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Gross-Rosen (with 100 subcamps), and Auschwitz (with 44 subcamps eventually), among other locations.
The Nazis had decided to undertake the European-wide Final Solution to the Jewish Question during the Wannsee Conference, which was called by Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in January 1942. Operation Reinhard would be a major step in the systematic liquidation of the Jews in occupied Europe; beginning with those within the General Government. Camps at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka were created solely to efficiently kill thousands of people each day. These camps differed from the likes of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Majdanek because the latter also operated as forced-labour camps initially before they became death camps fitted with crematoria.
The organizational apparatus behind the extermination program was developed during Aktion T4 in which more than 70,000 German handicapped men, women and children were murdered between 1939 and 1941. The SS officers responsible for the Aktion T4, such as Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl, and Irmfried Eberl, were all given key roles in the implementation of the "Final Solution."
The origin of the name of the operation is debated by Holocaust researchers. It is hypothesized that Aktion Reinhardt was named after Reinhard Heydrich, the coordinator of the Endlösung der Judenfrage (the Final Solution of the Jewish Question) which meant the extermination of the Jews living in the European countries occupied by the Third Reich during World War II. After the plans were outlined at the Wannsee conference of 20 January 1942, Heydrich was attacked by British-trained Czechoslovak agents on 27 May 1942 and died of his injuries eight days later.
Some argue that, since the more prevalent Nazi designation was "Aktion Reinhardt" (with "t" after "d"), it could not have been named after Reinhard Heydrich but rather, after the German State Secretary of Finance Fritz Reinhardt. Likewise, in November 1946 Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, asserted in a report while in the Polish custody in Kraków, that Operation Reinhardt was actually the code name for the collection, sorting and utilization of all articles acquired from the transports of Jews sent to extermination camps.
On 13 October 1941, SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik headquartered in Lublin received an oral order from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler to start immediate construction work on the first Aktion Reinhard camp at Bełżec in the General Government territory of occupied Poland. The killing centre was operational by March 1942. Globocnik was given complete control over the entire programme. All highly secretive orders he received came directly from Himmler and not from SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks, head of the greater Nazi concentration camp system engaged in slave labour for the war effort and managed by the SS-Totenkopfverbände. Each death camp was run by between 20 and 35 SS men from Sicherheitsdienst (branch of the SS) augmented by the Aktion T4 personnel selected by Globocnik. The extermination mechanism was designed by them based on prior experience from the forced euthanasia centres. The bulk of the actual labour at each "final solution" camp was performed by up to a hundred Trawniki guards recruited from among the Soviet prisoners of war, and up to a thousand Sonderkommando prisoners whom they used to terrorise. The SS called these volunteer guards Hiwis, an abbreviation of Hilfswillige (lit. "willing to help"). According to the testimony of SS-Oberführer Arpad Wigand during his 1981 war crimes trial in Hamburg, only 25 percent of recruited collaborators could speak German.
By mid-1942, two more death camps had been established: Sobibór (operational by May 1942), and Treblinka (operational by July 1942). The killing mechanism consisted of a large internal-combustion engine delivering exhaust fumes to gas chambers through pipes, while the bodies were burned in pits starting in February–March 1943. Treblinka, the last camp to become operational, utilised the knowledge the Nazis had acquired from the other camps. With two powerful V-8 gasoline engines run by SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs, and gas chabers built of bricks and mortar, this death factory had killed between 800,000 and 1,200,000 people within 15 months, disposed of their bodies, and sorted their belongings for shipment to Germany.
The camps were based on a pilot project of mobile killing conducted at the Chełmno extermination camp (Kulmhof) that began operating in late 1941 and used gas vans. Chełmno was not a part of Reinhard, which was marked by the construction of stationary facilities for mass murder; rather, it was a testing ground for the establishment of faster methods of killing and incinerating people. It is important to note that these death factories developed progressively as each site was built. Chełmno, which was under the control of SS-Standartenführer Ernst Damzog, commander of the SD in occupied Posen, was built around a manor house in the Reichsgau Wartheland. It did not have crematoria to start with, only mass graves in the woods. The three gas vans used to exterminate Jews from the Łódź Ghetto, had been previously utilized by Einsatzgruppen on the Russian Front. The Jews from General Government (160,000 via the city of Łódź) were sent to Chełmno between early December 1941 and mid-April 1943.
Overall, Globocnik's camps at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka had almost identical design and transferable SS staff. All of them were situated within wooded areas well away from population centres. Secondly, they were constructed near branch lines that linked to the Polish rail system. Each camp had an unloading ramp at a fake train station, as well as the reception area that contained undressing barracks, barber shops, and money depositories. Beyond these buildings was a narrow, camouflaged path (the so-called Himmelfahrtsstraße or the Road to Heaven) that led to the extermination zone consisting of gas chambers, burial pits up to 10 metres (33 ft) deep, and later, cremation pyres with rails laid across the pits on concrete blocks, refuelled continuously by the Totenjuden. The SS guards and Ukrainian Trawnikis lived in a separate area of the camp. Wooden watchtowers and barbed-wire fences, partially camouflaged with pine branches, surrounded each of these camps.
Unlike the large camps such as Dachau or Auschwitz, the killing centers had no electric fences, as the size of prisoner Sonderkommandos remained relatively easy to control. Only specialised squads were kept alive to assist with the arriving transports, removing and disposing of bodies, and with sorting of property and valuables from the dead victims. The Totenjuden who were forced to work inside the death zones were kept in isolation from those who worked outside in the reception and sorting areas. Periodically these groups would be killed and replaced with new arrivals to remove any potential witnesses to the scale of the mass murder.
During Operation Reinhard, Globocnik oversaw the systematic killing of more than 2,000,000 Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, the Reich (Germany and Austria), the Netherlands and Soviet Union. An undetermined number of Roma were also killed in these death camps, a large number of whom were children.
In order to achieve their purposes, all death camps used subterfuge and misdirection to conceal the truth and trick their victims into cooperating. This element had been developed in Aktion T4 when disabled and handicapped people were taken away by the SS from "Gekrat" wearing white lab coats, thus giving the process an air of medical authenticity. After supposedly being assessed, the unsuspecting patients were transported by them to killing centers for "special treatment". The same euphemism "special treatment" (Sonderbehandlung) was re-used in the Holocaust.
In a similar fashion, the SS used a variety of ruses to move thousands of new arrivals travelling in Holocaust trains to the disguised killing sites without unleashing unimaginable panic. Even though death on the trains from suffocation and thirst was rampant, most victims were willing to believe that the German intentions were different. Common tricks included the presence of a railway station with awaiting "medical personnel" and signs directing people to disinfection facilities. Treblinka had a booking office with signs stating there were connections for other camps further East.
Once alighted, the prisoners were ordered to leave their luggage behind and march directly to the "cleaning area" where they were asked to hand over their valuables for "safekeeping". Sometimes the new arrivals with suitable skills were selected to join the Sonderkommando. Once in the changing area, the men and boys were separated from the women and children, and everyone was ordered to disrobe for a communal bath: "quickly – they were told – or the water will get cold." In order to speed up the process, the old and sick or slow prisoners were taken to a fake infirmary named the Lazarett with a large mass grave behind it. They were killed by a bullet in the neck, while the rest were being forced into the gas chambers.
To drive the naked people into the execution barracks housing the gas chambers, the guards used whips, clubs and rifle butts. Panic was instrumental in filling the gas chambers because the need to evade blows on their naked bodies forced the victims rapidly forward. Once packed tightly inside (to minimize available air), the steel air-tight doors were closed. Although other methods of extermination, such as the cyanic poison Zyklon B, were already being used at other Nazi killing centers such as Auschwitz, the Aktion Reinhard camps used lethal exhaust gases from captured Soviet tank engines. Fumes would be discharged directly into the gas chambers for a given period then the engines would be switched off. SS guards would determine when to reopen the gas doors based on how long it took for the screaming to stop from within (usually 25 to 30 minutes). Special teams of camp inmates (Sonderkommando) would then remove the corpses on flat bed carts. Before the corpses were thrown into grave pits, gold teeth were removed from mouths and orifices would be searched for jewellery, currency and other valuables. All acquired goods were managed by the Main SS Economic and Administrative Department.
During the early phases of Operation Reinhard, victims were simply thrown into mass graves and covered with lime. However from 1943 onwards to hide the evidence of this war crime, all bodies were burned in open air pits. Special Leichenkommando (corpse units) had to exhume bodies from the mass graves around these death camps for incineration. Nevertheless Reinhard still left a paper trail. In January 1943, Bletchley Park intercepted a SS telegram by Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, Globocnik's deputy in Lublin, to Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in Berlin. The decoded Enigma message contained statistics showing a total of 1,274,166 arrivals at the four Aktion Reinhard camps up until the end of 1942. In retrospect, the message shows how many people were murdered but the British codebreakers did not understand the meaning of the message at the time.
Temporary substitution policy
In the winter of 1941, before "Wannsee" but after "Barbarossa" the Nazi demands for forced labor greatly intensified, therefore Himmler and Heydrich approved the Jewish substitution policy in Upper Silesia and in Galicia under the "destruction through labor" doctrine. The masses of ethnic Poles were already sent to the Reich creating a labour shortage in the General Government. Around March 1942, while the first extermination camp only began gassing, the deportation trains arriving in the Lublin reservation from the Third Reich and Slovakia were searched for the Jewish skilled workers. After selection, they were delivered to Majdan Tatarski instead of for "special treatment" at Bełżec. For a short time these Jewish laborers were temporarily spared death while their families and all others perished. Some were relegated to work at a nearby airplane factory or as forced labor in the SS-controlled Strafkompanies and other work camps. Hermann Höfle was one of the chief supporters and implementers of this policy. However, the problem was the food they required and the ensuing logistical challenges. Globocnik and Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger complained, and the mass transfer had stopped even before the three extermination camps were working at full throttle.
Disposition of the property of the victims
Approximately 178 million German Reichsmark worth of Jewish property (current approximate value: around 700 million USD or 550 million Euro) was taken. But this wealth did not only go to the German authorities because corruption was rife within the death camps. Many of the individual SS and police men involved in the killings took cash, property and valuables for themselves. SS-Sturmbannführer Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS judge from the SS Courts Office, prosecuted so many Nazi officers for individual violations that by April 1944, Himmler personally ordered him to restrain his cases.
Aktion Reinhard camp commanders
|Extermination camp||Commandant||Period||Estimated deaths|
|Bełżec||SS-Sturmbannführer Christian Wirth||December 1941 - July 31, 1942||600,000 |
|SS-Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering||1 August 1942 - December 1942|
|Sobibór||SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla||March 1942 - April 1942||250,000 |
|SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl||May 1942 - September 1942|
|SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner||September 1942 - October 1943|
|SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla||May 1942 - June 1942||800,000-1,400,000 |
|SS-Obersturmführer Irmfried Eberl||July 1942 - September 1942|
|SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl||September 1942 - August 1943|
|SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz||August 1943 - November 1943|
Aftermath and cover up
Operation Reinhard ended in November 1943. Most of the staff and guards were then sent to northern Italy for further Aktion against Jews and local partisans. Globocnik went to the San Sabba concentration camp, where he supervised the detention, torture and killing of political prisoners.
At the same time, to cover up the mass murder of more than two million people in Poland during Operation Reinhard, the Nazis implemented the secret Sonderaktion 1005, also called Aktion 1005 or Enterdungsaktion ("exhumation action"). The operation, which began in 1942 and continued until the end of 1943, was designed to remove all traces that mass murder had been carried out. Leichenkommando ("corpse units") were created from camp prisoners to exhume mass graves and cremate the buried bodies, using giant grills made from wood and railway tracks. Afterwards, bone fragments were ground up in special milling machines and all remains were then re-buried in freshly dug pits. The Aktion was overseen by squads from the SD and Orpo.
After the war, some guards were tried and sentenced at the Nuremberg Trials for their role in Operation Reinhard and Sonderaktion 1005; however, many others escaped conviction such as Ernst Lerch, Globocnik's Chief of Staff.
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- Between March and December 1942, the Germans deported some 434,500 Jews, and an indeterminate number of Poles and Roma (Gypsies)to Belzec, to be killed. Bełżec extermination camp
- In all, the Germans and their auxiliaries killed at least 167,000 people at Sobibór. Sobibor extermination camp
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