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Section: What was the Final Solution?

The death camps

Map showing the location of the six Nazi death camps within the General Government
Map showing the location of the six Nazi death camps within the General Government

During the summer of 1941, the Nazis broke their agreement and invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler believed that Jews had created communism. The war in the East was aimed not merely at conquest but at the destruction of millions of Jews and Slavs.

By the end of the summer of 1941, the Nazi leadership had made plans for six extermination camps on Polish soil. Their sole purpose was murder.

These six extermination camps were:

  1. Chelmno (December 1941-January 1945)
  2. Belzec (March-December 1942)
  3. Sobibor (May-July 1942 and October 1942-October 1943)
  4. Treblinka (July 1942-August 1943)
  5. Majdanek (September 1941-July 1944)
  6. Auschwitz-Birkenau (March 1942-January 1945)

This section provides details of each of these camps, how they were administered, who administered them and who the victims were.

Chelmno

Chelmno was the first Nazi camp where gassing was used to murder Jews on a large scale. The site was chosen due to the village’s position in the Warthegau region (previously an area of Western Poland, but now part of Nazi Germany). It was 47 kilometres to the west of the Łódź ghetto where many of the victims came from. A total of 320,000 people were murdered at Chelmno. These included Jews from the Łódź ghetto and throughout the area, in addition to 5,000 Roma who had been previously sent to the ghetto.

Chelmno consisted of two sites, just two and a half miles apart. The first was located in a large manor house, known as ‘The Palace’. As there was no railway running through the village of Chelmno, the victims were taken by train to a nearby station. They then walked or were loaded onto trucks to the Chelmno camp reception area.

The first group of victims arrived at Chelmno on 7 December 1941. The following day the first exterminations took place. The killings continued throughout 1942. By March 1943 the camp was dismantled because all the Jews in the area had been murdered, except those in Łódź.

On arrival at the ‘Palace’ camp, the victims were addressed by the camp commandant or one of his deputies, who was disguised as the squire of the estate, wearing a feather hat, jackboots and smoking a pipe.

The Jews were told that they would be fairly treated and receive good food in return for working on the estate, in Austria or in the East.

They were then told that they needed to shower to become clean and that their clothes had to be disinfected. This was a lie. They were led to the undressing room, where they gave up their valuables and clothes. But, having been led up steps to the ‘washrooms’, they in fact found themselves in a gas van. The doors were closed and locked.

The driver then drove into the forest. After ten minutes the gas fumes had suffocated all those inside the van. The victims were buried in mass graves.

The possessions of those brought to Chelmno were given or sold to Germans living in the region.

In April 1944 the Nazis planned to liquidate the Łódź ghetto, so they reopened Chelmno. Those who had previously worked at the camp were brought back to resume their work and carry out the killings. Between 23 June and mid-July 1944, more than 7,000 Jews were murdered and disposed of in the newly-erected crematorium. The camp was then closed as the killings were moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazis destroyed Chelmno in September 1944. They tried to erase all evidence of mass murder. They ordered the digging up and cremation of all of the bodies from the mass graves.

On 17 January 1945, the Nazis murdered 45 of the last 48 Jewish prisoners as the Soviet army edged closer to the camp. These last few Jews at the camp had fought against the fleeing Nazis, but only three of them succeeded in escaping.

Bełżec

Located in the Lublin district of South East Poland, Bełżec was initially a slave labour camp. The construction of Bełżec extermination camp began in November 1941, with the addition of three gas chambers.

The camp was quite small and was divided into two sections: one section contained the administration buildings and reception area, the other contained the gas chambers. Bełżec was the first Nazi camp to have stationary gas chambers. The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and camouflaged to hide the activities from the local population.

During the short existence of the camp, the camp commandant, a maximum of 30 German SS guards and between 90 and 120 Ukrainian guards were responsible for the murder of 600,000 people. These victims were mainly Jews and a few hundred were Roma. In its first few weeks of operation, from April 1942, 80,000 Jews were murdered.

Jews were transported by railway in cattle trucks. The journey often lasted days and the victims were packed into the wagons in extremely poor conditions. Many died on their journey to the camp.

On arrival at Bełżec, the victims were told they had arrived at a transit camp. Men and women were separated and ordered to undress for disinfection and showering before entering the main camp. After undressing and handing over their valuables, they were chased to the gas chambers by the Ukrainian guards.

Up to a thousand Jewish men were kept alive to carry out forced labour at the camp. One group of young Jewish men were put in charge of unloading and cleaning the trains, another group sorted the property of victims, and a third group removed the bodies from the gas chambers. All of these men were subject to the selection process and themselves in danger of being sent to the gas chambers.

The camp ceased operations in December 1942. From then until the spring of 1943, the mass graves were opened and the corpses were cremated, in order to destroy evidence of mass extermination. The camp was then closed, while the site was turned into a farm and given to a Ukrainian guard. The remaining 600 prisoners were sent to Sobibór.

Sobibór

Sobibór extermination camp was located in the Lublin district of Poland, close to the village and railway station of Sobibór. The Germans established the camp in March 1942. Between April 1942 and October 1943, approximately half a million Jews were murdered there. The camp was closed down at the end of 1943 after a prisoners’ uprising in October of that same year.

Sobibór was a relatively small, purpose-built, rectangle shaped camp, 400 metres by 600 metres. A barbed-wire fence, which had been woven with tree branches to hide what was inside, surrounded the site.

The camp was divided into three sections: the administration area, reception area and extermination area. The extermination area housed the gas chambers, burial trenches and accommodation for the Jewish prisoners who worked in the camp. The gas chambers were designed to look like shower rooms, so that the victims would not know their fate.

The first camp commandant of Sobibór was SS-Obersturmführer Franz Stangl, who had a staff of between 20 and 30 SS soldiers. Many of these had previously worked on the T4 Euthanasia Programme in Germany. A further 90 to 120 Ukrainians were used as camp guards. In addition, approximately a thousand Jewish prisoners were selected from the strongest of those who arrived at the camp. They worked on the processing of new arrivals and their belongings. These Sonderkommando would be subjected to selections every few days, and the weakest sent to their deaths.

Jews were transported to Sobibór by railway cattle trucks from many countries, including Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Poland. On arrival the Jews were taken directly to the reception area. They were informed that they had reached a transit camp en route to a labour camp. Many of them were forced to write letters to their relatives, to let them know that they had arrived safely at a labour camp. They were then told that they would continue on their journey the next day, but must take a shower and have their clothes disinfected before moving on.

The men and women were separated, the children being taken with their mothers. The Nazis ordered the victims to remove their clothing and hand over their valuables. The Jews were then marched to the gas chambers. They were treated brutally, chased and screamed at by the Ukrainian guards, who fired warning shots at them. About 450 to 550 Jews were forced into the gas chambers at a time.

The whole process, from arrival to burial, took just two or three hours. Prisoners were then ordered to clean out the railway wagons before the trains left and another train of about 20 wagons containing a thousand more Jews entered the camp.

At the end of 1942, in order to hide the evidence of the killings, the Germans ordered the digging up and cremation of the bodies.

Resistance

There were several escape attempts, some of which were successful. However, the Nazis executed many prisoners as punishment and as a warning to others.

In the summer of 1943, the prisoners, led by Leon Feldhendler, began planning a mass escape. This was helped by the arrival at the end of September 1943 of many Soviet Jewish prisoners of war. This group included Lieutenant Aleksandr Pechersky. He was made leader of the underground group, with Feldhendler as his second-in-command. The prisoners planned to kill the SS soldiers, steal their weapons and escape from the camp.

On 14 October 1943, the prisoners managed to kill 11 SS men and several Ukrainian guards. Around 300 prisoners were able to escape. However, many of them were captured and killed. Most of those who had not joined the escape were also killed. About 50 of the escapees survived the war.

After the uprising, the Nazis destroyed Sobibór. The whole area was ploughed, planted with crops and given to a Ukrainian guard.

Treblinka

Treblinka was a Nazi extermination camp in the north east of the General Government area of Poland. The camp was established in the summer of 1942 as part of Operation Reinhard. Under this plan, the Nazis sought to murder all the Jews living in the area known as the General Government.

The site for Treblinka was chosen because it was a sparsely populated area within heavy woodland. This made it very easy for the Nazis to conceal the murders.

There were very few buildings at Treblinka. Living areas for the guards and administrators, administration and reception areas and the gas chambers themselves were all that was necessary. The victims were sent directly to their deaths. The number of administrators and guards at Treblinka was very small in relation to the number of people they murdered. The camp commandant, his deputy and approximately 30 SS officers (from the German T4 Euthanasia programme) were supported by up to 120 Ukrainian soldiers, who worked as camp guards.

In addition, the Nazis selected Sonderkommando from the Jews who arrived at the camp. They were ordered to carry out manual tasks, which included cleaning out the trains, preparing the victims, sorting the possessions and clothing of the victims and disposing of the dead.

The Sonderkommando were exterminated after a few days or weeks of work. New arrivals would take their place. During March and April 1943 the Nazis ordered the Sonderkommando to dig up and cremate the bodies to attempt to eradicate all evidence of the atrocities.

In just ten months between the end of July 1942 and April 1943, approximately 876,000 people were murdered at Treblinka. Of these 738,000 were from within the General Government and 107,000 from across the Białystok district of Poland. In addition, 29,000 Jews from Slovakia, Greece, Macedonia, Thrace and Theresienstadt, along with 2,000 Roma were murdered at Treblinka.

Between 23 July and 21 September 1942 alone, around 254,000 Jews were taken from the Warsaw ghetto, along with another 112,000 from the Warsaw area. They were all murdered at Treblinka.

There were several attempts to escape en route to Treblinka, but most failed. There were also attempts to escape the camp itself. One such attempt was planned as the Germans prepared to liquidate the camp. The SS and their Ukrainian collaborators suppressed the uprising and killed most of the 750 Jews who had attempted to escape.

Between March and the end of July 1943, the victims’ bodies were exhumed and burned by the Sonderkommando. The camp buildings were destroyed and the ground ploughed back to farmland. The site was then given to a Ukrainian family.

Majdanek

Majdanek was a concentration and forced labour camp that, for a short time, was also used as a death camp. It was located in a suburb just three miles from Lublin in Poland in the centre of the General Government area of Poland.

The camp opened in September 1941, initially for Soviet prisoners of war, and was liberated by the Soviet Army in July 1944. During this time approximately 360,000 victims died or were murdered at Majdanek. 120,000 of them were Jews.

The inmates of Majdanek included people of 54 nationalities from 28 different countries. They included Soviet prisoners of war and Jews from Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Hungary, Belgium and Greece.  In addition, many non-Jews from Belorussia, the Ukraine and across Poland were taken to the camp as political prisoners or slave labourers.

The Majdanek camp covered 667 acres of land. It was surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence and guarded by the SS in 19 watchtowers. Up to 45,000 prisoners could be housed in the 22 barracks.

The camp also had many satellite camps, and the Nazis planned to expand Majdanek to house up to 250,000 prisoners. However, these plans never happened. During its existence Majdanek had seven gas chambers, two wooden gallows, a small crematorium and, from 1943, a larger crematorium.

As in most concentration camps, many Majdanek prisoners died simply from being there. Death due to disease, starvation, exposure to extreme temperatures, overwork and exhaustion, or from beatings by camp guards, were all extremely common. Others were murdered in mass killing actions.

During 1941 and 1942 the Germans shot many thousands of victims. These included sick Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet Army officers, Jews and prisoners of all nationalities. On 3 November 1943, the Germans shot 18,000 Jews in one single day. The victims were shot into large pits, while in the background loud music was played to drown out the noise of the killings.

Many of the prisoners were sent directly to the gas chambers on arrival. Most of those dealt with in this way were Jews, who had been subjected to a similar kind of selection process that was in operation at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The SS evacuated the camp during July 1944, as the Soviet Army advanced eastwards. As they made their escape, the SS demolished and burned down the crematorium chimney and burned much of the evidence. They failed to destroy the gas chambers and prisoners’ barracks in time. On 24 July the Soviet Army liberated the camp, but found just a few hundred prisoners alive.

What happened in November