Evidence for the Implementation 
of the Final Solution

Christopher R Browning

Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington  

Part V

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  

Second category:German Camp Personnel

     The second category of eyewitnesses is comprised of Germans who were stationed at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.  Twenty-nine such German camp personnel were indicted and brought before German courts in the 1950's and 1960's.  They all gave pre-trial depositions.  Many claimed that they had had no choice but to carry out the duties that they had been assigned, and many denied that they had committed any harmful or malicious acts beyond routine compliance with their obligatory duties.  But none of them denied that the camps were equipped with gas chambers, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed.  At least 26 of the 29 had prior experience in the so-called "euthanasia" program, in which German mentally- and physically handicapped were gassed in one of six "institutes" or killing centers in Germany. [134]  

     Of these 29 men, Franz Stangl held the highest rank as commandant of first Sobibor and then Treblinka.  Outside of judicial proceedings, he also gave extensive testimony in long interviews with the British journalist, Gitta Sereny, that are easily accessible in her book, Into That Darkness. [135]   The testimony of Franz Suchomel, a guard at Treblinka, who was interviewed at length on hidden camera by Claude Lanzmann, can be seen and heard in latter's documentary film Shoah.  Among the judicial testimonies of the other 27 camp personnel brought to trial in Germany were those of Alfred Schluch, Hermann Gley, Erich Fuchs, Erich Bauer, and Heinrich Matthes. [136]  

     Alfred Schluch had worked at the euthanasia institutes of Grafeneck and Hadamar prior to his assignment to Belzec in February or March 1942.  He described the routine killing procedure of the Belzec camp as follows:

After unloading, the ambulant Jews proceeded to the assembly place.  At the unloading the Jews were told that they were going to be resettled and before that had to be bathed and disinfected.  The speech was given by Wirth and also by his translator, a Jewish capo.  Next the Jews were then led to the undressing barracks.  In one of the barracks the men and in the other the Jewish women and children had to undress.

After undressing the male Jews and the women with children were led separately through the tube.  ...My position in the tube was quite near the undressing barracks.  Wirth had installed me there, because in his opinion I could have a pacifying effect on the Jews.  I had to direct the Jews along the path to the gas chamber after they left the undressing barracks.  I believe that I made the way to the gas chambers easier for the Jews, because they must have been convinced from my words or gestures that they were actually to be bathed.  After the Jews had entered the gas chambers, the doors were tightly closed by Hackenholt himself or by the Ukrainians assigned to him.  Then Hackenholt started the motor that was used for the gassing.  After about 5 to 7 minutes--and I only estimate the length of time--the peephole into the gas chamber was looked through to establish whether everyone was dead.  Only then were the outer doors opened and the gas chambers aired out. ...After the gas chambers were aired out, a Jewish work commando under the direction of a capo arrived and took the corpses out of the chambers.  I was also occasionally assigned to supervise at this place.  Thus I can exactly describe the procedures, because I saw and experienced everything myself.

The Jews had been very tightly packed into the gas chambers.  For this reason the corpses did not lie on the ground, but all leaned in a jumble this way and that, the one backwards, the other forwards, one prone to the side, the other kneeling, each according to the space around.  The corpses were at least partially besmirched with excrement and urine, others in part with saliva.  The lips and nose tips of some of the corpses had turned blue.  With some the eyes were closed, with others the eyes had rolled.

The corpses were pulled out of the chambers and immediately examined by one of the dentists.  The dentist removed rings from the fingers and pulled out gold teeth.  The valuables recovered in this way were tossed into a box that had been provided.  After this procedure the corpses were thrown into the large graves nearby. [137]

     Heinrich Gley arrived in Belzec in the summer of 1942 and was eventually assigned to the "cremation commando." (Verbrennungskommando)   Concerning the burning of the corpses, he testified:

As I remember the gassing was stopped at the end of 1942, when there was snow already on the ground.  Then the general exhumation and cremation of the corpses began;  it might have lasted from November 1942 until March 1943.  The cremation was carried out day and night without a break, and indeed at first at one and then later at two fire sites.  It was possible to cremate some 2000 corpses at one fire site within 24 hours.   About 4 weeks after the beginning of the cremation operation the second fire site was constructed.  On average, therefore, some 300,000 corpses were cremated at the first site over 5 months, at the second site some 240,000 over 4 months.  Naturally this is a matter of estimates based on averages.  To figure the total number of corpses at 500,000 could be correct. [138]

     Erich Fuchs, who was stationed first at Belzec, gave the following testimony concerning the construction of the gassing facilities at Sobibor.

On Wirth's instructions I drove to Lemberg in a truck and picked up a carburator engine, that I transported back to Sobibor.  ...We unloaded the motor.  It was a heavy Russian gasoline engine (probably a tank engine or tractor engine) with at least 200 PS (V-motor, 8 cylinder, water-cooled).  We placed the motor on the a concrete base and installed the connection between the exhaust and the pipeline.  Then we tested the motor.  At first it did not work.  I repaired the ignition and the valve with the result that the motor finally started up.  The chemist, whom I already knew from Belzec, went into the gas chamber with a measuring instrument in order to test the concentration of gas.  In conclusion a test gassing was then conducted.  As best I remember, some 30-40 women were gassed in the chamber. [139]

     Erich Bauer testified to the gassing procedure at the Sobibor camp, where he served from April 1942 to November 1943.

Perhaps 3 or 4 times I also led certain groups through the tube to the gas chambers.  After all no member of the permanent staff in Sobibor could exempt himself over the course of time from having to perform this and all other functions occuring during the destruction process.

It may sound astonishing that the Jews went unsuspecting to their death.  Resistance occurred extremely seldom.  The Jews only became suspicious when they were already in the gas chambers.  At this point in time, however, there was no turning back.  The chambers were densely packed.  ...The doors were sealed airtight and immediately the gassing procedure commenced.  After some 20-30 minutes there was complete silence in the gas chambers;  the people were gassed and dead.  Then the chambers were opened, work Jews dragged the people who had been killed out of the gas chambers and transported the victims by means of lorry to the graves.  Later the victims were cremated. [140]

     Heinrich Matthes was assigned to Treblinka in the summer of 1942.  He testified:

The entire time that I was in Treblinka, I served in the upper part of the camp.  The upper part of the camp was that part of Treblinka in which the gas chambers were located and in which the corpses of the Jews who had been killed were at first put in graves and later were cremated. 

Matthes' job was to supervise the Jewish workers in the upper camp.  "These had to carry away the corpses and later to cremate the corpses.  There were also work Jews, who had to break out the gold teeth of the corpses." [141]  

     All of these above testimonies of camp personnel were given to German judicial authorities in the course of pre-trial investigation.  The testimonies were given under oath and signed, and those testifying had been advised of their right not to give self-incriminating testimony.  

Third category: Non-German Guards

     Approximately 30 Germans were stationed at each of the camps and held the key supervisory positions.  More numerous were the guards, about 120 per camp, who were for the most part Ukrainians recruited out of the POW camps for captured Soviet soldiers and sent to a special SS training facility at Trawniki southeast of Lublin.  Some of these men, having returned to the Soviet Union, gave testimony to German judicial investigators who were collecting evidence for the trial of Karl Streibel, the commandant of Trawniki.  Others emigrated abroad, including to the U.S., where some of them faced judicial investigation by the Office of Special Investigations in the U.S. Department of Justice. 

     Aleksandr Illarionwitsch Semigodow testified that he was captured at the outbreak of war in June 1941 and volunteered to serve with the Germans to escape a very probable death by starvation in the POW camp at Cholm.  He was sent to Trawniki in March 1942, and then served at Belzec from August 1942 to March 1943.  At first trains arrived daily, and in some cases even twice daily, and then the number of incoming transports gradually diminished.  The Jews were killed in the six gas chambers, and the bodies were buried.  Then in late fall, the graves were opened, and the burning of the corpses began.  This was not finished until March 1943. [142]

     Captured in August 1941, Peter Petrowitsch Browzew was taken to Trawniki at the end of 1941 and assigned to Belzec in June 1942.  About his experiences in Belzec, he gave the following testimony about procedures after the first small wooden building with three gas chambers had been replaced with a larger cement structure with six chambers:

Upon the arrival of a train, several train cars at a time were uncoupled and brought into the death camp.  In the camp the train car doors were opened, and the Jews were told that they had come to work and that now they would be taken to the bath and should hand over their valuables.

Next they were told to undress.  Then the Jews were led through a gate surrounded by barbed wire into a wooden barracks, where they undressed and where their hair was cut.  No difference was made between men and women.  They all had to undress in one room.

Next they were led through the same gate to the gas chambers.

There were six gas chambers, three on each side of the entrance.  In general the chambers were usually crammed with some 200 Jews.

The people were locked in the chambers for 10-15 minutes.  Next the chambers were opened, and a Jewish work commando had to take the corpses to a grave already dug near the gas chambers on the grounds of the camp.

However, before the corpses were removed from the gas chambers, one worker from the Jewish work commando tore out the gold teeth from the dead.

The incoming transports of Jews came to an end in late 1942, and the burning of the buried corpses began.  "The corpses were pulled out of the graves, they were decomposed.  There were metal rails, wood, and everything was burned.  24 hours through, day and night, the corpses burned."  Then on February 3, 1943, Browzew escaped from Belzec and joined a partisan band. [143]

     Feodor Federenko gave sworn, pre-trial testimony on May 25, 1976, to American investigators in Hartford, Connecticut.  He was captured by the Germans in July 1941 and eventually was sent to the large POW camp in Cholm.  Here he was picked out of the camp and sent to Trawniki for training.  In late August or early September 1942, he was assigned to Treblinka.  He was asked:  "Were you aware of the fact that thousands of Jews were being exterminated in Treblinka?"  He answered, "Yes, I knew."  Asked if he was assigned to the forced labor camp or the camp "where they had gas chambers," he replied:  "I was where the gas chambers were." [144]

     At his subsequent denaturalization hearing in June 1978, Fedorenko testified over three days in greater detail.  He denied that he had actually entered the section of the camp where the gas chambers were located but admitted that he had once been posted on a guard tower overlooking this section of the camp.  "I saw how they were loading up dead people, loading them on the stretchers.  ...And they were loading them in a hole."  Later in his testimony, he reconfirmed that this part of the camp "is where there was the workers that took the bodies and buried them or stacked them in the holes.  This is where the gas chambers were."  Concerning the unloading of Jews from the trains, he testified:  "Some were picked for work and the others, they went to the gas chambers." [145]  

Fourth category: Nearby Poles

     Many Poles in the villages around these camps saw the endless flow of transports, smelled the terrible odors of the camps, and heard all kinds of rumors of how the Jews were killed, including not only by gas but also by steam and electricity.  Some Polish witnesses had particular vantage points, which enabled them to know much more about the camps than other Poles in the surrounding areas.  For instance, between November 1 and December 23, 1941, a small force of Polish workers was employed to construct the initial buildings, including the first small gas chamber with only three rooms, at Belzec.  Stanislaw Kozak and Edward Ferens both testified immediately after the war about their construction work in Belzec. [146]   According to Kozak sand was poured between the double walls of one small building, whose interior was partially covered with zinc sheeting.  The building had three rooms, each with two doors, one entering from a interior corridor and the other exiting to the outside.  The doors were very strong and covered with rubber;  they opened outward and were secured with crossbars on the outside.  When Edward Ferens asked the German supervisor the purpose of the building, the latter merely laughed. 

     While the Poles worked on these buildings, the black-uniformed auxiliaries dug a large pit behind it.  Beginning in March 1942 transports began arriving, sometimes 2-3 per day.  In the fall the transports stopped, and an excavator was employed to open and empty the mass graves.  For the next three months the terrible smell of burning bodies pervaded the area and could be detected up to 15 kilometers away.  The camp was then dismantled.

     Jan Jrzowski and Jan Piwonski worked at the train station in Sobibor, directly across from the ramp where the transports for the camp were unloaded. [147]   Three German officers arrived in the fall of 1941 and measured the station ramp.  Construction on the camp began March 1942, and the observant Poles wondered about the arrival and unloading of large, heavy doors covered with rubber.  The transports began arriving in April, and by fall the smell of decaying corpses was detectable.  In October 1942 an excavator arrived.  The graves were opened and the corpses burned.  The smell of burning bodies reached Wlodawa 9 kilometers away.  The fire within the camp could be seen clearly at night.  On October 14, 1943, an uprising occurred in the camp, after which it was closed.  

Fifth category: Jewish Escapees

     Concerning the last category of eyewitnesses, due to prisoner uprisings and breakouts in Treblinka and Sobibor, approximately 50 Jews from each camp survived the war. [148]   Some testimonies were recorded even before the end of the war, [149] and one Treblinka survivor, Samuel Rajzman, testified very briefly before the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg. [150]   The testimonies of many others have subsequently been collected, especially at Yad Vashem, and many have been published. [151]  

     The situation regarding Belzec is much different.  Perhaps as many as six prisoners escaped individually from Belzec, [152] but only one, Rudolf Reder, has given extensive post-war testimony. [153]   In his very early testimony of December 1945, Reder recounted how he had been deported from Lwow to Belzec on August 17, 1942, in a train of 50 cars, each crammed with 100 Jews.  He was only one of eight prisoners selected as skilled workers to join the Jewish labor force in the camp that day.  Working in the camp as a mechanic, for several months he operated the excavator that dug graves behind the gas chamber.  He could see the gas chambers even more closely when he delivered "gasoline" (Benzin) to the engine room at the end of the corridor that ran between the three gas chambers on each side.  He gave the following description:

In these chambers the people were packed so tightly together, that even after death they were found in standing position.  As soon as all chambers were crammed full, all the doors were tightly shut; ....then the motor was started.  The work of the motor was watched over by the prisoner Moniek, a cabman from Cracow.  The motor was always run exactly for 20 minutes, after which Moniek gave one of the machinists the signal to turn it off.  After the motor had been turned off, on the order of Moniek the prisoners opened all the doors wide and pulled the dead in pairs out of the chambers with the help of straps placed around the hands of the corpses; the corpses were then pulled to the mass graves already dug out beforehand by machine.  On the way between the ramp of the chamber and the grave, dentists pulled gold teeth from the corpses. 

In November 1942 Reder escaped his captors and survived in hiding in Lwow until the arrival of the Red Army.  He emigrated to Canada in 1953.

     Once again, human memory is imperfect.  The testimonies of both survivors and other witnesses to the events in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka are no more immune to forgetfulness, error, exaggeration, distortion, and repression than eyewitness accounts of other events in the past.  They differ, for instance, on how long each gassing operation took, on the dimensions and capacity of the gas chambers, on the number of undressing barracks, and on the roles of particular individuals.  Gerstein, citing Globocnik, claimed the camps used diesel motors, but witnesses who actually serviced the engines in Belzec and Sobibor (Reder and Fuchs) spoke of gasoline engines.  Once again, however, without exception all concur on the vital issue at dispute, namely that Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were death camps whose primary purpose was to kill in gas chambers through the carbon monoxide from engine exhaust, and that the hundreds of thousands of corpses of Jews killed there were first buried and then later cremated.  

E.  Documentary Evidence concerning Aktion or Einsatz (Operation) Reinhard (alternatively spelled Reinhardt)  

     The deportation of Jews to and killing of Jews in the camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, as well as the confiscation of their property, became known as Operation Reinhard, under the command of Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader in the district of Lublin.  The expression Operation Reinhard appears in only a few German documents.  So little documentary evidence explicitly dealing with Operation Reinhard survived because it was intentionally and systematically destroyed in 1943 and 1944.  This is clearly revealed in a letter from its director, Odilo Globocnik, to Heinrich Himmler of January 5, 1944.  It was a cover letter for Globocnik's submission of a final financial accounting of the program, for which Globocnik wanted a quick confirmation of financial propriety, given the "odium" (Globocnik's own expression) that attached to his past reputation in financial matters.  Globocnik gave another reason for urgently concluding an audit of the financial side of Operation Reinhard, namely that its "records must be destroyed as soon as possible, after the documents of all other work in this matter have already been destroyed." [154]  

     An early document mentioning "Einsatz Reinhard" dates from July 18, 1942.  It is a form on which the personnel specially authorized "for the carrying-out of the work of the Jewish resettlement within the framework of 'Operation Reinhard' with the SS and Police Leader in the Lublin district" acknowledged having been oriented to specific rules of secrecy by SS-Hauptsturmführer Höfle on Globocnik's staff.  They were forbidden to make any communication, verbal or oral, concerning the "Jewish resettlement" (Judenumsiedlung) under any circumstances to anyone outside of Operation Reinhard.  Moreover, there was "an explicit prohibition against photography in the camps of 'Operation Reinard.'" [155]

     One surviving file of Aktion Reinhard documents (partially burned) concerns the camp personnel at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. [156]   Two letters date from April 13, 1943.  The first of these, addressed to SS-Obersturmführer Kuno Ther of the SS Central Office for Personnel, proposed promotions of the officers and men of Aktion Reinhard.  It noted:  "The Reichsführer-SS [Himmler] had approved in principle the promotion of the most deserving officers and men after his visit to the Sobibor camp."  It identified Christian Wirth as Inspector and Gottlieb Hering, Franz Reichsleitner, and Franz Stangl as "camp commanders." (Lagerführer)  The remaining non-commissioned officers on the list "had been employed in Aktion 'Reinhard' since the beginning and had proven themselves in the best possible manner." [157]  

     A second letter of the same date, from Globocnik to Gruppenführer von Herff of the SS Central Officer for Personnel of the same day and sent by courier, was slightly rephrased.  It did not mention Himmler's visit to Sobibor specifically but stated that Himmler "on the occasion of his visit in March had visited installations of Aktion 'Reinhard'" and approved promotions.  The enclosed promotion list was for "members of the SS-Special Commando 'Einsatz Reinhard'." [158]   Subsequent correspondence in the file concerning the recommended promotions of Aktion Reinhard personnel confirmed Himmler's visit and inspection of Sobibor but dated it precisely to February 12, 1943. [159]

     On October 27, 1943, Globocnik confirmed to Herff in the SS Central Office for Personnel that included on his staff of 434 men were 92 men "from the Führer's Chancellery for the carrying out of Aktion Reinhard." [160]   These were the men who formerly staffed the institutes of the "euthanasia" program for killing mentally- and physically handicapped Germans and were subsequently assigned to the camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, where they could continue to use their expertise in gassing.

     Another surviving file of documents that mention Aktion Reinhard concern the audit of Operation Reinhard following Globocnik's transfer from the General Government to Triest in the fall of 1943.  On September 22, 1943, Himmler wrote to Oswald Pohl, head of the Economic and Administrative Main Office of the SS, and Globocnik that, in view of Globocnik's transfer, the latter should turn over an audit of the "'Reinhard' account" (Konto 'Reinhard') to Pohl. [161]   On November 4, 1943, Globocnik wrote Himmler from Triest:  "As of October 19, 1943, I have terminated Aktion Reinhardt, which I directed in the General Government, and dissolved all camps." [162]   It is only at this point in the fall of 1943 that the alternative spelling of "Reinhardt" rather than "Reinhard" first appeared in the documents. [163]

     On January 5, 1944, Globocnik submitted his final report on the "economic part of Aktion Reinhardt."  (Wirtschaftlicher Teil der Aktion Reinhardt)  This report made clear that alongside the seizure and utilization of Jewish property, Aktion Reinhardt also dealt with "the evacuation itself" (die Aussiedlung selbst) and "the utilization of labor." (die Verwertung der Arbeitskraft)  In a brief section of the report devoted to the evacuation, Globocnik reported that the "installations" (Einrichtungen) created for the operation had been "entirely cleared away."  (zur Gänze weggeräumt)  Moreover, "for purposes of surveillance a small farmstead had been founded in each camp," and the occupants had to be paid continuously to maintain the farmsteads. Concerning the utilization of labor, Globocnik noted that he had had a workforce of some 52,000 working in 18 enterprises, but on November 3, 1943, all the manpower had been withdrawn from the work camps, and the factories had been idled. [164]   (In this regard it should be noted that on November 3-4, 1943, some 42,000 Jews in the work camps of Lublin, Trawniki, and Poniatowa were shot in an SS killed action code-named "Fall Harvest" or Erntefest.)  Among the recipients of the Jewish property collected during Operation Reinhard were the Ministry of Economics and Reichsbank as well as the Ministry of Finance.

     Several conclusions can be drawn from this miniscule remnant of Operation Reinhard documents.  Operation Reinhard was directed by Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader of Lublin, and the SS "special commando" of Operation Reinhard was made up of personnel who staffed the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka and who had earlier worked in the gassing institutes of the "euthanasia" program in Germany.  The deportation of Jews to and the gassing of Jews in these camps was the central purpose of Operation Reinhard, and every effort was made to erase all physical traces of the three camps.  The exploitation of Jewish labor and property were collateral aspects of Operation Reinhard, and the Finance Ministry was only one of a number of recipients of Jewish property.  Staatssekretär Fritz Reinhardt of the Finance Ministry is not mentioned in any of the documents, and the spelling of Operation Reinhardt with a "t" as in his name begins only in late 1943.  The notion that Operation Reinhard was a program for collecting and exploiting Jewish property and was named after the state secretary of the Finance Ministry, Fritz Reinhardt, is farfetched and finds no support in the surviving documents.  Nothing in the surviving documents, however, explicitly indicates that Operation Reinhard was named for the assassinated Reinhard Heydrich.

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