“Operation Reinhard” commenced in Lublin on March 16, 1942. Its intention was the destruction of the entire Jewish population of the General Government. It was coordinated by the Lublin District SS and police chief, Odilo Globocnik, and its headquarters was situated in Lublin. Up until this point in history all of the mass executions ever carried out proceeded according to a similar pattern – the perpetrators came to seek out their victims. The situation was similar in the Soviet territories which were being occupied by the Nazis for several months – Jews were shot in mass executions (Holocaust by bullets).
However, a fundamental change to the proceedings was introduced during “Operation Reinhard”. It was the victims that were brought to specially appointed locations – death camps – to be murdered. Three such death camps – in Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka – were designed, constructed and hidden in remote areas entirely for the purposes of “Operation Reinhard”. For some time KL Majdanek also served the function of a death camp. All of the above required the perpetrators to operate on a much higher organizational and technical level. Among others things, it necessitated the relocation of hundreds of thousands of people from their home communities to towns and villages situated in the vicinity of railway stations from which they were transported to the various death camps.
This is why the visual characteristic of “Operation Reinhard” were the columns of Jews treading the roads of the General Government – amounting to hundreds or several thousand people at a time, often escorted by uniformed guards. Jews had to walk or were taken by carts to one destination – the nearest railway station (or platform) to be taken by train to the death camps.
The logistics of the operation were dictated by the accessibility of railway tracks and the whereabouts of railway stations. Trains, similar to conveyor belts, connected locations in which Jews were being concentrated with the very places where they would be murdered on an industrial level with the use of gas chambers. Taking advantage of the railway system as an efficient means of mass transportation in the territory of the General Government (which included five administrative zones: Warsaw, Lublin, Radom, Kraków, and Galicia Districts), the Nazis managed to organize an industrial-scale murder machine.
The first Jewish transport, with 1,600 people to be sent to the Bełżec death camp as part of “Operation Reinhard”, departed from Lublin at night on March 16, 1942. It marked the beginning of an entirely new chapter in the history of mass murder.
The last part of the operation, referred to as “Operation Erntefest” (“Harvest Festival”), was carried out on November 3 and 4, 1943. It was during the “Erntefest” that more than 42,000 Jews were shot at the Majdanek concentration camp and the labour camps in Trawniki and Poniatowa. “Operation Erntefest” was the biggest single mass shooting carried out during World War II.
Thus, the wave of atrocity which started in Lublin on March 16, 1942, rolled across the entire GG to return to its origin – Lublin – after 19 months. It is here that, as part of “Operation Reinhard”, the ultimate act of the Holocaust had taken place. In the course of these 19 months large and small communities of Polish Jews were being liquidated daily. Jews who remained in hiding were regularly hunted down. During this period, the Nazis murdered approximately two million Jews – mainly Polish citizens, but also Jews from other European countires.
This is all very much reflected in the statistical data cited by the historian, David Silberklang:
In January 1942, according to the data prepared for the Wannsee Conference, the Nazis estimated that there were 2,284,000 Jews in the Generalgouvernement (GG) in Poland. One year later, according to SS statistician Dr. Richard Korherr, fewer than 298,000 were still alive. [...] These statistics take on even more astonishing proportions considering the fact that the murder began only in mid-March of that year. Thus, nearly two million Jews had been murdered in this part of Poland in nine and a half months within the framework of “Operation Reinhard.
The culminating point of the murder of Jews, perpetrated as part of “Operation Reinhard”, took place between the end of July and the beginning of November 1942 when within only a hundred days Germans killed approximately 1,4 million Jews. Nearly 1,1 million people were murdered in the gas chambers at the Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka death camps, and almost 300,000 were shot. Thus, during “Operation Reinhard”, the Germans managed to murder close to ¼ of all Holocaust victims within three months (August–September–October).
The three-month culmination of the mass murder of Jews was connected mainly with the order given by Himmler on July 19, 1942, in Lublin. It was then that Himmler indicated the ultimate deadline – December 31, 1942 – by which all Jews inhabiting the General Government were to be killed. The order became a turning point as far as the total character of the Holocaust was concerned. From that moment on, only a small number of essential Jewish forced labourers were to be spared. It needs to be added that the plunder of Jewish property was an integral part of “Operation Reinhard” and the central warehouses containing the items stolen from the victims during the operation were situated in Lublin.
David Silberklang emphasizes that Lublin was central to organizing and carrying out the murder of Jews:
The murder of most of Polish Jewry was planned in Lublin, and much of it was coordinated there. [...] Globocnik’s influence was based to a great degree on his close personal relationship with Himmler, and perhaps this was one of the reasons that Himmler entrusted him with a mission as important as “Operation Reinhard.” The location of the headquarters of “Operation Reinhard” in Lublin is also testimony to its centrality. Two death camps, Bełżec and Sobibór, were constructed in this district, and a third, Treblinka, also under “Reinhard” command, was built in the northern part of the Warsaw District. In addition, over a long period of time, Globocnik partially controlled the Majdanek camp adjacent to Lublin, as well as dozens of forced-labor camps, and a rather significant economic empire.
“Operation Reinhard” was an element of the most extensive Nazi plan – implemented in the spring of 1942 – aimed at the complete murder of European Jewry. It was carried out in the name of racial ideology, in line with which all Jews were to be killed. To realize the plan, the state (German Reich) – supported by a large proportion of German citizens – employed all of the power it had at its disposal.
Soon, the murder of Jews was symbolized by the camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and for most people the very association evoked by its name became the embodiment of the entirety of the Holocaust experience. Naturally, such an image of the Shoah is by far incomplete.
The reason for it was partly the fact that Auschwitz operated considerably longer than other extermination centres. By late spring of 1944, when the three death camps in the General Government had been long closed, Auschwitz was only reaching the peak of its murderous capacity. And when the Red Army had finally liberated the camp in January 1945, a large part of the murder infrastructure was preserved intact, contrary to Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka where the traces of genocide have been meticulously erased. It is one of the reasons why we know much more about Auschwitz than the other death camps. Another reason is the abundance of testimonies. Tens of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners survived the war and many shared their stories. Meanwhile, there were practically no survivors from the other camps since they functioned almost entirely as extermination centres: only three survivors provided testimony on the death camp in Bełżec.