Extermination of Polish Jews. The genesis and course of Operation Reinhard

Written by: Professor Andrzej Żbikowski
The secret operation, the aim of which was to murder Polish Jews, was dubbed Operation Reinhard by the Germans, probably in honor of Reinhard Heydrich, the organizer of the Wannsee conference and the chief coordinator of the Holocaust.

General Government

In the General Government established in occupied Poland by Hitler's decree of October 12, 1939, in four districts (Warsaw, Radom, Kraków, Lublin), lived less than 1.5 million people recognized as Jews under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 (including the lands incorporated under German occupation, there were 1.8-1.9 million). Their legal position was determined by the order of Reinhard Heydrich of September 21 (the so-called Schnellbrief). According to it, all Jews were to be concentrated in separate and isolated districts of larger cities, located near railway lines.

From December 11 1939, Jews from the General Government were only allowed to move in their place of residence, and from January 1940, they were forbidden to travel by trains without a special permit. Further restrictions were introduced by the Governor-General by decrees of September 13, 1940, February 20, and November 15, 1941. They gradually eliminated the Jews’ ability of leaving their places of residence without a special permit, ultimately under the threat of the death penalty.

Since the establishment of the General Government, all male Jews of working age could be sent to forced labor. By the beginning of 1941, about 200 Jewish forced labor camps had been established, in which tens of thousands of people were moved. They worked without pay on drainage works, construction of roads, fortifications and buildings, as well as agricultural works. As a rule, they went to work in compact columns from ghettos. In 1942 and 1943, the SS took full control over the Jewish workers locked up in the camps.

The creation of ghettos

From the first months of the occupation, efforts were made to isolate the Jewish population from their Christian neighbors in closed ghetto districts. The existence of the ghettos was supposed to be temporary, because until the fall of 1941 the Germans considered the so-called territorial solution, i.e. removal of the entire Jewish population to the “reserve” located in the Lublin district, then to the island of Madagascar (French colony), and finally to the marshy areas of Polesie, already occupied in the first weeks of the war with Russia. In each of the districts, the process of creating ghettos had different dynamics and was associated with mass resettlement.

Relatively early (on November 16, 1940), the Warsaw Ghetto, largest in the GG, was closed. At that time, about 360 thousand people lived there. In the Warsaw district there were about 70 ghettos. In many small towns of this district, no ghettos were established at all. The area where Jews were allowed to live was marked out, residents were forbidden to leave the site, or they were relocated to larger places. In this process, smaller, usually rural communities were liquidated.

In the Kraków district, the capital ghetto in Kraków was established only on March 21, 1941, in district towns they were not established until the spring of 1942 (Bochnia, Tarnów). The Lublin Ghetto was established only on March 24, 1941. The German occupier established ghettos also after the outbreak of the German-Soviet war on June 22, 1941. Most of them were established in the Galicia district, attached to the General Government on August 1, 1941, and in the Białystok District. The process of establishing ghettos in the territories incorporated into the Reich and in the General Government was significantly accelerated after the German victory over France in June 1940, and grew even faster after the decree of the Governor-General Frank of February 20, 1941. As a result of these actions, in the autumn of 1942 there were already over 400 ghettos.

From October 15, 1941, on the basis of the decision of the Governor General Hans Frank, the death penalty was imposed for unlawfully leaving the ghetto in the entire General Government. The fate of all Polish Jews was decided by the outbreak of the war with the Soviet Union. In the occupied territories, mass killing began immediately. It seems that the Nazis were surprised by the number of Jews in the Polish Borderlands and the Soviet territories. Concentrating them, as in the General Government, in huge ghettos would significantly complicate the already difficult supply problems facing the Germans in the East.

A breakthrough in German policy towards European Jews came in the fall of 1941, when the pace of the Russian campaign slowed down. At that time, a decision was made on their total extermination, but the written order on this matter has not been preserved and probably does not exist at all, due to the secrecy of the entire undertaking.

Already at the turn of July and August 1941, in the territories of the Soviet Union, in mass executions carried out by four special groups following the Wehrmacht (Einsatzgruppen), not only Jewish men, considered in advance as supporters of communism, were mercilessly murdered, but also women, old people, and children. From September 1941, the German occupier began to liquidate entire Jewish communities. In the spring and summer of 1942, it rolled parallel to the so-called Operation Reinhard in the General Government, the second and last wave of murders of the Jewish population living in the territories that belonged to the USSR from September 1939. By the end of 1942, almost all Jews from the Baltic states, eastern Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia (altogether from 1,5 to 2 million people) were murdered. From the Galician district belonging to the GG from August 1, 1941, Jews were transported to the death centers in Bełżec and Sobibór, the rest were murdered on the spot.

At the turn of September and October 1941, the fate of the Jews from the General Government was decided, then, in December 1941 at the latest, Hitler personally made a decision on the extermination of all European Jews. Nevertheless, on September 17, began the deportations of Jews from Germany for extermination in the General Government.

Finally, in the spring of 1942, a radical version of the “Final Solution” was adopted, that is, the murder of all Jews living in territories controlled by Germany. The first victims were to be Jews from the General Government and the so-called Warta country (today’s Poland Wielkopolska region). In the case of the latter territory, the Holocaust was initiated by the local Gauleiter Arthur Greiser, who received the consent of the head of the German security police, Reinhard Heydrich, to murder 100,000 people. Jews living in his territory. On December 7, 1941, in Kulmhof (Chełmno), north-east of Łódź, in the areas incorporated into the Reich, exhaust gas from trucks transporting prisoners was used for the first time to kill people. Jews from the small towns of Dąbie, Sompolno, and Koło were brought to this extermination camp and killed on December 8. A week later, the first Jews from Łódź were deported to Kulmhof, and from then on Jews were murdered there, with breaks, until May 15 1942. At about the same time – in the autumn of 1941 – the first attempts were made of mass gassing Jews and Soviet prisoners of war in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Operation Reinhard

The initiator of the practical action of commencing the mass killing of Jewish inhabitants of the General Government was SS-Brigadeführer and Police Major General Odilo Globocnik, SS and Police Commander in the Lublin District. It was supposed to be the first stage of mass resettlement in the district leading to its complete Germanization. (The Germans also began resettling Poles from this district). In mid-October 1941, the Globocnik project was approved by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler and probably by Adolf Hitler himself. A few days later, during the conference of the district authorities with the Governor-General Hans Frank on October 17, 1941 in Lublin, the final organizational and technical arrangements were made, although on October 13, Himmler entrusted Globocnik with the task of building the first mass extermination center in Bełżec. The construction of the next two death camps in Sobibór and Treblinka was decided during the Berlin conference at Am Grossen Wannsee, January 20 1942. It was decreed that 2,3 million Jewish inhabitants of five districts of the General Government would be murdered (the Jews from the Białystok District were already included in the “action”).

The largest mass murder in history was to be led by a special staff located in Lublin. Its work was supervised by Odilo Globocnik, while the current work was managed by SS Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, a specialist in Jewish affairs at the Reich Security Office. His closest associate was the police captain Christian Wirth, who had previously led the mass killing of mentally ill people at the Hartheim and Hadmar facilites. From the very beginning, the supervision over Operation Reinhard, and then over the extermination of Jewish inhabitants from other European countries, was exercised by Department 4 B 4 of the Reich Main Security Office, headed by Adolf Eichmann.

The first death camp in Bełżec started operating on March 17, 1942. The Jews from Lublin were the first to be murdered, and in the following days the Jewish inhabitants of Lviv were killed in the gas chambers. In Sobibór, Jews were murdered from the beginning of May, and in Treblinka from 23 July. It is estimated that almost 1.5 million Jews and several thousand Gypsies, brought in 413 transports, were murdered in the three camps. Among the victims there were 130,000 Jews from outside Poland (9% of the total number of victims). At least 850,000 people were killed in Treblinka, including about 300,000 Jews from Warsaw. The camp operated until August 2, 1943, on which date the uprising broke out, and several hundred prisoners managed to escape. About 130,000 Jews died in Sobibór, including 85,000 from abroad, and on October 14 1943, a part of the last group of prisoners managed to escape as a result of the uprising. Only one person managed to get out of Bełżec; almost half a million Jews were murdered there. In order to cover up the traces of the crimes, the perpetrators at the beginning of 1943 began removing the bodies of the victims from the mass graves and burned them on huge grates, and scattered the ashes in the surrounding fields. According to the report by Globocnik of January 5, 1944, Operation Reinhard lasted until October 17, 1943. In its course, 70% of the Jewish inhabitants of the General Government, Białystok District, and Polish territories incorporated into the Reich were murdered. The rest were murdered before or after the action.

Throughout 1943, the last ghettos in the General Government were liquidated. On June 3, 1943, Governor-General Frank handed over the authority to deal with Jews to the Sicherheitspolizei (security police), the civil administration retained only some of the authority to dispose of Jewish property. Until the autumn of 1943, there remained a number of forced labor camps: Poniatowa and Trawniki in the Lublin region, camps-armament factories of the Hasag company (Hugo Schneider AG) in Radom, Częstochowa, and Skarżysko-Kamienna, Płaszów near Krakow, the so-called Janów camp in Lviv (DAW at Janowska Street), and others. On November 3 1943, as part of the Erntefest (“harvest festival”) campaign, all camps for Jews in the Lublin region (including Poniatowa and Trawniki) were liquidated, 42,000 Jews were murdered on the spot. The liquidation of the last, small groups of Jews on Polish territory, and the extermination of Hungarian, Slovak, and Greek Jews lasted until November 1944. It was then that Himmler, due to the situation at the front, issued an order to stop the murdering in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The last chord of the Holocaust was the so-called death marches, i.e., the evacuation of almost 700,000 people, started in January 1945. This included prisoners forced to march deep into the Reich, mainly Jews, employed in labor camps in Silesia, carried out in the dramatic conditions of winter, hunger, thirst, and the extreme weakening of the prisoners. As the Russian troops advanced, the prisoners were evacuated further. About 200,000 people died during it.

In total, about 5.5 million European Jews died during World War II. The vast majority of them, including at least 2.8 million Polish citizens of Jewish nationality, were murdered in the occupied Polish territory.

Professor Andrzej Żbikowski   head of the JHI Research Department, professor at the Eastern European Studies at the University of Warsaw