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[Pages 161-169]

Chapter 9

Aktion Reinhard

`Aussiedlung' – the destruction of people and theft of their possessions.[897]

There is great unhappiness and fear among the Jews…They are… resettling the Jews from various towns and villages and taking them somewhere towards Belzec…Today they deported the Jews from Izbica – they were also taken to Belzec where there is supposed to be some monstrous camp. – Zygmunt Klukowski, 26 March 1942[898]

Following a series of meetings with Karl Brandt, Hitler ordered an official halt to the “euthanasia” programme on 24 August 1941. Brandt immediately telephoned Philip Bouhler to pass on the instructions, and Bouhler in turn contacted Viktor Brack. As the message passed down the list of apparatchiks, Hans Hefelmann queried whether all “euthanasia” was to cease, including that of children. Back came the reply – children were not included in the cessation. The “stop order” was only to apply in the case of adults.[899] “Euthanasia” had accounted for the lives of 4,000-5,000 Jewish patients, overwhelmingly killed for being Jews rather than for reasons of incapacity.[900] The time had now arrived to accelerate that rate of murder.

By the time of the suspension of adult “euthanasia”, Fall Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and with it the shooting of Jews, communist party functionaries, and other Untermenschen by the Einsatzgruppen, had been underway for two months. Most of the personnel at the “euthanasia” killing centres were dismissed following the “stop order”, only to be hurriedly recalled two weeks later. The exact chronology of events during the critical period following the issue of the “stop order” and the commencement of the construction of the Belzec extermination camp is imprecise, and such details as exist are often conflicting, but it seems that at some time soon after the notional cessation, Bouhler was asked, probably by Himmler, to provide the necessary manpower to Odilo Globocnik for the implementation of the planned extermination of the 3.3 million Polish Jews. Immediately thereafter Bouhler visited Globocnik in Lublin, doubtless to confer about the relevant details.[901] It is evident that the need to utilise the services of men experienced in the process of mass murder had been recognized. According to Brack:

In 1941, I received an oral order to discontinue the euthanasia programme. In order to retain the personnel that had been relieved of these duties, and in order to be able to start a new euthanasia programme after the war, Bouhler asked me – I think after a conference with Himmler – to send this personnel to Lublin and place it at the disposal of SS-Brigadeführer Globocnik.[902]

Brack had good reason to create spurious excuses for retaining the T4 personnel. There was certainly an intention to one day recommence the “euthanasia” programme, but it was not for this reason that the staff was to be sent to Poland. Brack had accompanied Bouhler on the trip to see Globocnik;[903] exactly what the trio of murderers discussed at their meeting in Lublin was either unrecorded, subsequently destroyed, or remains as yet undiscovered, but is not difficult to surmise. The SS had only been marginally involved in “euthanasia”, which had essentially been an operation conducted through and by the KdF. Whilst some Jews had certainly been among the victims of T4, any continent-wide mass murder was to be very much an SS affair. By providing some personnel and expertise the SS had enabled T4 to function relatively smoothly. Now with the planned expansion of killing through the creation of dedicated extermination camps, the favour was to be returned. The SS-men who had served at the killing centres were easily recalled to duty, but they represented only a minority of T4 personnel. Globocnik needed the other, non-SS members who had been, and were to remain, employees of T4; although they were eventually to become nominally members of the SS whilst serving in the Aktion Reinhard camps, these men continued to be paid by and receive benefits from T4.[904]

Having been hastily ordered to report back to headquarters for a new assignment, the T4 staff found themselves at something of a loose end. Some were temporarily returned to the “euthanasia” centres,[905] whilst others dawdled in Berlin, killing time rather than patients. But all knew that there was something in the air. Hans-Bodo Gorgass testified: “I knew police captain Wirth, the administrative head of various euthanasia institutions, who told me in the late summer of 1941, that he…was being transferred to a euthanasia institute in the Lublin area.” Rumours were rife that there was now to be a “euthanasia” programme exclusively devoted to Jews.[906]

There is testimony extant that Christian Wirth was in fact among the earliest of the T4 staff to arrive in Lublin and gain admission to the small circle of those who were to plan and execute the probably as yet unnamed Aktion. The prime source for this evidence was Adolf Eichmann, who despite the many inconsistencies in his various depositions, provided one version that, at least in its essentials, provided a plausible account of some of the events of those pivotal weeks. Eichmann claimed that two or three months after Barbarossa had commenced, that is in August or September 1941, he was summoned by Reinhard Heydrich and informed, “The Führer has ordered the physical extermination of the Jews”. Eichmann was ordered to visit Globocnik, who had already received his instructions concerning the intended genocide, and having done so, to report back to Heydrich on the progress of Globocnik's programme.[907]

On reporting to Lublin, Eichmann was sent on a tour of inspection, accompanied by Herman Höfle, Globocnik's chief-of-staff. During his interrogation by the Israeli police after his arrest and extradition in 1960, Eichmann had several convenient lapses of memory or moments of confusion, among the most unlikely of which was his inability to identify exactly where Höfle had taken him. He claimed that it might have been Treblinka, which was clearly impossible from his description of the geography of the region they visited, quite apart from the timing involved. It is unlikely that Treblinka, where initial inspections were made in late April or early May 1942, construction begun in late May or June,[908] and operations only commenced on 23 July 1942, was even under consideration as a potential extermination camp in the late summer or autumn of 1941. Eichmann did visit Treblinka, but from his description of the events he witnessed it was at a much later date, certainly sometime after the erection of the fake railway station buildings at the camp in late December 1942.

It is quite clear that it was Belzec, much closer to Lublin than Treblinka, that Eichmann saw: “There were patches of woods, sort of, and a road passed through – a Polish highway. On the right side of the road there was an ordinary house, that's where the men who worked there lived.” This is an accurate description both of the Belzec camp site and the location of the staff living quarters. It does nor remotely describe Treblinka. It is equally clear that it was Wirth who greeted Eichmann and Höfle on their arrival: “A captain of the regular police (Ordnungspolizei) welcomed us…He had, let's say, a vulgar, uncultivated voice. Maybe he drank. He spoke some dialect from the southwestern corner of Germany…”[909] In the course of further Israeli interrogation Eichmann's memories became somewhat clearer. The place he had visited had a more Polish-sounding name than Treblinka, and the police captain's name, he now recalled, was Wirth.

Eichmann's account of subsequent events varied in detail with each telling. Wirth led the men along a small forest path on the left side of the main highway, leading to two or three wooden houses still under construction. Wirth described how he had to hermitically seal all the windows and doors. It may be that Eichmann was describing this sealing-up when he refers to construction work. In an alternative version, Eichmann described how they came to “two small peasant huts standing under the deciduous trees”. In a third variation, the wooden structures were “in a forest, a deciduous forest, a quite dense deciduous forest, large trees and in full colour…It was therefore 1941 in the fall.” None of these descriptions fit the known layout of Belzec as a functioning extermination camp.

This testimony notwithstanding, there is a school of thought that, for whatever reason, Eichmann deliberately misstated the time of his visit to Belzec during these interrogations in Israel, and that in fact his visit took place not in the autumn of 1941, but rather sometime in early 1942, when the final touches to the gas chambers were being made (Belzec commenced operations on 17 March 1942).[910] The source of this version of events was Eichmann's self-serving autobiography, Ich Adolph Eichmann, a work which bears the imprimatur of no less an authority than David Irving, and was derived from some eighty tapes recorded by Eichmann in the 1950s.[911] In view of the known chronology of events and other witness testimony, this account is open to question. According to it, Eichmann dated Heydrich's informing him of the decision to physically exterminate the Jews to “the turn of the year 1941/42”, following which, as in his other accounts, he journeyed to somewhere in the Lublin region (“I don't know what the place is called”), where Wirth showed him a small house, “completely secluded” and informed Eichmann: “Here the Jews are being gassed now.”[912] No mention of deciduous trees “in full colour”, which is hardly surprising if Eichmann's visit did occur in the midst of a Polish winter.

No explanation has been proffered as to why, when in captivity, Eichmann would have found it necessary to construct such an elaborate lie about the timing of his visit to Belzec, a lie which was not in any way in his interests.[913] Like other criminals, Eichmann was only likely to be mendacious when it was to his perceived benefit. It is difficult to see any advantage accruing to Eichmann by his placing himself at the centre of the “Final Solution” at an earlier rather than a later date. It seems more feasible that events occurred in the autumn of 1941 largely as Eichmann described them, not least because they place Wirth in exactly the right place at the right time, doing the thing he knew best. The timing of Eichmann's visit is only important for this very reason. In fact, Christopher Browning has constructed a scenario which provides a logical pattern to at least some of Wirth's activities at that decisive juncture, as will be demonstrated.

Eichmann claimed not to have seen any actual gassings taking place at Belzec: “The motor was not yet there, the installation was not yet in operation.” Whilst it is true that the fixed gassing motor was not acquired for the camp until much later, in the earliest phase of killing at Belzec gassing was carried out with bottled carbon monoxide.[914] There was also another possibility; a Zyklon B type of killing agent had been used to dispose of mental patients at Posen as early as autumn 1939. For such a chemical to be effective all that was required was an airtight room. Whether he actually did or did not do so, it would certainly have been possible for Eichmann to have seen Wirth in action. Moreover, as Arthur Nebe and Albert Widmann had discovered at Novinki and Mogilev, it did not require excessive ingenuity to divert the exhaust fumes of a stationary petrol-fuelled vehicle into a hermetically sealed room in order to kill the occupants,[915] although admittedly to do so in the middle of the kind of forest Eichmann described would have presented considerable problems. However, it is known that sometime after the arrival of the first SS-men at Belzec in December 1941, a Post Office delivery van was converted into a mobile gas chamber. Even at that late stage, was Wirth perhaps considering a Chelmno-style extermination camp based upon the methods he had witnessed there, or a combination of mobile and stationary gas chambers?

Then there is the testimony of Ferdinand Hahnzog, commander of the Gendamerie (rural police) in the Lublin district, who stated that experiments into methods of mass killing were being investigated in the Belzec region at an early date. His description of “a primitive facility near Belzec hidden deep in the forest bordering on Galicia ... consisting of a sealed shed into which the Security Police and the SD from Zamosc pumped exhaust fumes from the vehicles used to bring the 'morituri' there!” corroborates the idea that the use of carbon monoxide produced by a petrol-driven engine was quickly recognized as a potential method for the extermination of large numbers of people. Hahnzog, however, dated these experiments to “the spring of 1941, if not earlier, in the fall of 1940.”[916] Hahnzog may have been mistaken regarding dates, so that perhaps it was Wirth's tests twelve months later to which he referred, although in general Hahnzog has been found to be a reliable witness so far as data is concerned. On the other hand, it is equally possible that research into different killing methods were being undertaken in that region of eastern Poland long before the decision or decisions implementing the “Final Solution” had been arrived at. It is also possible that Hahnzog and Eichmann were describing two separate activities conducted quite independently of each other.

Hahnzog also testified that in autumn 1941, he had been personally informed of the impending extermination programme by Globocnik himself, who needed Hahnzog's cooperation in providing guards for the unloading of transports at the proposed new camp at Sobibor; yet more evidence of the early planning for a second killing facility and a commensurate expansion of the Aktion. In early 1942 Hahnzog attempted to visit Sobibor, but found that even at that basic stage of construction the camp site was surrounded by barbed wire and the gates firmly shut.[917]

Browning's thesis concerning Wirth's experimental phase at Belzec posits that Wirth first arrived there in September 1941, and initially considered the conversion into gas chambers of two peasant huts that were situated deep in the surrounding forest (not on what was to become the extermination camp site). It was these hermetically sealed structures that Eichmann saw, and which were used to test the efficacy of a number of possible killing agents. This use of existing small buildings as gas chambers was in fact exactly what was to happen at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the “little red house” and “little white house” were the first killing installations, functioning long before the much larger crematoria II-V were completed. Having satisfied himself concerning the method and technique to be employed, Wirth left Belzec to return as the camp's first commandant a few weeks later.

There is one further source which can be interpreted as providing confirmation of Browning's reconstruction of events. Although it should be approached with the caution necessary when evaluating the evidence provided by any ex-member of the SS, particularly those directly involved in mass murder, in his post-war interrogation, Josef Oberhauser, Wirth's right-hand man, made it clear that there had been not one, but two experimental phases at Belzec:

The gassing of Jews which took place in Belzec camp up till 1 August 1942 can be divided into two phases. During the first series of experiments there were two to three transports consisting of four to six freight cars each holding twenty to forty persons. At that stage the gassings were not yet part of a systematic eradication action but were carried out to test and study closely the camp's capacity and the technical problems involved in carrying out a gassing. After these first gassings, Wirth and Schwarz along with the entire German personnel left Belzec… About a week after Brack had come to Globocnik [that is in mid-May 1942] Wirth and his staff returned to Belzec. The second series of experiments went on until 1 August 1942… During the first experiments and the first set of transports in the second series of experiments bottled gas was still used for gassing; however, for the last transports of the second series of experiments the Jews were killed with the exhaust gases from a tank or lorry engine which was operated by Hackenholt.[918]

Oberhauser was either confused, or more probably simply lying so far as dating was concerned. He claimed that “the large-scale extermination programme was due to start [at Belzec] on 1 August 1942”, which was clearly untrue. However, the proposition that Wirth conducted initial experiments in September 1941 in the manner suggested by Browning, then departed from Belzec only to return as commandant on 22 December 1941 and then carry out a second series of experimental gassings in the newly constructed gas chambers before the full-scale extermination of Jews began on 17 March 1942, seems entirely feasible.

* * *

Bogdan Musial has persuasively argued that by early October 1941, the decision to exterminate the Jews of the Generalgouvernement and the Warthegau had been taken. Later, probably following Hitler's declaration of war against the United States on 11 December, the extermination order was expanded to encompass the Jews of all Europe, a decision ratified at the Wannsee conference (originally planned for 9 December, then postponed to 20 January 1942).[919] At some point in October 1941 Hahnzog had been informed by Walther Griphan, the new commandant of the regular police in the Lublin District:

…quite plainly that the moment had now arrived for settling accounts with all enemies of the Reich — Poles, Jews and even Germans! ... This first shock was soon followed by a second: probably in November 1941, once again completely unprecedented, I was ordered, just as suddenly and unexpectedly, to report to Globocnik himself. He introduced me to a young SS leader who had been given the job of setting up the Sobibor camp and wanted the support of the gendarmerie office in Wlodawa for that purpose.[920]

Following a meeting on 13 October 1941 of Himmler, Globocnik, and Friedrich Krüger, HSSPF ((Higher SS and Police Leader) of the Generalgouvernement, it had been determined to radically expand and accelerate the first phase of the killing. Two small huts would certainly not be sufficient to cope with the thousands who would be arriving daily by train for extermination. Since a facility which was both close to the railway line as well as the major ghettos was clearly necessary, a purpose-built camp, for which Belzec had been earmarked at an early stage, was the obvious solution.[921] There was more; by autumn 1941 plans were already being laid for a second extermination camp at Sobibor.[922] Two days after the Himmler-Globocnik–Krüger meeting the deportation of German Jews “to the East” began, yet another decisive factor in the developing “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem”.[923]

After departing from T4 following the issue of the “stop order”, it has been suggested that Wirth may also have spent some time at Chelmno, the first of the Polish extermination camps. Although an SS concern, Chelmno was an operation entirely independent of both T4 and Aktion Reinhard, being primarily concerned with the murder of Jews of the Warthegau. Wirth considered Herbert Lange, commandant of Chelmno, a “bungler”,[924] but the killing method eventually determined by Wirth for use in Aktion Reinhard was the same as that used by Lange at Chelmno – carbon monoxide poisoning generated by petrol exhaust fumes – albeit in purpose built stationary gas chambers rather than the mobile gas vans Lange favoured. Chelmno was quite different in character from other extermination centres, in that it was not a purpose built camp, consisting as it did of the town's manor house and adjacent buildings and a quite separate Waldlager (Forest Camp), where the victims were buried.[925] Thus there was no need for any great preparatory work before commencing operations, and such work as was necessary was only undertaken in November 1941, with mass gassings initiated in early December. If Wirth did visit Chelmno, it seems unlikely that he would have done so before it had been chosen as a killing site, that is in November 1941. By that time, following the visit of an SS surveying party in late October 1941,[926] construction of the first of the Aktion Reinhard camps at Belzec had begun on 1 November 1941 initially using local labour, then Jews from nearby ghettos.[927]

There was yet another connection between T4 and Chelmno. The HSSPF for the Warthegau, Wilhelm Koppe, testified that “in 1940, or it may have been in 1941” the Jews of the region were to be “evacuated” by an SS commando led by a man “whose name I later discovered was Lange.” This was a barefaced lie, as Koppe had been responsible for supervising Lange and his murder of mental patients since at least May 1940.[928] Koppe continued:

This idea was based upon the fact that a certain Dr Brack, of Hitler's private chancellery, had already done some preparatory work with poison gases, and that these were to be tried out by Sonderkommando Lange…Dr [Rudolf] Brandt [Himmler's secretary] told me that Dr Brack had already carried out experiments with gas in Berlin, that these experiments had almost been completed, and that it was planned that he, Dr Brack, would be put in charge of testing these gases in the Warthegau. Sonderkommando Lange was the obvious choice for carrying out the gassings…

The remainder of Koppe's remarks may be dismissed in their entirety as the usual farrago of lies and distortions common to mass murderers. Among other things, this great humanitarian claimed to have suffered a disconcerting moral and ethical dilemma: “Day and night I considered possibilities of averting the planned operation by some clever tactic or other.”[929] Sadly for the 150,000 dead of Chelmno he was unable to chance upon a suitable strategy.

* * *

Despite all of the correspondence, meetings, and experimentation that occurred in the autumn of 1941, and which was so crucial to the evolution of genocide, the majority of T4 personnel seem to have been uninvolved in the planning of this unprecedented crime. In November 1941 a conference of senior members of the “euthanasia” staff was held at Sonnenstein. According to Gorgass, Brack informed them that, “the Aktion had not been completed in August 1941, but was to continue…in some other form.”[930] A schedule of T4 staff was sent to Krüger, but nothing is known of the activities of those listed. It has been suggested that members of this group were sent to Chelmno to assist with the killing operation there;[931] if so, it would be logical to conclude that, assuming Wirth did visit Chelmno, it would have been at around this time.

There followed the enigmatic Organisation Todt (OT) mission. In his post-war testimony, Brack claimed that in late 1941, Fritz Todt, then Minister of Armaments, persuaded Hitler that medical and other facilities for the troops on the eastern front were in desperate need of improvement, whereupon Hitler ordered all health-related organizations to supply whatever aid they could. Bouhler lost no time in gathering several parties of “volunteers” from among the T4 personnel, and sent them eastwards in January 1942. Included in these contingents (one of which was commanded by Brack) were some of the most prominent of the T4 doctors – Irmfried Eberl, Horst Schumann, Kurt Schmalenbach, Aquilin Ulrich, Hans-Bodo Gorgass, and Kurt Borm. But there were also those with lesser medical qualifications, and some with none at all. It is this mix of medical and non-medical personnel that has given rise to the proposition that these men and women were really sent on this assignment for the primary purpose of administering “euthanasia” to a different type of victim – brain-damaged members of the Wehrmacht.[932] This was certainly the evidence submitted by the nurse Pauline Kneissler, a member of one of these units. It is true that some “normal” medical aid-posts for wounded soldiers were set up in the Minsk region and elsewhere, but it would certainly have been within the realms of possibility for such establishments to offer a combination of healing and, in the worst cases, killing. This would undoubtedly have been a logical extension of the principle of lebensunwertes Leben to the battlefield, and might explain why men such as Kurt Bolender, Werner Dubois, Otto Stadie, and Heinrich Unverhau, some of whom were members of the SS, but none of whom were in any way medically qualified, were among those sent on the OT mission.

Whatever Wirth had been doing since the issue of the “stop order”, it is known that he arrived at Belzec on 22 December 1941 to take command of the partially completed camp. Included among the earliest members of his staff were Josef Oberhauser, Erich Fuchs, Lorenz Hackenholt, Werner Borowski, Johann Niemann and Siegfried Graetchus – all ex-T4 “euthanasia” centre employees.[933] More with a similar background were to follow, with the most significant injection of new faces occurring in April-July 1942 as first Sobibor and then Treblinka became operational. SS staff were routinely transferred between the camps, but as it transpired, due to reconstruction of the railway line between Lublin and Chelm, Sobibor was forced to temporarily close in late July 1942. There was thus only a relatively brief period when all three of the Aktion Reinhard camps were functioning simultaneously – between early October and mid-December 1942.

On reporting to the Lublin headquarters, the men transferred by T4 to Aktion Reinhard had been required to sign a statement affirming their binding observance of the secret nature of the mission. Amongst other things they acknowledged that it was impermissible to “pass on any information, verbally or in writing, on the progress, procedure or incidents in the evacuation of Jews to any person outside the circle of the Einsatz Reinhard staff.” Photography within the camps was absolutely prohibited. Moreover, “the obligation to maintain secrecy” continued even after they had left Reinhard.[934]

Since few of the T4 personnel had enjoyed any military experience, those who had not were first sent to the camp at Trawniki, where like the Ukrainians who were to provide the bulk of the guards at the camps, they went through a course of basic training prior to receiving their posting.[935] This could eventually be to one of a number of places, since the Aktion extended far beyond the three extermination sites. In Lublin itself there were three major camps for the sorting and packaging of the possessions of the murdered Jews and the exploitation of Jewish forced labour – the Airfield Camp (Zwangsarbeitslager Flugplatz), the Lipowa Street Camp, and the Sportplatz Camp. Another building, at 27 Chopin Strasse, evaluated the jewellery and currency of the victims. On the outskirts of Lublin, the enormous concentration camp at Majdanek provided an inexhaustible supply of labour for sorting and other work. Within the Lublin region were smaller camps like Trawniki, Poniatowa, Budzyn, and Dorohucza. All contributed in their own way towards the gigantic programme of oppression, murder, and theft.[936]

 

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