Operation Reinhard was a Nazi plan to exterminate all of Poland’s Jewish population. It was methodically plotted and marked the single deadliest phase in the entire Holocaust.
Operation Reinhard, Podcast Transcription
[00:00:01] Produced by PI Media.
[00:00:07] Welcome to "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. I'm your host, Nate Nelson. In this episode, we'll be hearing from Dr. David Silberklang, senior historian at the International Institute for Holocaust Research and editor in chief of Yad Vashem Studies on Operation Reinhard, a Nazi government operation which marked the single deadliest period of the Holocaust. Over the course of two years, millions of Jews were sent to their deaths on a scale never before seen in history. What exactly happened? Who was responsible for the operation? And how can we begin to make sense of such horrors?
[00:00:48] Greetings, Dr. Silberklang. What was Operation Reinhard?
[00:00:53] Operation Reinhard was the largest single murder operation of the Holocaust and it targeted the large majority of Polish Jewry and the bulk of the operation was accomplished in a mere nine months in 1942, although it continued well into 1943 in killing the remnant Jews who were left behind from the first part of the operation.
[00:01:21] Who is in charge of carrying out this plan?
[00:01:23] The operation was headed by an SS general named Odilo Globočnik. He was Austrian and he had been posted to Lublin, which was the headquarters of this operation. He'd been posted there early in World War two, 9th of November 1939. This operation began to be developed in the late summer, early fall of 1941. And as it progressed under his organization with a whole team that he created in the SS and the police, German civilian authorities joined by early 1942. And then it was planned together by his special SS team and German civilian authorities from the German civilian government of the Lublin district and of the larger areas of occupied Poland, particularly population experts who were involved and labor experts and various others. But really a broad swath of the civilian authorities.
[00:02:26] Now for some specifics, what happened during Operation Reinhard?
[00:02:30] The initial deportations to extermination camps began on March 17th of 1942, when first Jews in the city of Lublin began to be deported. And then shortly after them, Jews from the city of Lvov. Today, it's Lviv in Ukraine and then gradually from all across the areas of Poland that the Germans call the General Government, the areas that included the region of Warsaw, of Lublin and several others. And within a short period of time, after some experimental deportations, so they could figure out what's the best way to round Jews up, then get them to get onto the freight trains that would take them off to these extermination camps, the operation picked up speed. First one camp was opened in March of 42. That was Bełżec. Then a second extermination camp was opened on May 1st of 42. That was Sobibor. Both of those were in the Lublin district. And then a third was opened in July of 42. That's Treblinka. And each of these camps was assigned a kind of regional job to kill the Jews of a particular area or several areas of Poland. And in addition to that, to kill Jews from other places that were then being transported into Poland during the spring and summer and fall of 1942. And these are extermination camps. No one is meant to survive. There's no serious forced labor or anything like that. The roundups were extremely violent. I'll just give one illustration. The Lublin city deportations that began on March 17th lasted for four weeks. During those four weeks, 30,000 Jews out of 40,000 in the Lublin ghetto were deported to the death camp of Bełżec. In addition to the 30,000 who were deported and were all killed pretty much immediately upon arrival, more than 2000 were shot in the streets, shot dead in the streets. And many of those who boarded the trains were also they boarded the trains bleeding from being shot, but not having been killed or being beaten over the head and were bleeding boarding it. And many of the deportations to death camps were similar in terms of their extreme violence.
[00:04:51] That's quite horrific. The sheer extremity of the violence. Who else was in charge of these crimes? Who was Richard Türk, for example?
[00:04:59] Richard Türk was very important character in the planning and implementation of Operation Reinhard. His job within the civilian administration, he was a career civil servant in the German Interior Ministry. He'd been working there since the mid-1920s. His job in the civilian government in the Lublin district was that he was in charge of the population and welfare department and his small office was composed of a couple of secretaries and everybody else, rather social workers or career civil servants. But because they were the population department, they had records of everybody, not just the Jews, but everybody where they lived, how old they are, what they did, et cetera, et cetera. His records of all the Jews in the Lublin district were very accurate. They were based upon forcing Jews to take their own records and submit them. And therefore, his department joined Globočnik in planning in fine detail. First, the city of Lublin, how to cordon off particular buildings or particular parts of the ghetto and round the Jews up and take them and then planning the rest of the Lublin district. The smaller places, the larger places, how to cordon off, who to take, who not to take, who was going to be left behind temporarily as a forced laborer as opposed to those to be taken away right away and be killed immediately. And during the deportation operation, that four week operation in the Lublin in the city of Lublin, he was out there with his staff in the streets giving direction to the SS and police people and the Ukrainian auxiliaries who were rounding the Jews up. This building, here's what we know, that building, here's what we know. He did so well in organizing this operation that he then got a promotion during the operation and got a similar job, but much higher level at the capital of the General Government, which was in Krakow. And he, of course, is an illustration of civilian. He's an illustration of the widespread participation and knowing participation of many different civilians, German and Austrian.
[00:07:15] And what made Richard Türk particularly unique other than his position of authority?
[00:07:22] I would hesitate to say he is unique. I would say he is more representative. He was a card-carrying Nazi. He joined the Nazi party somewhere in the late 1920s or early 30s. I don't remember exactly. But prior to that, he was a career civil servant. That's his job. You know, people have different jobs. He worked in the Interior Ministry of Germany well before the Nazis came to power. And very many of the people who were involved in organizing persecution and implementing persecution and the same for murder, genocidal murder, were people who were ordinary civilians who had all sorts of jobs. Some of them were firm Nazis in their ideology and others were not necessarily. He apparently was a firm Nazi. But not everyone in his staff was. We know something about some of them. And there are records about them. And so to all sorts of other civilian authorities. So Türk is unique in the sense of that we actually have quite a bit of documentation about him from the period because the documentation of the German civilian administration from this area survived almost entirely. So we have records of lots of people and what they said and did, including him. But he's not unique in the kind of person he was. There were lots of them. We don't know the number, but it's certainly in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians like him who were doing genocidal murder.
[00:08:48] Could you expand on these civilian participation in Operation Reinhard? This seems like one of the touchier aspects of the story that so many folks who weren't career military, who are just ordinary citizens of these countries, willingly took part in the identification, deportation and eventually what would turn out to be extermination of Jews. When you look at this aspect of the story, what should we think about this?
[00:09:18] It's an interesting question. Let me preface the response by saying that there was hardly anyone who was coerced into participating in murder. People knew what they were doing. And people knew that they could evade participating. They couldn't stand up and say this is evil, because then they're standing in opposition to the government. But they stood up and said, I'd rather not be part of this. I feel uncomfortable. It makes me have nightmares about my children, whatever they want to say, whatever story they come up with. There's no record of anyone. Not one person ever having been punished for saying, I'd rather not do this. And there were people who said that. There are records of people being punished for pocketing money that was stolen from the Jews. It's all supposed to go to the government, to the Third Reich. If you put it in your pocket, you get punished. The commandant of Majdanek was executed for that, for pocketing too much money. Majdanek, a pretty important camp, and he's executed for that. And that reverberated throughout the system among the uniformed people and among the civilians. The people who didn't want to take part that also reverberated. Did you hear about so-and-so; did you hear about so-and-so? They ended up not taking part. So first of all, the extent to which it's a gray area, there is gray. But I would say that, by and large, these people knew what they were doing and made choices. And then we have to wonder why people make such choices. And there are many attempts at explanation, but it's still really an open question and research on the Holocaust. I have lots of answers, but no answer really. So the answers help us understand, but can't really explain it. Why would someone, someone's a diehard Nazi and really believes the Jews are vermin and you need to exterminate them the way you exterminate cockroaches or any other kind of vermin. If you really believe that, I can in a sense, understand how someone like that might draw the conclusion that we have to kill them all. And I'll take I'll play the role, I'll take to my role in that. But if you don't believe that, if you look at a Jewish human being and don't see a roach or a disease and you see a human being, one you don't like, but a human being, then when you take the conscious decision, I'm going to kill these people and I'm going to help organize the murder of these people, you know what you're doing. And many of these people were not necessarily diehard Nazis. Some of them even thought that they were liberals, had nothing against Jews. And yet we find them in the planning and in the implementation of murder. And so the gray area, I'm not so sure. And it's so wide spread, so that it raises many questions. I think if there's one of the fundamental questions about the Holocaust that is still with us, that we still need to learn more about if we want to try to prevent such things from happening again in the future, anywhere in the world, is to try to understand the motivations of people to go out and willingly participate in genocidal murder of other human beings without really batting an eyelash too much.
[00:12:35] And when Jews during this process sought help, how were they greeted? What happened?
[00:12:40] When Jews saw what was happening around them, many of Jews, of course, they see the violent roundups and sometimes they heard about earlier roundups somewhere else. So in Lublin, they didn't hear about anywhere else, but as it progressed in Lublin, they try to hide. Other places heard about Lublin. So lots of people there try to hide or to escape. We know from historians estimates that somewhere just in the general government of Poland, somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 or 300,000 Jews, in other words, well, more than 10 percent of those who are trapped in this operation, actually succeeded in evading the operation and fleeing. And they did one of four different kinds of things generally, either turning to local people who are not Jewish and asking for help. And that help could be: help me for today and I'll go away or help me long term. Those people might be friends or might be strangers. They fled to forest as if they were somewhere where there was a forest. Lots of Poland doesn't have forest, but where there is a forest, they might go there hoping to be able to hide. Some of them try to join undergrounds, either Jewish underground or of course, the more numerous non-Jewish undergrounds. But there they found they usually had to hide their identity because most of the underground wouldn't accept Jews or they tried to get false identities. And for that, they needed the help of people, not Jewish. Most of the people who fled would initially go whatever their ultimate direction was, would initially go to someone not Jewish, a Polish person, or if is, you know, an area where there's a Ukrainian minority that might turn to that person and ask for help. And one such area where there was well, first of all, what happened with them is that Jews who fled found and then we know this from survivors and from surviving written records during the Holocaust, Jews who fled found themselves facing a largely hostile hinterland. That is, there were people who might be sympathetic, people who might be willing to risk their lives to help Jews. And they were risking their lives if they were caught. There's no doubt about that. But by and large, it was hostility, not just fear: I'm afraid for my family; go away because I can't help you; the Germans will kill me. That happened, of course, and that was genuine. But people who when they found out there's a Jew hiding in the fields or hiding in the woods somewhere would go and hunt them down to turn them in or to kill them themselves. So Jews didn't know who to turn to. In one area of Poland, there were Jews who had lots of friends, as in other areas, but where there was a concentration of Jews who were hiding. And this is in southern Poland of today, an area near this town of Łańcut. And I'm talking about a very small town called Markowa. And in the area of Markowa, where there were lots of farms and little villages and the town itself, that was a small town, just a couple of thousand people. There were several dozen Jews who were taken in by local Polish people and were hidden. Some of them, these Jewish people were being hidden because they could pay a lot of money, it wasn't altruistic, but more for making a profit. But others certainly were hiding the Jews just to help them. And maybe they were getting money to cover expenses because they're poor people, these farmers, and maybe no money at all. One of those families that hid Jews was the family of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma. They were a devout Catholic family. There are origins many generations earlier, apparently were Dutch, actually, some Dutch migrants who'd moved there many, many generations earlier. And out of their devoutness and out of their prior friendship with some Jewish families in the area, they hid eight Jews on their farm. And they were hiding them in the hayloft and in the cellar. And a local Polish person finked on then. And brought the German police along with Polish police from the larger town nearby Łańcut, which I mentioned. And on March 24th, 1944, the police killed all the Jews and killed the entire Ulma family. And this family was a family of eight people. It was this devout couple with six children, all of them young. And the wife, Wiktoria, was in her seventh month of pregnancy with their seventh child. And all of them were killed because this Polish person turned them in and the Polish police and German police came and killed them all. Now, as I said, there were several dozen Jews hiding in the area. And we know that the next day after this murder, many of those Jews were murdered by the people hiding them. We know this from a variety of sources, but one of them is a survivor who was rescued by the Wiglusz family in a farm right nearby. And that family has been honored as Righteous Among the Nations. They hit him despite the dangers right to the end, him and several other people. And he then submitted a testimony written account to Yad Vashem in the 1960s as part of the file to honor his rescuers as Righteous Among the Nations. And I want to read just a few sentences from what he wrote about the Ulma family. And he wrote about March 1944, he said these were hard times for them. That is his rescuers. And for us, searches were conducted both by the Germans and by the Polish peasants themselves who wanted to find the hidden Jews. In the spring of 1944, a Jewish family was discovered hiding with Polish peasants. That's the Ulmas. The Polish family, eight souls, including a pregnant wife, was killed with the hidden Jews. As a result, there was enormous panic among the Polish peasants who were hiding the Jews. And the next morning, 24 corpses of Jews were discovered in the fields. They'd been murdered by the peasants themselves, peasants who had kept them hidden during the previous 20 months. So who can the Jews rely on? Very often, even the people who are helping them and hiding them in the end killed them themselves. And we know that in this area, as well as in many other areas in Poland, and I can add to that Ukraine, Lithuania, and other places that there were organized manhunts of local people out there trying to hunt Jews, not only in order to hand them over to the Germans so that they can get a reward, but also in order to kill them themselves and take the money for themselves. Whatever the Jews might have, they have a few dollars or Reichsmarks or whatever they might have, they might have a wedding ring, to take that for themselves because their assumption was Jews have money. And taking that money from the Jews without bring it to the Germans was breaking the law, and they could be punished by the Germans for doing that, just like they could be punished for helping a Jew. And here they are. Lots of them killing Jews and taking their money. Of those 250,000 or more Jews who we know of who fled, nearly all were caught and killed either by the Germans or by local people. And there are lots of records about that to.
[00:20:09] That's very difficult to hear. I'm almost afraid to ask about the scale of these atrocities. Can you tell us how many people in all were killed and how many managed to escape?
[00:20:21] I'll start with two statistics just to get to the point. In the Wannsee Conference that was a meeting of senior German executives from the SS and from various government ministries who met in January 20th, 1942 in a suburb of Berlin to discuss coordinating the final solution and not the decision makers but the implementers. How do we organize this? And there was some background information prepared for that meeting. And one of the main people preparing the background is Adolf Eichmann, whom we know from the Eichmann trial in his various activities. And one thing he prepared was a table that listed how many Jews there are in each place that's being targeted and which places how many Jews he got to. More than 11 million Jews were meant to be part of this so-called final solution to the Jewish question for the area of the General Government. That's Operation Reinhard. The estimate they had for the number of Jews there in January 1942 was two million two hundred eighty four thousand. A year later the chief statistician for the SS, someone with a PhD in economics named Dr. Richard Korherr, wrote up a summary of the final solution so far. How many Jews were there? How many have we killed so far? And in the numbers he gave for the General Government, he said that so far or as of now in the General Government in January 1942, there are fewer than 298,000 Jews remaining. That two million gap is Operation Reinhard. In the course of mid-March to mid-December 1942, some two million Jews were murdered in gas chambers, in extermination camps Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, around one point six million in those three camps or by shooting, several hundred thousand were shot, whether by the Germans or by others. And that's operation Reinhard– two million in the course of nine months. And, of course, the operation continued after that because there were forced laborers who were left behind to do all sorts of work for the Germans. And then they were killed gradually during 1943 and then the ones who were still alive were all slaughtered in two days in an operation the Germans called Erntefest, which means a Harvest Festival on November 3rd and 4th, 1943. That was the end of the operation. In those two days, they killed between 42,000 and 43,000 Jews by shooting. This murder operation, most of which happened in those nine months in 1942 was the largest, most thorough murder operation undertaken in the Holocaust. In just one period within that from mid-August to mid-December, the estimates are that in that territory, in this operation, more than 10000 Jews were murdered every single day. More than 10,000 murdered every single day just there, that's not counting all the other places where people are being killed.
[00:23:23] I'm finding it difficult to even understand these numbers, you know, two million or 10,000 a day men, women, and children who are exterminated in this operation. It's all a bit much to handle. What is there to take away from this besides just being horrified?
[00:23:43] Of course, the enormity of the story. But it's also important if it's the largest murder operation, the most rapid and efficient murder operation, there are things to learn from that. But I think we also need to learn from the three types of characters that are involved. That is those who were the planners and implementers of the murder, the Jews, who are the targeted victims here. What do we learn about victim behavior? What are their possibilities? What do they try to do with what they saw and so on? And the third is, what are the possibilities that people who are themselves persecuted, and the Poles are being persecuted terribly by the Germans, what people who are themselves persecuted, what can they do when they see things like this happening or what can they not do? There are limits to their possibilities. And from the behavior of the different groups we learn something. We also learn things we shouldn't be and what we should try to educate ourselves and our future generations to be or not to be. Don't be the Richard Türk. I'm a bureaucrat and I'll just do whatever is asked of me and I'll volunteer to do things and so on and organize horrible crimes. You don't have to do that. People are responsible for their actions. When we look at the neighbors of the Jews, we rightfully hold up the Righteous Among the Nations as on a pedestal as heroes. They were; they risked their lives and their family's lives in order to try to help people whose lives were in danger. They're not necessarily angels. They're not necessarily knights in shining armor, like the Germans involved and the Austrians, like the Jews. They, too, are ordinary people who have all sorts of weaknesses, like any person does. But at the critical moment, they'd made the right choices and did the right things. And that's something we need to learn from. Ordinary people can make a huge impact on the events as they happen, whether they're the Richard Türk, ordinary people, or they're the Wiglusz or Ulma ordinary people, who risked everything in order to try to save the people whose lives were in danger. And the Jews, we know that Jewish people try to do as much as they could, whatever they could, in the most creative ways and with taking all sorts of initiatives to try to save themselves and those close to them. And we know that overwhelmingly they failed. They failed because all the cards are in the hands of the Germans, not in the hands of the Jews. They faced overwhelming odds. And we know that they also failed as to the extent that they failed, because of that group of people who might have helped some, couldn't stop the entire Holocaust. That is their neighbors, their fellow countrymen. They couldn't have stopped the entire Holocaust if the Germans were bent on killing them all. But they could have had an impact. And of the 250,000 or more Jews who fled, it's estimated that at the end of the war, in the same areas of Poland, they were somewhere between, I know, 25,000, 30,000 Jews left alive. That means that of all of those Jews who were targeted in Operation Reinhard, in the General Government of Poland, maybe one percent survived. And of all those who fled, maybe 10 percent, 11 percent, something like that survived. And those who survived, survived because somebody was helping them and because they took initiative on their own in various ways. And those who didn't survive overwhelmingly didn't survive because those who could have helped them didn't.
[00:27:32] Thanks to Dr. David Silberklang, for his insights into Operation Reinhard. This has been "On the Holocaust" from Yad Vashem. Thanks for listening.