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the final solution

Medical experiment


introduction | operation barbarossa | the final solution: the decision
the final solution in the ussr | the fate of the german jews | the start of gassing
the wannsee conference | operation reinhard | economic considerations
auschwitz | end of auschwitz | other deaths | forced labour in germany | the situation in 1945 | conclusion
dvds on 2nd world war | shoah 4-disc dvd set

[  t h e   f i n a l   s o l u t i o n  ]

1 9 4 1 - 4 5

the final solution

A small child with tattooed arm

      The Final Solution | 1941-5

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      Source:
      Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust


        The Wannsee Conference

        the final solution Having launched the deportation process in Germany in October 1941, the RSHA soon found itself facing a number of practical problems. Careful co-ordination of various agencies - police, finance, and railway departments - both within Germany and in the occupied countries, was required if thousands of Jews were to be transported to Poland. Accordingly in November 1941 Heydrich invited senior officials from several agencies to discuss logistical and other matters. The Wannsee Conference, initially planned for December 1941, was finally held on 20 January 1942. Most of the representatives were top civil servants: 7 of the 15 participants held doctoral degrees. The meeting, chaired by Heydrich and lasting only 90 minutes, formulated common procedures whereby all of Europe's 11 million Jews were to be rounded up and 'resettled' in the east. The Conference also established the principle that those who were considered fit should be given temporary reprieve and set to work (effectively to death) in labour gangs. The fate of the unfit was not discussed directly, but the implication was clear: they were to be massacred straight away. The Conference minutes, prepared by Eichmann and edited by Heydrich, had a relatively wide circulation and did not therefore spell out extermination: instead they used terms like 'legalised removal' and 'resettlement'. However, those attending the Conference certainly realised that 'resettlement' meant extermination, one way or another. At his trial in 1960, Eichmann was rather franker about the Conference than he was in the minutes: 'the gentlemen ... talked about the matter without mincing their words. ... The talk was of killing, elimination and liquidation.'

        The significance of the Wannsee Conference was not that it was the starting point of the Final Solution: that was already underway. It was, however, the moment when it was endorsed by a broad segment of the German government (and not just the SS). The Conference also helped dot the 'i's and cross the 't's of procedures, ensuring that by the spring of 1942 the extermination programme was turned into a quasi-industrial process for the efficient destruction of human beings.

        Interestingly the Wannsee Conference (and further conferences on this matter) failed to agree on the status and treatment of the Mischlinge (the half-Jews), with the result that most Mischlinge were not deported. Hitler probably did not think pursuing the matter was worth the discontent it would cause among the Aryan relatives of those involved.


        Operation Reinhard

        the final solution The mass gassing of the Jews in the General Government (which gathered momentum in 1942) is usually known as Operation Reinhard - after Reinhard Heydrich (who was assassinated by Czech partisans in May 1942). Belzec was the first functional Operation Reinhard camp. The camp commandant, Christian Wirth, and several of his staff had previous T-4 experience. Constructed in a remote forest, Belzec was linked by a railway line to the Jewish ghetto at Lublin, 75 miles to the north. The 162-acre camp, enclosed by barbed wire, was divided into two parts. Camp 1 contained a reception area with two barracks - one for undressing and the other for storing clothes and luggage. Camp 2 contained the three small gas chambers, all in one building. A path - known as the 'tube' - 2 metres wide and 57 metres long, bordered on both sides by a wire fence, linked the two camps. Wirth tested his equipment successfully in February 1942 on several hundred Jews, and Belzec opened officially in March. Sobibor, a 100 miles to the north and an enlarged version of Belzec, started operations in May 1942. Franz Stangl (pictured in a Düsseldorf prison where he was serving a life sentence. The picture was taken shortly before his death in 1971), who had served at the Hartheim euthanasia centre, was appointed camp commandant. In July 1942 Stangl moved on to command the even larger camp at Treblinka, 75 miles north-east of Warsaw. Each camp had a guard contingent of about 100 Ukrainians. But the main staff consisted of about 30 SS men, most of whom were T-4 veterans.

        While responsibility for clearing the ghettos and for organising the transportation to the death camps lay with the SS, the Jewish councils had the job of finding people for 're-settlement'. (Warsaw had to supply 10,000 a day from July 1942.) At first many Polish Jews, accepting the German promise of a better life in the Ukraine, were reasonably happy to be transported. But once rumours of the fate that awaited the deportees filtered back to Warsaw and elsewhere, securing volunteers became much harder. Nevertheless, thousands of Jews were daily rounded up (mainly by Jewish police) for transportation. The transportation experience was horrific. Families were usually separated and as many as 150 people crammed into closed freight cars, without food, water or toilet facilities. Sometimes hundreds died en route - suffocated, dehydrated or trampled to death. Anyone trying to escape from the trains was shot. On a typical day, transports carrying as many as 25,000 Jews made their way to the death camps.

        the final solution Once the transports arrived at Belzec, Sobibor or Treblinka (pictured: plan of the camp as prisoner Samuel Willenberg remembered it; click here to enlarge), the camp authorities aimed to kill all but a few of the deportees within two hours. As soon as the trains stopped, the deportees were hurried out by shouting guards. The deportees, save a few selected to serve as work-Jews, were then quickly marched to Camp 1. Here they were usually given a welcoming speech, reassuring them that they had arrived at a transit camp, from which they would be sent to the Ukraine. Males and females were then separated and herded into barracks to undress. Women and girls had their hair shorn, supposedly to stop the spread of head lice. (In reality, the hair was used for several purposes, including making socks for U-boat crews.) Then, the victims (usually the men first) were forced to run down the 'tube', urged on by guards wielding whips and clubs, to the building signed 'Baths and Inhalation Rooms'. (The entrance to the 'bathhouse' at Treblinka was flanked by pots of geraniums.) The victims were now pushed into tiled chambers with fake shower nozzles. At Treblinka each chamber measured about 3.6 by 8.2 metres and could hold more than 400 victims. Once the room was full, the heavy door was closed and a diesel engine pumped in carbon monoxide gas. After 30 minutes, the engine was switched off, the doors opened, and the Jewish 'death brigade' (or Sonderkommando) had the job of clearing the chambers.

        Initially, the bodies were dumped in enormous burial ditches. However, the burial process soon proved inadequate. At Treblinka, for example, between 23 July 1942 and 28 August 1942 some 268,000 Jews are thought to have been gassed. (Stangl testified after the war that the camp could kill 1,000 people per hour and often worked a 12-hour day.) In consequence, corpses were soon stacked everywhere. At Sobibor and Belzec, difficulties developed after burial. Swollen by heat and putrefaction, the bodies in the mass graves heaved so violently that they split the ground, creating a terrible stench. Eventually the camp authorities found that cremation was a much more efficient method of disposing of the dead. At Treblinka bodies were placed on steel girders over enormous open fires which were kept burning permanently.

        While most of the victims of Operation Reinhard were Polish Jews, Jews from Germany and western Europe were sometimes transported to the three death camps. The systematic round up of Jews began all over the German empire in the spring of 1942. Told they were to be resettled in the east, Jews from western and central Europe were allowed to take some of their personal belongings with them and often travelled in proper railway cars. (Their journey, while longer, was thus less harrowing than that of Polish Jews.) At Treblinka the authorities created a fake train station to maintain the fiction that the place was merely a transit camp. Large signs indicated such non-existent amenities as a restaurant and ticket office.

        the final solution Although the Operation Reinhard camps were simply death camps, a semi-permanent Jewish work force of as many as 1,000 inmates was employed in the various stages of the killing process. There were teams of specialist hair cutters, extractors of gold from teeth, and burial/cremation units. Most work-Jews found that their reprieve from death seldom exceeded a few months. Poorly fed and frequently flogged, they suffered from dysentery and typhus. Anyone showing signs of sickness or weakness was likely to be sent to the gas chambers. Stangl, first the Sobibor and then the Treblinka commandant, was a devoted family man and a devout Catholic, yet seems to have felt little sympathy for the victims. 'That was my profession', he said after the war. 'I enjoyed it. It fulfilled me.' Stangl's second in command at Treblinka, Kurt Franz, was described by (the very few) survivors as a sadist. A veteran of Buchenwald concentration camp and the T-4 programme, he trained his dog Barry to attack the genitals of his victims.

        By the end of 1942 Himmler's goal of exterminating all the Polish Jews had been largely achieved. In December 1942 Belzec closed its gas chambers and the pace of killing at the other death camps slowed. The gas chambers at Auschwitz were now adequate to kill the rest of Europe's Jews. Globocnik's appointment to the post of SS leader in Istria in August 1943 marked the effective end of Operation Reinhard. By the end of November 1943, all the Operation Reinhard camps had been dismantled and the remaining work-Jews shot. Painstaking efforts were taken to obliterate every trace of the camps: the buildings were razed, the ground ploughed and pine trees planted. By the autumn of 1943, some 500,000 Jews are thought to have died at Belzec; 150,000-200,000 at Sobibor; and 900,000-1,200,000 at Treblinka. In November 1943 Himmler wrote to Globocnik as follows: 'I would like to express to you my thanks and appreciation for the great and unique service which you have performed for the whole German people by carrying out Operation Reinhard.'


        Economic Considerations

        The Operation Reinhard killings had a serious impact on Germany's war effort. The transportation of Jews to the death camps added extra pressure to Germany's railway system and hindered military transportation. More importantly, the killing affected Germany's potential labour pool. By 1942, the German empire was suffering from a desperate shortage of labour. German authorities in the General Government, as well as some Nazi ministers, realised that the killing of Jews was damaging Germany's industrial production, and argued in favour of retaining at least those Jews essential in terms of the war effort.

        Some SS officials shared the economic concern. This was partly because the SS itself owned factories in the General Government and was a large employer of Jewish labour. By hiring out Jewish workers to firms on a daily basis, the SS also acquired a huge income. As a result of protests by the army, industry, civilian authorities and the SS, there were phases during which the extermination programme was slowed to permit the exploitation of Jewish labour, in line with the policy agreed at Wannsee. Hitler, however, usually discounted economic factors. In the autumn of 1942 he ordered the evacuation of even those Jews, in reserved occupations, who played a vital role in the war effort. Nevertheless, in 1941-2 two camps - Majdanek and Auschwitz - began to serve a dual purpose. On the one hand they were extermination centres: on the other they were labour camps in which Jews received a temporary stay of execution.

        Primarily a labour camp for Poles and Russian prisoners, Majdanek (near Lublin) also contained at various times a large number of Jews. Some 60,000 of the 200,000 people who died at Majdanek were Jewish. In general, Jews were treated far worse than other prisoners. Inflicting cruelty on Jews was a semi-official policy of the camp and working the Jews to death seems to have been a more important aim than economic productivity. Jews were often ordered to perform useless tasks calculated to exhaust and shatter the health of even the strongest. The death rate for Jews was thus much higher than for non-Jews. In November 1943, the surviving Jews in Majdanek were shot as part of an operation code-named 'Harvest festival'. ...cont.


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    introduction | operation barbarossa | the final solution: the decision
    the final solution in the ussr | the fate of the german jews | the start of gassing
    the wannsee conference | operation reinhard | economic considerations
    auschwitz | end of auschwitz | other deaths | forced labour in germany | the situation in 1945 | conclusion
    dvds on 2nd world war | shoah 4-disc dvd set



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    the final solution
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