The bilingual Volksdeutsche Zugführers were the backbone of the camp operation. Working immediately below Wirth and his team of T4 operatives, these platoon leaders held complete power over life and death. They were the principal supervisors who handled their Trawniki guard personnel with strict discipline. Each of the three platoons in Belzec, was organized on a 24-hour shift system that changed each day at noon. One platoon was designated duty to the incoming transports, another platoon to general guard duties, and a third on rest day ('Zug bei Freiheit'). As the slaughter progressed, the Volksdeutsche NCOs, who had made themselves indispensable to the death machine, were given more power and responsibility.
There are many accounts which graphically illustrate how these Volksdeutsche Oberwachmänner treated the Jews, who were shot, axed, and beaten to death. In front of the Treblinka gas chambers, they were beaten with clubs and iron bars by the gas chamber operators, Nikolay Shaleyev and Ivan Marchenko. Sheleyev had a cavalryman's sabre which he used to cut off the breasts of Jewish women and sever their noses and ears. He was capable of cutting a person in half with one stroke of the sabre. He enjoyed setting his dog on naked people walking to the gas chamber. This creature would tear off pieces of flesh from men, women and children. Marchenko walked around the camp dispensing violence with a two-metre-long water pipe, with which he was expert at killing, and with one blow could slay a physically strong man. The Ukrainian guard Pavel Vladimirovich Leleko was a witness to such atrocities.
In a statement to Soviet investigators immediately after the war, Leleko described the daily gassing operations:
When the procession of the condemned approached the gas chambers, the motorists (engine operators) would shout: 'Go quickly or the water will get cold.' Each group of women and men was hurried along from the rear by some Germans and very often the Commandant himself (In Treblinka this was SS-Untersturmführer Kurt Franz, who was accompanied by a dog.) As they approached the gas chambers the people began to back away in terror. Often they tried to turn back. At that point whips and clubs were used. Franz immediately set his dog on the condemned, which was specially trained to snap at their sex organs. At each gas chamber there were five to six Germans besides the 'motorists'. They drove the people into the corridor of the gas chamber with clubs and whips and then into the chambers. In this, the Germans would compete with the operators in brutality towards the people selected to die.
After the chambers were filled they were slammed shut with hermetically sealed doors. The operators would turn on the motors. The exhaust gas was fed through pipes into the chambers and the process of asphyxiation began. Sometime after starting the motors, the operators would look into the chambers through special observation slits alongside each door to see how the killing process was going. When questioned what they saw there, they answered that the people were writhing and twisting among one another. I also tried to look in through the little window into the chamber, but somehow I did not succeed in seeing anything. Gradually the noise in the chambers subsided. After about 15 minutes the motors were turned of. Translated by author)
It is interesting to note that those Ukrainian guards who were trusted by the camp leadership were issued the black uniform of the German SS and allowed to carry arms. These favored individuals were also taken to northern Italy when Reinhardt was disbanded in late 1943.
By mid-1942, there were very few Jews in the Lublin District who did not know what was awaiting them when they were deported. The guards were poised for action as soon as the victims stepped down from the transports in the arrival area and set upon them, subduing any agitators or protestors, especially in the undressing barracks, from where the victims were driven into the gas chambers. In the course of these activities, several of the camp SS and auxiliary personnel were injured or killed: in Treblinka, Zugwachmann David Robertus suffered serious injury while attacking a Jew with an axe, and Wachmann Tscherniawsky was set upon by a Jew he was beating, and had his hand shot off by another guard in the tower.
Once Belzec had been organized to Wirth's satisfaction, the Ukrainians controlled most of the gassing actions under the eye of the SS. The Jewish 'death brigade' experienced considerable personal stress when these actions unfolded before them. On one occasion when the Ukrainians were forcing victims into the gas chambers, the Jewish 'death brigade' attacked their guards and were immediately shot.
The victims who were the subject of this revolt were probably Jews who had arrived on the first transports from Kraków. Tadeusz Misiewicz, the Russian-speaking cashier at Belzec station, recalls many conversations he had with the 'Blacks' (Ukrainians) relating to happenings in the camps:
One boasted about how he seized a young Jewish girl by the hair and beat her against a post so that her spine was broken, killing the girl instantly. When Jews were being driven into the gas chamber, one of them hit him with a piece of wood so he shot the Jew. Another Jew was tied to a post and rubbed with goose feather spines so hard that his bare bones protruded. On another occasion, the Pole, Tadeuasz Sloboda, who shared a house with a Ukrainian in Belzec village, recalled that several Ukrainian guards from the camp came to his house exhausted and told him that there had been a revolt in the camp. Two wagons of Polish (non-Jewish) political prisoners arrived to be gassed. The Poles had refused to undress and ran amok. They were hunted down in the camp and shot. The guards remarked that if ever a larger transport arrived at the camp they would be unable to cope.
The brutal and sadistic behavior of the Ukrainians was important in establishing their personal prestige, not only with the German SS, but also with their comrades. It also sent a message to the Jewish workers that life was cheap.
Despite all this, the Ukrainians' relationship with the Jewish 'death brigades' in the Reinhardt camps was one of mutual toleration, as each benefited materially from the other. The guards had no real loyalty to the SS, and were never under any illusions as to their own ultimate fate. Nevertheless, they continued with their partnership in genocide, with short-term stakes on offer for all participants.
Although each Reinhardt camps was allocated up to 120 guards, they were not all on duty in the camp at the same time but worked to a duty rotation as discussed above. On rest days there was very little by way of entertainment for these men, and in Belzec they spent much of their time drinking in the local Belzec bars. The nearby town of Tomaszów-Lubelski offered similar fare, only more so. Even drinking in bars was not without danger. In November 1941, Anatolie Rige, an ethnic German from Siberia who had transferred to Treblinka (labor camp), died from alcoholic poisoning by drinking a locally-brewed concoction, which was substantially benzine spirit masquerading as vodka.
Although it may be thought insignificant, Belzec had become an important trading center attracting many outsiders, including 'loose' women. The death camp had become an integral part of the local economy.
The guards, who were given 10 Reichmarks a week for tobacco, had many other sources of income, including the warehouses containing the property of the Jewish victims, which they pilfered and bartered with the local population. Even within the confines of the camp, the Ukrainian guards supplied food and vodka to 'work Jews' in exchange for cash or valuables. Delivering illegal messages from one part of the camp to the other was another source of enrichment.
For example, a Polish police officer has reported that when a Ukrainian guard visited him he had a stack of money in notes, watches, gold, and all kinds of articles he had stolen from the locomotive shed where Jewish clothing was sorted. They paid for vodka and women with bank notes stained with body fluids.
Although the Ukrainian guards were threatened with death by Wirth if they dared talk about their work while outside the camp, loose talk inevitably increased when the guards were drunk in the village.
The undisciplined behavior of the Ukrainians caused a lot of problems for the SS/Police in the camp. Although Wirth tolerated many misdemeanors by the men under his command - including the SS-NCOs he did not tolerate any action that placed the smooth running of the camps in jeopardy. 'We were a 'pile of conspirators' ('verschworener Haufen') in a foreign land, surrounded by Ukrainian volunteers in whom we could not trust', so said SS-Scharführer Erich Bauer, the 'Gasmeister ' ('gassing expert') of Sobibór.
Much of the evidence concerning the activities of the Ukrainian guards originates from the Polish Commission of Enquiry at Belzec immediately after the war, when many local villagers, both Polish and Ukrainian, who had worked in the camp, relayed their accounts to the Commission. One was Ukrainian guard Edward Wlasiuk, who married a 17-year-old local girl in 1942.Another Ukrainian guard (name not known) told his woman friend what was going on in Belzec. She was so horrified that she gave details to the Judenrat in the Lvóv ghetto. Consequently, when the selections for the 'Grossaktion' ('big operation') commenced there on August 10, 1942 the Jews already knew what awaited them.
Because the Ukrainian guards were a security risk to the Germans, they were treated accordingly. There appears to have been only one revolt planned by the Ukrainian guard unit Belzec. in early 1943, 50 guards mutinied and made an attempt to seize valuables and firearms from the garrison, an act that ended with disastrous results. One of the guards informed on his colleagues; as a result, the SS were waiting and arrested them. The guards were removed under close guard to Trawniki, where it is believed they were all shot.
In Auschwitz, 15 Ukrainians fled the camp taking their weapons with them. In the following manhunt three German officers were shot. Soon after, all the Ukrainians in Auschwitz were dispersed to other KZs where it is presumed they were also shot.
Because the Ukrainian guards were so mistrusted they were not issued machine pistols. In Sobibór, the SS withdrew their ammunition on one occasion as they suspected treachery, a fact noticed by the Jews when planning their famous revolt.German fears of betrayal proved to be well-founded: on October 22,1943, while accompanying 30 Ukrainians from Sobibór to Trawniki by train, SS-Oberscharführer Herbert Floss was murdered by the guard, Wasil Hetmaniec, with his own machine-pistol, between Chelm and the village of Zawadowska. The other 25 guards escaped but were hunted down by the SS, arrested in Rejowiec, disarmed, manacled, and returned to Trawniki. Their fate is not known and can only be presumed.
On many occasions, Wirth, and later Hering, who replaced him as commandant August 1,1942, reacted to the excesses of these guards by beating, whipping and imprisoning them in a punishment bunker near the Kommandantur, where they remained for several days without food or water. The leadership, however, were pragmatists and in return for their collaboration, turned a blind-eye on some occasions to the corruption and thefts committed by the Ukrainians, but on other occasions, for serious breaches of security, the leadership did not hesitate to shoot them on the spot, or return them to Trawniki to be executed.Two Ukrainians who crossed Wirth by loose talk to outsiders were arrested, dressed in clothing bearing the Jewish yellow star, and then gassed with the victims on the next transport. This incident broke many of the watching Ukrainians, who cried out in despair.
In October 1942, after two Ukrainians had been incarcerated in the punishment bunker for the theft of valuables from the Kommandantur, SS-Scharführer Heinrich Gley and Fritz Irrmann were intimidated late one evening by Hering into shooting them. Gley waited several meters away while Irrmann entered the bunker, where he was set upon by the prisoners, and in the darkness, Gley panicked and opened fire. He killed Irrmann and the Ukrainian guards escaped. Irrmann was taken to the administration building where he was examined by a Jewish doctor summoned from the cam,p who pronounced him dead.Although the shooting of Irrmann was confirmed as accidental, Gley experienced the wrath of both Wirth and Hering, and recalled: I could certainly have been executed without a court martial or further ado. Out of anxiety for these fearful measures, I bowed to their will.
In the Reinhardt camps generally, a number of Ukrainian guards were summarily shot by the SS for various reasons.When Ukrainians were caught dealing with 'work Jews,',Wirth had three Jews shot as a warning. In Sobibor, two Ukrainian guards were shot in front of their comrades; in Treblinka, Wirth dealt with the Ukrainians with extreme severity, beating and whipping them into submission in a way that even disturbed the SS. Wirth's treatment of the Ukrainians was discussed by the SS who came to the conclusion that, should the guards join up with the Jews, they - the SS - would all be killed When commandant Franz Stangl at Treblinka continued Wirth's policy of hard discipline with the guards, two attempts were made to murder him: a shot was fired at him one night, narrowly missing him as he lay in bed, and on another occasion a primed hand-grenade was found under the seat of his car.
At the turn of 1942-43, the serious German military setbacks caused a temporary halt to Reinhardt operations because the wagons were needed at the front. The Ukrainian guards started to hedge their bets and several deserted, taking their weapons with them. The worsening military situation on the Eastern front resulted in such a demand for extra manpower that the standard for recruits had to be lowered. The Carpathian Goral were such an additional source of manpower, who with other civilians were used for auxiliary service. Until the liberation of the Lublin District by the Red Army in July 1944, the SS training camp remained the central training establishment in the General Government.
In the Reinhardt camps, the attitudes of Germans and Ukrainians towards the Jews differed fundamentally, even if they vied with one another in the depths of their depravity. With their age-old tradition of pogroms, the Ukrainian Trawnikimänner took the path of collaboration with the Germans, and in so doing became subservient tools in a policy of coercion, cruelty, depravation, and mass murder. The whole process had been initiated and supervised by the Germans, with the Ukrainians as their assistants; theirs was a tradition of drunken aggression directed against Jews. More to the point, easy access to untold valuables stolen from their victims, gave the Ukrainians an unprecedented chance of gaining wealth, however risky. The systematic wholesale murder of a people, however, was another matter. It is most unlikely that they would ever have entertained such a course on their own initiative. That was something peculiar to the Germans.
There is some evidence to suggest that due to the situation in which the Ukrainian guards found themselves in Belzec, they were lethargic and greedy, and generally indifferent to Jewish persecution. Although they went along with the program of murder, they were not committed to the ultimate fanatical aims of the Germans. Many Ukrainians, who had loyally served the Germans up to then, sensing a reversal of German fortunes and the possibility of being accused as collaborators, attempted to escape. At the conclusion of Reinhardt, the majority of Ukrainians were transferred to the SS 'Galizien' Division, in whose ranks they fought until defeated and destroyed by the Soviets at Brody in 1944.
This photograph was almost certainly taken on the same day as Figure 1 and by the same photographer. (The SS officer is Rudi Kamm, first supervisor of the sorting/storage depot in the old locomotive shed.) He is wearing the standard uniform of the Waffen-SS issued to members of the SS-garrison. The woman in the background appears to be the same one in Figure 1 (second from the right). To her right and standing by a barrack door could be one of the men also shown in Figure 1. The buildings shown in Figures 2 and 3 are of special interest. The survivor Reder referred to the southern part of the camp, where a series of five detached wooden buildings stood facing the square, closed by a camouflaged fence of firs and mixed chicken and barbed wire. The wooden buildings are identical to those wooden barracks shown in Figure 2. It is the opinion of the investigation team (1997-9) that the buildings shown in the photographs (Figures 2 and 3) were the reception buildings where the women's hair was cut and the undressing barrack.)
A key element in Christian Wirth's organization of the extermination program that was to prevail at Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka was his appointment and training of Jewish prisoners as an integral part of the extermination process. They were called 'work brigades.' Wirth selected two senior Oberzugführer, who then selected 15 Zugführer, who in turn selected the members of their individual 'work brigades.' Under the supervision of the SS/Police leadership they had definite power. They were given adequate rations, allowed to select decent clothing taken from the victims, and were well-treated as long as the killing operation ran smoothly. The surviving photographs shows them in riding breeches, black knee-length boots, and cloth caps, a sign of authority in all camps, including the concentration camps. They enforced their authority with whips, which they used freely, especially when the Germans were in sight. The team of Zugführers supervised the Jewish 'work brigades' in the death camps.
To place Jewish cooperation in the Reinhardt camps in perspective, it will be appreciated that the Jewish population in the ghettos and camps were under immense pressure to carry out the orders of the SS. In Belzec, during the second phase, the Jewish 'work brigades' were divided into two distinct and segregated groups of 500 Jews each. The 'work Jews' in Camp I, the arrival and reception area, attended to the unloading of the wagons at the ramps, the undressing of the victims, and finally the collecting and sorting/storage of the victims' clothing and belongings.
In Camp II, the extermination area, the 'work Jews' unloaded the bodies from the gas chambers and buried them in the mass graves; later, they also cremated the exhumed bodies. Because of their gruesome work handling the bodies, they were known as the 'death brigade.' A small team of Jewish mechanics also helped operate the gassing engines. A Jewish taxi driver from Kraków, remembered only as 'Moniek,' is said to have assisted.) Rudolf Reder, the roaming engineer and fixer of most things in Belzec, was often called upon to tinker with the gassing engine when there were 'technical difficulties.' He also delivered the fuel. Jews certainly attended to the gassing engines in Treblinka, which they also refuelled.
There were also Jewish specialists in each Reinhardt camp, such as gold- and silversmiths, jewellers, bankers, tailors, cobblers, and doctors. Other workers sorted the cash, valuables, clothing and footwear left by the victims. A separate 'work brigade' attached to Camp I maintained the camouflage on the camp fences, supervised by and SS-NCO and Ukrainian guards. A smaller group, the 'Putzer, (lit. 'cleaner,' or in military terms a 'batman') materialized later in Treblinka and Sobibór; their duty was to clean the uniforms and boots of the SS and act as waiters in the canteen. The duties were governed by the schedules of incoming transports, at which point the prisoners reported to their assigned and permanent posts within the 'work brigades (such as haircutters [Friseur)], ramp duties, luggage and clothing commando ([Lumpenmeister], and fire specialists [Feuermeister]), who destroyed all personal possessions and spoilt items by burning them.)
Among the SS/Police garrisons in the Reinhardt camps there was a general mood of pessimism and apprehension, especially in Belzec under Wirth's command, a mood that was occasionally lightened by football matches between the SS and 'work Jews' on days when no transports arrived. According to post-war German and Polish testimonies, there was no rancor should the Jews win the match.
Collaboration is an emotive word and should be dealt with within the context of the circumstances at the time. Were the Jews who carried out the orders of the Germans in the death camps 'collaborators'? There is a difference between the 'work Jews' in the death camps and the rest of the Jewish population outside. In the death camps, according to the SS, the Zugführers 'were particularly cruel to their own people and the Jewish Ordnungsdienst in the ghettos were not exactly gentle.
In an overview of the war, there were, of course, individuals from nation states who collaborated with the German occupiers. This is evident and generally not in dispute. No nation can claim 'exceptional status' by stating that there was no willing cooperation by their nationals.
In the ghettos and camps of the General Government, the focus for collaboration fell mainly on the Judenrat (Jewish Council) and the Ordnungsdienst (OD), the ghetto Jewish 'police.' From the position of friendly and helpful protectors of their kin, the members of each Judenrat in a progressively deteriorating situation were finally forced to act as mere puppets of their German masters. This change from altruistic benefactors to sometimes brutal and uncaring tools of destruction was brought about by threats to their own lives and those of their families. Should they not fulfil the wishes of their German oppressors to the letter, they too faced resettlement or immediate summary justice. In the end, they met the same fate as every other Jew in the ghettos.
The whole question of Jewish collaboration in the Reinhardt death camps must be viewed objectively in the light of the situation confronting them at that time. It is now generally accepted that far from being collaborators, they were very much victims of circumstances, living in daily fear for their lives and clinging desperately to a slim hope of survival.
As an indication of the appalling reality that the Jewish 'death brigades' endured as the forlorn price for temporary survival, one needs only to consider the case of Heinz 'Heini' Schmidt, the Latvian Volksdeutsche Zugwachmann, who was daily in charge of the 'death brigade' in Camp II in Belzec. He meted out regular vicious beatings to the 'work Jews', who often did not survive such treatment. It was common for Schmidt to kill 30-40 Jews a day, who were immediately replaced by prisoners in the next transport. A daily register was kept by the Oberzugführer to ensure that the compliment of 500 'death brigade' workers was always maintained.
On another occasion, in the freezing cold, when the 'death brigade' could not cope with the burial of the corpses, Schmidt selected 100 (naked) Jews who had arrived from the Janowska camp in Lemberg (Lvov) and forced them to work naked all day at the mass graves. In the evening, Schmidt took them to a grave and shot them one by one. When he ran out of ammunition, he took a pick-axe handle and beat the rest to death. There are on record the arrival in Belzec of two small transports which contained only small children and babies. As it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to arrange the gassing of such small children, Schmidt ordered the Ukrainian guards to throw them into the pit and bury them alive.
Once the gassing had been completed, the 'death brigade' dragged the bodies out of the chambers onto the unloading ramps. Leather straps were wrapped around the wrists of each corpse and they were then dragged to a mass grave. En route, a brief halt was made for a 'dentist' to remove any gold dental work from the mouths of the victims. The gold was melted down, fashioned into small ingots, and collected at regular intervals by a courier from T4 in Berlin.
Children who had been gassed together with their mothers were carried out two at a time,) slung over the shoulders of the 'work Jews'.
At the graves, a standard procedure for the disposal of the bodies was followed, as described by Rudolf Reder, one of the very few survivors of the 'death brigade:
We were made to pile the corpses one meter above the rim of the already full grave, and then cover them with sand. Thick, black blood seeped from the graves and poured over the surface like a sea. We had to move from one side of the grave to the other in order to reach another grave. Our legs were immersed in the blood of our brothers. We stepped on mounds of corpses. That was the worst, the most dreadful thing of all ...
The story of the Jewish elements in the Reinhardt camps the teams of Zugführers, 'work Jews,' and members of the 'death brigades' who found themselves involved in the genocide of their fellow Jews, is perhaps unsurpassed in its potency as an illustration of the power of the will to live. The desire to survive was what drove them to perform their dreadful tasks and endure the unimaginable horrors they witnessed day after day.
[The Jewess Sarah Ritterbrand (nee Beer) was removed from a death transport on arrival at Belzec, despite the fact she had a 4-year-old daughter with her. Ritterbrand's brother, Moshe Hellman lived under a false identity in Belzec and worked in the local bakery. Hellman was later shot at the camp in front of his sister having spirited the child out of the camp in a breadbasket. Mother and daughter were to survive the war.] Return
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