The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Operation Reinhard
The Extermination Camps
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka

The Attempt to Remove Traces

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-Gruppenführer Muller, Chief of the Gestapo, charged SS-Standartenführer 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 written correspondence 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 Rein hard. 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-Scharführer Heinrich Gley testified:

Then began the general exhumation and burning of corpses; it may have taken from November 1942 to March 1943. The incinerations went on day and night, without interruption, initially at one, then at two sites. At one of the sites it was possible to incinerate about 2,000 corpses within 24 hours. Approximately four week I after the start of the incineration operation, the second site was set up. Thus, on an average, a total of 300,000 corpses were burnt at one site within about five months, and 240,000 at the second one during ca. 4 months. These are obviously estimates of averages. It would probably be correct to put the sum total at 500,000 corpses...

This incineration of disinterred corpses was such an horrific procedure from the human, aesthetic, and olefactory aspects that it is impossible for people who are now used to living like ordinary citizens to be able to imagine this horror. (See note 6 <Vol. IX, p. 1697>) In Treblinka a start was made in the spring of 1943, on Himmler's personal command after he had visited the camp.

The vacated ditch area was levelled and sown with lupins! SS-Oberscharführer Heinrich Matthes, who was responsible for the extermination sector in Treblinka, testifies:

An SS-Oberscharführer or Hauptsch~rfuflrer Floss arrived at this time, who, so I presume, must previously have been in another camp. He then had the installation built for burning the corpses. The incineration was carried out by placing railroad rails on blocks of concrete. The corpses were then piled up on these rails. Brush wood was placed under the rails. The wood was drenched with gasoline. Not only the newly obtained corpses were burnt in this way, but also those exhumed from the ditches. (StA Dusseldorf, AZ:8 Js 10904/59 <AZ. ZSL: 208 AR-Z 230/59, vol. 10, pp. 2056R, 2057).

The burning of corpses proceeded day and night. When the fire had died down, whole skeletons or single bones remained behind on the grating. Mounds of ash had accumulated underneath it. A different prisoner commando, the "Ashes Gang," had to sweep up the ashes, place the remaining bones on thin metal sheets, pound them with round wooden dowels, and then shake them through a narrow-mesh metal sieve; whatever remained in the sieve was crushed once more. Bones not burnt and which could not easily be split were again thrown into the fire.

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.

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