The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Erection of the Operation Reinhard Camps
(2 of 2)

The Jews who were kept in the extermination area worked mainly at removing the dead bodies from the gas chambers and transferring them to the pits. When it was decided to cremate the bodies, on a pile of discarded old rails set aside especially for that purpose, they were also put to work at that. Another group of working Jews was called the "dentists"; they extracted gold teeth from the bodies that had been removed from the gas chambers before they were brought to the pits. There were others who worked in the services in the extermination area--the kitchen, laundry, and the like. The Germans prevented any contact between the Jews in the two parts of the camp. At times Jews were shifted from the first camp to the second, but never back from there. To head the group of Jews the Germans appointed a "camp elder" (Lagerälteste), or, as he was sometimes called, "head Capo" (Oberkapo). Each of the two parts of the camp had its own "camp elder," and the Germans also appointed a Jewish Capo for each work group. To keep a check on what the Jewish prisoners were thinking and doing, the SS found informers among them, but the prisoners quickly learned to recognize these informers and to take precautionary measures.

The relatively small size of the camp and the manner in which it was constructed, including the system of barbed-wire fences and the guard towers, which provided an unobstructed view of the camp area, plus the size of the German and Ukrainian staff and its activity in all parts of the camp, enabled maximum control and surveillance of the goings-on in the camp and of the movement of Jewish prisoners. The only places where the Jews were not under constant observation were the workshops in the daytime and the barracks at night. But the Germans paid frequent visits there, too, and the presence of informers facilitated surveillance of what was going on inside.

Secrecy and Deception as the Major Principle
in the Operation of the German Annihilation Apparatus

In order to understand why the uprisings in Sobibor and Treblinka were carried out by the few hundred Jews retained to work in the camp and not by the hundreds of thousands brought there for extermination, we must consider the system of secrecy and deception and the technique of extermination used by the Nazis. We must also deal with the question of what was known to the Jews who were brought on the transports of the fate awaiting them.

The decisions reached at the highest levels of the Third Reich about the destruction of the Jews and the instructions for carrying them out, which were passed on to the lower levels of the German administration were a closely guarded state secret. The concentration of the Jews in their various countries of residence in occupied Europe and their transport in trains to the annihilation camps in Poland engaged a large bureaucratic and operational apparatus that included both Germans and non-Germans. Many SS, local police officials, government officials and railroad workers were part of this apparatus. Yet despire the involvement of thousands of people in these activities, the Nazis succeeded in keeping the purpose of the transports, their real destination, and the fate awaiting the deportees a secret, even from parts of the Nazi apparatus that dealt directly with the deportations and transportation of the Jews to the death camps. Those levels and sections within the Nazi annihilation apparatus that knew the truth about the destination of the transports kept this secret very well. In fact, the SS uho took part in Operation Reinhard were required to sign a special declaration of secrecy.

The millions of Jews who were taken from their places of residence, ghettos or transit camps did not in any way know that they were being brought to extermination camps nor did they kn(ow what fate awaited them. Most of them had not even heard of the existence of such camps. Rumors about the death camps did, it is true, reach Warsaw and other ghettos in Poland, but the public for the most part did not want to helieve them. Even most of those who escaped from the trains that were on their way to the extermination camps did not know the trains' real destination.

More than one-quarter of a million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto, who from July to September 1942 were brought to Treblinka -- which was only 80 kilometers from Warsaw -- did not know what fate awaited them. When they got off the train at the camp platform they were met by a heavy guard of SS men and Ukrainians, but their eyes immediately encountered the large sign announcing the following in Polish and German:

Jews of Warsaw, for your attention! You are in a transit camp (Durch-gangslager) from which you will be sent to a labor camp (Arbeitslager). As a safeguard against epidemics you must immediately hand over your clothing and parcels for disinfection. Gold, silver, foreign currency and jewelry must be placed with the cashier, in exchange for a receipt. These will be returned to you at a later time upon presentation of the receipt. For bodily washing before continuing with the journey all arrivals must attend the bathhouse. (Adalbert Ruckerl, Nationalsozialistische Vernichtungslager im Spiegel deutscher Strafprozesse--Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Munich, 1977, 219)

This announcement was also delivered to the prisoners orally by a SS officer, who also announced that the old and sick for whom walking was difficult would be transferred to a field hospital (lazarett) near the train platform; they would be assisted by Jews who worked in the camp. He promised that in the hospital the old and infirm would receive medical attention.

From the moment a "shipment" of several thousand people set foot on the platform until its total liquidation in the gas chambers, no more than an hour or an hour and a half passed, sometimes even less. During that time the men were separated from the women and children; they were ordered to undress, and their clothing was arranged in packages; they handed over their valuables; the women's hair was shorn, and the people were led to the "showers," which of course were the gas chambers. They were forced to do all of these things at a run, under a hail of shouts, blows and bullets from the So men and the Ukrainians, and the barking and biting of dogs. The suddenness and speed with which all of this was done, the constant running, and the atmosphere of terror and threat put the people in a state of shock that kept them from thinking about what was happening around them or from taking any action of resistance.

This method was used with all the extermination transports that arrived in sealed freight cars in the latter part of 1942 from the territory of the General-Government in Poland and from the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. A slightly different method was used for transports that arrived from Western Europe, the territory of the Third Reich, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans from the end of 1942 until the middle of 1943. These transports arrived in passenger cars. Upon arrival they found an "ordinary" railway Station with signs pointing to ticket windows, tables indicating the departure times of trains to various destinations and other normal station installations -- all, of course, fake. The alighting from the train was carried out in a polite and calm manner. The camp personnel encouraged the arrivals to write postcards to their families and friends telling them that they had come to a labor camp; they were even given an address for receiving mail (those arriving in Sobibor were told to write Arbeitslager Wlodawa [Wlodawa Labor Camp]).

After the postcards were sent, everything having been done in a peaceful and polite atmosphere, the situation changed radically: a torrent of shouts, blows, dog bites and bullets rained down on the people, who were stricken by an even greater shock and paralysis than that felt by the Jews from Poland and the Soviet Union. In this way they were driven toward the gas chambers.

It is thus clear why those hundreds of thousands of Jews were unable to organize and respond. It is equally clear why the underground that carried out the uprisings was formed by some of those few Jews who had been selected from the transports to work for a certain period at various jobs in the camp. They came to know what was happening in the camps and what fate awaited them; in addition, they had the time to organize their resistance.

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