The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Erection of the Operation Reinhard Camps
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The Erection of the Camps

At the same time that preparations were being made for the destruction of the Jews in the General-Government in Poland, in what was called Operation Reinhard (Einsatz Reinhard), three death camps were being erected in the Lublin region -- at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The first camp, at Belzec, was set up alongside the Tomaszow-Lwow railroad and went into operation in March 1942; the second, Sobibor, was erected near the Brest-Litovsk-Wlodawa-Chelm railway line and became operational in April 1942; the third, Treblinka, was set up near the Warsaw-Bialystok railway and started operating on July 23, 1942. These three camps were placed under the command of the SS and Police Leader of the Lublin district (SS und Polizeiführer -- SSPF), SS General Odilio Globocnik, even though the Treblinka camp was located in territory under the control and responsibility of the SS and Police Leader of the Warsaw district. The intention was to concentrate all the annihilation activities of Operation Reinhard under a unified command.

The key people and professional staff at Operation Reinhard headquarters and the staff of the camps came from the T-4 organization, which had conducted Operation Euthanasia -- the killing of mental patients and the chronically ill in the Reich. These activities had been stopped in the fall of 1941 in the wake of pressure from church groups and public opinion in Germany. Himmler made ninety-two of the 400 people in the T-4 organization available to Globocnik. The key member of the group of transferred personnel was Sturmbannführer Christian Wirth. Wirth and his men had technical and professional experience in killing people by gas. This was the method they had used in Operation Euthanasia and which they now introduced in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Wirth was commandant of the Belzec camp, the first that was put into operation, and served in that post until August 1, 1942. At that time he was appointed supervisor of the three camps, with his office located in Lublin. The first commandant of the Treblinka camp was Dr. Eberl, and Franz Stangl, who succeeded him, was the first commandant of the Sobibor camp. They, too, had been on the staff of Operation Euthanasia.

The three camps were erected according to the same basic plan, and Sobibor and Treblinka were virtually identical in structure (see the following sketch of the Treblinka camp) [Not included in this transcription. knm]. They occupied a relatively small area, from one-quarter to one-half sq. km. (about the size of a football field). The camp was divided into two separate sub-camps. each having its own distinct function. Camp A included the railway platform, the staff housing, the quarters of the Jewish prisoners, the camp offices, warehouses, and an open square for handling the people who arrived on the transports and for dealing with their belongings. Camp B, called the "extermination area," included the gas chambers. burial pits, fire pits for burning the corpses, and the quarters of the Jewish prisoners who were employed at various jobs in this part of the camp. A narrow path, from 2 to 4 meters wide, fenced on both sides and running for about 100 meters, led from the area where the victims had to undress to the gas chambers in the extermination area. This path was called Heaven Street (Himmelstrasse) or The Tube (Schlauch). Both sections of the camps were surrounded by two or three barbed-wire fences, some of which were camouflaged with tree branches so that it was impossible to observe from outside what was going on inside the camp. The extermination area and the path leading to it were also blocked off from the rest of the camp with fences, tree branches, and earth embankments, so that even from the other parts of the camp it was not possible to see what was going on there.

The Camp Staff

The permanent staff of each of the Operation Reinhard death camps was comprised of German SS men and Ukrainians. In addition, Jewish prisoners were kept and employed for various tasks.

The SS Staff

The number of SS people ranged from twenty to thirty. The SS people occupied the command and administrative positions in the camp and were responsible for the various installations, which were operated by the Ukrainians or by the Jewishh prisoners. The camp commanders had the rank of Hauplsturmführer -- Stangl in Treblinka, Reichleitner in Sobibor and Hering in Belzec. The assistant camp commanders Kurt Franz in Treblinka and Niemann in Sobibor had the rank of Untersturmführer. The remaining SS people bore a variety of ranks, Unterscharführer, Scharführer, Oberscharführer. All the SS in the camp wore grey army-like uniforms.

The Ukrainian Staff

On the staff of each of the camps there were approximately 80-120 Ukrainians. Their main job was to guard the camp. They manned the guard towers and other positions and patrolled along the fences between positions. When transports arrived the Ukrainians provided armed cover at the railway platform, in the reception square and along the path to the gas chambers (the guarding of the train on its way to the camp was carried out by a different guard unit and was not the camp's responsibility). They also guarded within the camp and prevented contact between the Jews in the camp and those in the extermination area, and operated the motors that supplied the gas for the gas chambers. Like the German personnel, they, too, took part in the shooting executions. The Ukrainian staff in the death camps had been organized beforehand and had been trained in the Trawniki camp near Lublin. Some of them were Soviet prisoners of war and some were local Ukrainians who volunteered for the German service. Among the Ukrainians there were also Volksdeutsche from Soviet areas. They wore black uniforms, and their personal weapon was a service rifle. Some of the guard towers manned by the Ukrainians were equipped with machine guns.

The Jewish Prisoners

The number of Jewish prisoners kept for various service jobs in the camp ranged from 700 to 1,000, with about 600-700 in camp A and 150-300 in camp B.

The Jews in the first group were divided into two groups: the first was facetiously called the "court Jews" (Hofjuden) and the second was called the "square Jews" (Platzjudend). Most of the "court Jews" were skilled workers or were employed in workshops or in building the camp. Compared to the others, their situation was relatively good. The "Jews of the square" were also divided into a number of groups: one group was employed on the railway platform when the transports arrived. Their job was to remove from the cars the bodies of those who had died en route, to remove the packages and to clean the cars. Other groups were positioned in the square where the Jews were ordered to undress; their job was to sort and arrange the clothing and belongings and to ready them for shipment to Germany. In addition, there were the so-called "gold Jews" who sorted gold and other valuables, and a group of barbers who sheared the women's hair before they were sent to the gas chambers. From time to time additional groups of workers were formed for various jobs, including camouflaging the camp fences with branches brought from the nearby forest, construction, paving roads in the camp, and the like. Among the Jewish prisoners there was also a group of women.

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