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Aktion Reinhard

Operation to murder Jews of the Generalgouvernement in Poland. From March to December 1942 nearly two million Jews were murdered, including most Jews of the Generalgouvernement together with approximately 135,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, Bohemia-Moravia, Slovakia, Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. Aktion (Operation) Reinhard was headed by Odilo Globocnik, who was Lublin District SS and Police Leader. The aktion received its name in the summer of 1942, apparently in memory of Reinhard Heydrich, who had been assassinated by Czech resistance fighters in late May of that year.

In preparation for the operation, Globocnik opened the Trawniki training camp for Red Army renegades, appointed staff to research murder methods, sent others to gain mass murder experience with the Einsatzgruppen in the USSR, and acquired 92 men on loan from the “euthanasia” program. This program was code-named “T-4” for its headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. The killing program was implemented in several centers across the Third Reich. Killing was to be done in gas chambers using carbon monoxide exhaust. Facilities were constructed in special camps—Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka.

Each camp’s staff included 20–30 Germans and 80–120 Trawniki men. The Majdanek camp also served Operation Reinhard in various capacities, although it was not erected specifically for this purpose. Bełżec completed its work and was dismantled in 1943. Following revolts and mass escapes of Jewish forced laborers from Treblinka (2 August 1943) and Sobibór (14 October 1943), the camps were shut down. Only a small number of Jews survived each one.

The operation was divided into three parts: organization and deportations, under SS Major Hermann Höfle; camps, under SS Major Christian Wirth; and booty (for disposal of Jewish belongings and property), under SS Major Georg Wippern. In addition, German civilian authorities, including Richard Türk (head of the Lublin District Population and Welfare Department), played a major role in planning and organizing.

Aktion Reinhard began on the night of 16–17 March 1942 with the first roundup and deportation from Lublin to Bełżec. As the operation progressed, deportations from other localities in the Generalgouvernement were organized. The troops usually included German SS and police, Trawniki men, and local Polish police. Roundups were generally extremely violent; thousands of Jews were shot. In some places (e.g., Warsaw) the Nazis also used the Jewish Order Service for roundup and escort.

By the end of 1942, only Jews selected for skilled slave labor remained alive. Tens of thousands were killed in 1943 in liquidations of remaining ghettos, hunts for Jews in the forests or hiding in towns, and liquidation of forced laborers, including Operation Erntefest (Harvest Festival), which murdered 42,500 Jewish forced laborers in the Trawniki, Poniatowa, and Majdanek camps on 3–4 November 1943.

It is estimated that more than 870,000 Jews were killed in Treblinka, more than 500,000 in Bełżec, and 250,000 in Sobibór. In addition, innumerable tens of thousands were shot to death during the roundups and in special shooting operations.

Suggested Reading

Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington, Ind., 1987); Miriam Novitch, ed., Sobibor, Martyrdom and Revolt: Documents and Testimonies (New York, 1980); Dieter Pohl, Von der“Judenpolitik” zum Judenmord: Der Distrikt Lublin des Generalgouvernements, 1934–1944 (Frankfurt am Main, 1993); Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder (New York, 1974).