Evidence for the Implementation 
of the Final Solution

Christopher R Browning

Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington  

Part IV

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  


C.  Documentary Evidence concerning the Camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka:

     If the documents concerning the Einsatzgruppen and the "special trucks" speak openly about the methods of killing, i.e. shooting and gassing, such is not the case with the documents concerning the camps located in the three tiny villages of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, to which most Polish Jews were deported.  Nonetheless, the quite scant surviving documentation makes clear that these were neither labor camps nor transit camps, and Jews were sent there simply to be killed. 

     In March 1942 the Nazi regime began two simultaneous programs:  the deportation of Jews from the Third Reich and Slovakia into the General Government, and the deportation of Jews in the General Government (initially from the districts of Lublin and Galicia) to a camp at Belzec--a small village on the Lublin side of the border between these two districts.  The clearing of the Lublin ghetto began on March 16, as noted in a weekly report circulated by the propaganda division on March 21, 1942:

Resettlement of the Jews.  Since Monday, March 16, the ghetto of Lublin is being cleared of Jews.  Daily some 2,000 Jews are seized and sent eastward.  Only a small Jewish quarter is being preserved for the Jews who still work for German agencies.  It is therefore reckoned that the action will be completed by April 1, with the deportation of 35-38,000 Jews. [105]

     In preparation for the simultaneous influx of Jewish transports from outside the Third Reich and Slovakia, Hermann Höfle on Globobnik's staff met with Richard Türk of the Lublin district's Department of Population and Welfare on March 16, 1942, the same day that the clearing of the Lublin ghetto began.  Türk reported the results of the conversation:

1) It would be expedient to divide the Jews in the transports coming into the district of Lublin already at the departure station into those capable and those not capable of work.  If this separation is not possible at the departure station, one must then switch over to dividing the transport in Lublin according to the above-mentioned viewpoint.

2)  Jews not capable of work must all go to Belzec, the furthest border station in Kreis Zamosc.

3)  Hauptsturmführer Höfle intends to build a large camp, in which the Jews capable of work can by classified according to profession and requisitioned.

4) Piaski will be freed of Polish Jews and become the collection point for Jews coming from the Reich. 

...In conclusion he declared, he could receive daily 4-5 transports of 1,000 at the end station of Belzec.  These Jews would cross over the border and would never return again to the General Government. [106]

     On March 20, 1942, Türk again reported on a discussion that had taken place between Höfle and two Kreishauptmänner (county heads) in the Lublin district. 

Kreishauptmann Weienmeyer has as yet been able to learn nothing about final outcome of the deportation;  all that is known is the existence of a collection camp some distance from the Belzec train station on the district border, that is entirely closed off, and the arrival of a SS-commando of some 60 men. [107]

     After the clearing of the Lublin ghetto, deportations were carried out in various parts of the Lublin district.  For instance, the Kreishauptmann of Pulawy reported on May 13, 1941:  "In the period from May 6-12 inclusive, 16,822 Jews from the Kreis Pulawy were expelled over the Bug on the instruction of the SS and Police Leader."  (The Bug River was the demarcation line between the German and Soviet occupation zones in 1939-41 and formed the boundary between the districts of Lublin and Galicia thereafter.)  With the exception of sick and old Slovakian Jews in the ghetto of Opole, only working Jews remained. [108]

     In short, the German documents make clear that tens of thousands of Jews were being sent to the camp at Belzec in the spring months of 1942.  There was no pretense that this was a work camp, for only non-working Jews were sent there.  There was no pretense that such numbers of Jews could all remain in Belzec, in a tiny village guarded by a mere 60 men.  Thus the explanation given by the SS was that these Jews were "expelled over the Bug," that is sent across the border into the district of Galicia, with the guarantee that they would never return.  Two factors make the acceptance of such an explanation utterly untenable.

     First, on March 27, 1942, shortly after the clearing of the Lublin ghetto began, Josef Goebbels confided to his diary about the fate of the non-working Jews, i.e. precisely those sent to Belzec:

Beginning with Lublin, the Jews in the General Government are now being evacuated eastward.  The procedure is a pretty barbaric one and not to be described here more definitely.  Not much will remain of the Jews.  On the whole it can be said about 60 percent of them will have to be liquidated whereas only about 40 percent can be used for forced labor. [109]

     Second, German documents from the district of Galicia make clear that not only were Jews not arriving in their district from the Lublin district via Belzec, but on the contrary, Jews were simultaneously being deported from the district of Galicia westward to Belzec.  The Oberfeldkommandant in Lwow (Lemberg) reported on March 19, 1942:

Within the Jewish population of Lemberg a noticeable unrest has spread in regard to a deportation action that has begun, through which some 30,000 elderly and other unemployed Jews shall be seized and allegedly transferred to a territory near Lublin.  To what extent this evacuation can be equated with a decimation remains to be seen. [110]

The Oberfeldkommandant reported the following month:

The Jewish population displays the deepest depression, which is completely understandable because on the one hand in various locations in the district the well-known actions against the Jews occur again and on the other hand in Lemberg the temporarily interrupted resettlement of Jews resumes; in the meantime it is whispered also among the Jews that the evacuees never reach the resettlement territory that is alleged to them as the destination. [111]

The deportations from Galicia broke off during the months of May, June, and July 1942, but resumed in August.  In October the Oberfeldkommandant reported again:

The resettlement actions continue undiminished.  The Jews are informed of their fate.  Indicative is the statement of a member of the Lwow Jewish council:  We all carry our death certificates in our pocket--only the date of death is not yet filled out. [112]

     The trains deporting Jews from Galicia did indeed go to Belzec, as can be seen in the report of Reserve Lieutenant Westermann of the 7th company of Police Regiment 24, whose men helped round up the Jews in Kolomyja and nearby towns and then guarded two transports to Belzec on September 7 and 10, 1942.  The first contained 4,769 Jews in 50 train cars and went without incident.  The second involved 8,205 Jews.  Many had been held for days without food and force-marched 35-50 kilometers to the train in blistering heat.  They were then packed into train cars, in many cases 180-200 per car, virtually without ventilation.  As Lieutenant Westermann concluded:  "The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars, and stink of the dead--when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train--made the transport almost unworkable."  Nevertheless the train that left Kolomyja at 8:50 pm. on September 10 finally crawled into Belzec at 6:45 pm on September 11. [113]

     As in the rest of Hitler's Europe, the Germans in Galicia were busy insuring that their district was becoming free of Jews.  The SS and Police Leader, Friedrich Katzmann, reported that as of November 10, 1942, 254,989 Jews had been resettled.  By June 23,1943, the total had reached 434,329 Jews "resettled" (ausgesiedelt) with only 21,000 Jews still in labor camps. [114]   In short, the allegation that Belzec was a transit camp through which Jews were expelled from Lublin into Galicia is totally disproven by German documentation.  Month after month, in train after train, tens of thousands of Jews were taken to the little village of Belzec, and the trains came from both Lublin and Cracow to the west and Galicia to the east.  If Höfle clearly lied about the purpose of Belzec, in one regard he told the truth:  with the exception of a handful of escapees, the Jews sent to Belzec never returned.

     The camp at Treblinka was located in a tiny village just off the main railline between Warsaw and Bialystok near the eastern border of the General Government.  Massive deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka began on July 22, 1942, as can be seen in the letter from the State Secretary for the Transportation Ministry, Albert Ganzenmüller, to Himmler's adjutant, Karl Wolff:  "Since July 22, one train with 5,000 Jews departs daily via Malkinia to Treblinka.  Moreover, twice per week a train with 5,000 Jews departs Przemysl for Belzec." [115]   When deportations from the city and surrounding district of Warsaw came to an end in early October, the district governor Fischer reported that a total of 400,000 Jews had been deported. [116]   Surviving fragmentary train schedules also show that Jews were deported from northern Lublin district, Radom district, and the Bialystok district to Treblinka as well. [117]   The deportations from Bialystok, a district east of Treblinka, are of special significance for two reasons.  First, these deportations from Bialystok make clear that Treblinka was not a transit camp for the expulsion of Jews eastward from the General Government.  Rather the tiny village of Treblinka, like Belzec, was a point at which transports of Jews converged from east and west.  Moreover, the fate of the Bialystok Jews in the fall of 1942 was clearly stated in Himmler's report to Hitler of December 31, 1942.  The Jews of Bialystok were among the 363,211 "Jews executed."  The fate of the Jews sent to Treblinka is also reflected in a report noted in the October 10, 1942, entry to the War Diary of the Oberquartiermeister of the military commander in Poland.

OK Ostrow reports that the Jews in Treblinka are not adequately buried and as a result an unbearable smell of cadavers pollutes the air. [118]

Ostrow, it should be noted, was some 20 kilometers from Treblinka.

     The documentary evidence makes clear that Belzec and Treblinka were camps to which hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to be killed, though without specifying the method of killing.  The scant surviving documentary evidence concerning the purpose of Sobibor indicates that the Germans considered it in the same category as Treblinka and Belzec, but that it was inaccessible due to railline repairs during the peak months of the killing campaign of July-October 1942.  Like Belzec, Sobibor received transports of Jews deemed incapable of work, as can be seen in the report of Lieutenant Fischmann of June 20, 1942.  Fischmann commanded the police guard that accompanied a train that departed Vienna with 1,000 Jews from Vienna for the Lublin district.  SS-Obersturmführer Pohl of Globocnik's staff met the train in Lublin on June 16 and selected 51 Jews between the ages of 15 and 50, who were deemed capable of work.  On June 17 Lieutenant Stangl took delivery of the remaining 949 Jews in Sobibor. [119]   In the same letter in which Ganzenmüller informed Wolff of the daily transports from Warsaw to Treblinka and the twice-per-week transports from Przemysl to Belzec, he also noted that further transports to Sobibor were not possible until October due to construction on the railline. [120]   The protocol of a meeting in Berlin on September 26 and 28, 1942, to plan allocation of transportation for the future "evacuation of 600,000 Jews" of the General Government noted:

After the completion of the restoration of the line Lublin-Chelm, probably from November 1, 1942, the other urgent transports can also be carried out, namely:  1 train per day from the district of Radom to Sobibor; 1 train per day from the northern Lublin district to Belzec and 1 train per day from the central Lublin district to Sobibor.... [121]

And in his promotion recommendations to Himmler's chief of personnel, Herff, Globocnik included Franz Stangl, the commandant at Sobibor who was then transferred to Treblinka.  According to Globocnik, Stangl was "the best camp commander, who had the greatest share of the entire action...."  Included on the list of promotion recommendations for the SS-Sonderkommando "Einsatz Reinhard" were personnel from all three camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. [122]   Clearly, Sobibor was a camp no different in purpose than Belzec and Treblinka.  

D.  Eyewitness Testimony concerning Gassing at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka:

     While surviving German documentation reveals that hundreds of thousands of Jews not considered essential for labor were sent to the three small villages of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka from areas both to the east and west and were never seen again, and moreover that the military 20 kilometers from Treblinka complained about the pestilential smell caused the inadequate burial of the Jews there, no contemporary document specifically states how the Jews sent to these three camps were killed.  A very large body of testimony--from numerous German, Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian eyewitnesses--provides evidence that the Jews sent to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were killed in gas chambers with carbon monoxide from engine exhaust.  As in any body of eyewitness testimonies, there are errors and contradictions as well as both exaggerations and apologetic obfuscation and minimization, but in this case there is above all overwhelming concurrence on three facts:  gas chambers existed in these camps, they were used to kill Jews, and the corpses of the murdered Jews were first buried and then later cremated.

     It is not possible in the framework of this report to identify, summarize, and analyze the individual testimony of each of more than one hundred relevant eyewitnesses.  I will instead identify five categories of eyewitnesses and then provide examples of testimony from each category.

Category I:  German visitors to the camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Category II:  German personnel stationed in the camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Category III:  Ukrainian auxiliaries taken from POW camps, trained at Trawniki, and assigned as guards to these three camps.

Category IV:  Poles living in the immediate area of these three camps.

Category V:  Jewish escapees from these three camps.  

First Category: German Visitors

     The first category, testimonies of German visitors, is easily the smallest.  The testimonies of three such visitors are very important, however.  The first is Adolf Eichmann.  In the late 1950's he gave an interview to a Dutch journalist Willem Sassen and corrected the resulting transcript.  A brief summary of the interview was published in Life Magazine. [123]   After his arrest, he was interrogated extensively in Israel. [124]   He composed his hand-written "Meine Memoiren." [125]   He prepared notes for his defense attorney, Servatius, that remained in the private papers or Nachlass of the latter that were donated to the Bundesarchiv. [126]   He gave testimony in court. [127]   And his widow, with the editorial help of the lawyer Rudolf Aschenauer, had a posthumous memoir published in 1980, entitled Ich Adolf Eichmann.  Ein historischer Zeugenbericht, based primarily upon the Sassen transcripts. [128]   In all of these testimonies, Eichmann confirmed that he had been in charge of organizing the deportation of Jews from all over Europe, in order for them to be killed in the death camps in Poland as part of the Final Solution.  In several accounts he also described his visits to Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, and one other camp in the fall of 1941 whose name he did not remember (he remembered only that it had a more Polish-sounding name than Treblinka) but which fits the description of Belzec at that time.

     According to Eichmann, he was sent by Heydrich to Globocnik in Lublin to report on how Hitler's order to kill the European Jews was going to be carried out.  It was the fall of 1941, when the autumn colors were at their peak.  Hermann Höfle on Globocnik's staff drove him out of Lublin to a site where he was introduced to an Order Police captain.  Eichmann and his escort then crossed the highway to a place where 2-3 wooden buildings were under construction.  The Order Police captain explained to Eichmann that one building had to be made airtight to serve as a gas chamber, in which Jews would be killed by carbon monoxide exhaust from a Russian U-boat motor that would be attached.  The camp was still empty and the motor was not yet there.  In the following summer of 1942, Eichmann visited another camp, where he remembered the railway station with the sign Treblinka.  Here he saw naked Jews standing in line behind the barbed wire about to be driven into the gas chambers.  By his own account, he also witnessed the gassing of Jews in a gas van at Chelmno.  In his hand-written notes to his attorney Servatius, he designated Chelmno as a "permanent gassing camp" (Ständiges Vergasungslager).  Also in his hand-written notes in the Servatius papers, Eichmann noted that he had seen the two peasant huts converted to gas chambers at Birkenau, though here as elsewhere he vehemently denied the claim of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss that he had played a key role in the selection of the gas chamber sites and gassing method there.

        The second German visitor was Kurt Gerstein, a covert anti-Nazi who infiltrated the SS and became head of the Disinfection Services of the Waffen-SS.  According to his testimony, [129] he was ordered by Eichmann's deputy, Rolf Günther, to take 100 kilos of prussic acid to Globocnik in Lublin.  They were accompanied by a Professor of Hygiene at the University of Marburg/Lahn, Wilhelm Pfannenstiel.  They arrived on August 17, 1942, and met with Globocnik, who boasted (falsely) of a recent visit by Hitler.  According to Gerstein, Globocnik also claimed (with great exaggeration) that in Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor respectively 15,000, 25,000, and 20,000 Jews were killed daily with "diesel exhaust gas."  (Dieselauspuffgasen)  Gerstein's task was to disinfect the huge amounts of clothing taken from the Jews, and on August 19, he and Pfannenstiel travelled to Belzec and were shown around the camp by SS-Hauptsturmführer Obermeyer. [130]   On the following morning, August 20, they witnessed the arrival of a 45-wagon transport from Lwow (Lemberg) with 6,700 Jews, of whom 1,450 were already dead.  The Jews were forced to undress (the piles of shoes were allegedly 25 meters high), the women's hair was cut off, and then the naked Jews were driven between two barbed wire fences to the gas chambers by Ukrainian guards.  An SS man offered soothing assurances that they should inhale deeply to prevent lung infection, and then the men would be sent to work.  Approximately 750 Jews were driven into each of four gas chambers, measuring 5 x 5 meters apiece.  For 2 hours and 49 minutes, SS Sergeant Heckenholt [131] struggled to start the engine.  Pfannenstiel, looking through glass peep hole in the door of one of the gas chambers, commented that the Jews were weeping "as they do in the synagogue."  Finally, the engine started, and the gassing took 32 minutes.  Then Jewish workers opened the outside doors to the gas chambers and took out the bodies.  Before the corpses of the Jews were tossed into a large trench, they were searched for valuables and gold dental work was broken out.

     The following day Gerstein drove to Treblinka, where the gassing facilities were larger, and he saw "veritable mounds of clothing and underwear, 115 to 130 feet high."  At a dinner in the visitors' honor, Pfannenstiel made a speech about "the greatness of the work" being done there.  On the night of August 21-22, Gerstein travelled by train from Warsaw to Berlin, and accidently encountered the Secretary to the Swedish Embassy in Berlin, Göran von Otter.  In a feverish conversation lasting hours, Gerstein told the Swede all he had just seen and urged him to make it known to the outside world.  Von Otter later confirmed this encounter with Gerstein. [132]   Gerstein wrote one handwritten French and two type-written German versions of this report in April 1945 and died in a French prison cell the following July.  His death was ruled a suicide by French prison officials.

     A third eyewitness account is that given by Professor Wilhelm Pfannenstiel in a series of depositions he gave to judicial authorities in Germany in the 1950's. [133]   Pfannenstiel claimed that Gerstein's version was "false" and "full of exaggerations."  Günther did not accompany them to Lublin.  He did not go to Treblinka after visiting Belzec and thus did not give a speech there.  The gassing at Belzec had taken only 18 minutes, not 32 minutes, and he had not made any remark about the Jews weeping as they do in a synagogue.  He did confirm that the Jews had to strip naked, the women had their hair cut, an SS officer made soothing remarks, the Jews were driven into four of six gas chambers in the building, exhaust gas from an engine was piped in, and gold teeth were taken from the corpses before they were stacked in a trench by Jews who did the "dirty work."

     Many aspects of Gerstein's testimony are unquestionably problematic.  Several statements he attributes to Globocnik are clearly exagerrated or false, and it is not clear whether Gerstein or Globocnik was the faulty source.  In other statements, such as the height of the piles of shoes and clothing at Belzec and Treblinka, Gerstein himself is clearly the source of exaggeration.  Gerstein also added grossly exaggerated claims about matters to which he was not an eyewitness, such as that a total of 25 million Jews and others were gassed.  But in the essential issue, namely that he was in Belzec and witnessed the gassing of a transport of Jews from Lwow, his testimony is fully corroborated by Pfannenstiel.  It is also corroborated by other categories of witnesses from Belzec.

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