On October 14, 1943 in the extermination camp at Sobibór took place a revolt of the Jewish prisoners. On that day, a group of prisoners under the command of Leon Feldhandler and Soviet POW Alexander (Sasha) Peczerski managed to kill several SS men and guards. Although the original plan to kill all SS men failed, hundreds of prisoners managed to escape. Many prisoners died during the rebellion, or during the escape because of landmines around the camp. Also, during the hunt for the escapees, many of those who initially managed to escape were killed. Nevertheless, armed resistance and mass escape of Jewish prisoners from yet another death camp was their great success.
For the Germans it was also an important event, about which the SS and police headquarters, including Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, were immediately informed. On October 15, 1943, the day following the uprising in Sobibór, SS-Gruppenführer, Jakob Sporrenberg, accompanied by some fifty SS-officers, visited the camp for inspection. Sporrenberg took note of the camp and received a detailed report on the course of events of the previous day and then ordered all the “working Jews,” who still remained in the camp, to be shot. After the uprising, it was also decided to liquidate the camp.
For the demolition of the camp, Jews from other places in the General Government were brought in. An agricultural farm was established on the campgrounds under the control of the camp staff. Upon completion of the work, these Jews, numbering at least thirty people, were also shot in November 1943.
Four days after the uprising in Sobibór, Generel Governor dr. Hans Frank called a special meeting of the government regarding security. During that meeting, Frank discussed the latest developments and measures that had to be taken. In addition to members of the government, all those responsible for security matters in the General Government were present: SS-Oberführer Walter Bierkamp—commander of the SiPo (Security Police) and SD (Security Service) in the General Government, Generalmajor der Polizei Hans Dietrich Grünwald—Orpo (Order Police) commander, Gen. Haseldoff—representative of the Wehrmacht, General Sommé from Luftwaffe (German Air Forces), and General Schindler, head of the Armaments Inspectorate in the General Government.
The following was stated at that meeting, “The Jewish camps in the General Government constitute great danger, as was evidenced by the escape of Jews from one of these camps [Sobibór].” During the meeting, Hans Frank ordered Schindler, Bierkampf, and Grünwald to review the Jewish camps in the General Government thoroughly and to evaluate “how many Jews being there [in the camps] are used as labor force. Others should be removed from the General Government.”
Operation Harvest Festival (Aktion Erntefest)
The decision to exterminate all Jews in labor camps in the Lublin District was issued by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and referred to Higher SS and Police Commander Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger. The latter, in turn, summoned Sporrenberg and told him to execute Himmler’s order. Himmler claimed in his order that all the Jews in the Lublin District should be immediately eliminated, because they had established an underground organization that constituted a threat to security in the district.
After returning to Lublin, Sporrenberg received a teletype from Kraków, where he was informed that in order to carry out operations against the Jews, specially assigned SS and police units would come. This would suggest that despite the execution of the action by the commander of the SS and police in the Lublin District, the whole operation was planned by Krüger.
At the end of October, preparation for Operation Erntefest in the concentration camp at Majdanek began. Three meandering rows of trenches were dug beyond field number 5, south of the crematorium. This work was done by a team of three hundred prisoners. This detachment was divided into three groups that carried out the work around the clock to finish it as soon as possible. In order to allow work at night, the area had been illuminated with special reflectors. In addition, prisoners performing the work were provided with extra food and at night, they were even given unlimited amounts of soup.
Various rumors began to circulate through the camp concerning the purpose of these trenches. The official version was that they are anti-aircraft ditches. The ditches were each about 100 meters long, 2 meters deep, and 3 meters wide. All the ditches touched each another at one deep end that led to a sloping descent. After completing the trenches and just before the operation began, SS Kommandos from various places of the Lublin District and from other places outside it—Lwów, Kraków, Radom, Warsaw, and Auschwitz— were brought to Majdanek. There, two police cars equipped with big speakers drowned out the shooting during the operation. One of them parked near the trenches and the other at the gate. On the night between November 2 and 3, about 500 police officers from Lublin armed with machine guns arrived at the camp. Before the morning roll call, they formed a cordon surrounding the prisoners’ fields. Moreover, the number of sentries stationed in the guard towers was increased.
Action on November 3, 1943 in Majdanek—“Bloody Wednesday”
When prisoners went out for roll call at around 5 a.m., on November 3 it was still dark. At dawn, the prisoners begin to notice the reinforced and heavily armed guards around the prisoners’ fields. The roll-call proceeded normally. Only after the roll-call, the command ordering the Jewish prisoners to line up separately was given. At this time, the SS of the Majdanek camp staff entered the field to search the prisoner barracks. The guards were checking whether the number of prisoners corresponded with the camp’s prisoner list. After completion, the Jewish prisoners were separated from the rest of the prisoners and sent to the individual field’s harvest collection area. Then they were ordered to the field number 5. Similarly, sick Jewish prisoners were separated from others in the infirmary of the camp, loaded onto trucks, and transported to the field number 5. From field number 5, non-Jewish prisoners were transferred to field number 4.
After gathering the Jews from fields numbers 1, 3, and 4 to field number 5, which was located near the previously dug trenches, the shooting began. For this purpose, the barbed wire around field number 5 was cut and re-positioned nearer the ditches. The German police formed a “guard of honor,” through which batches of one hundred prisoners were led to the place of execution. The prisoners, before their execution, were put into one of the barracks at field number 5, where they were told to strip naked and so conducted to the place of execution.
When the shooting started, the loudspeakers were switched on in order to muffle the gun bursts. On the same day, in the morning, Jewish prisoners from other camps in Lublin and the prison in the castle began to be brought to Majdanek. Specific measures were applied during the transfer of prisoners from the camp at 7 Lipowa Street, many of whom were former Polish POWs. After leading the group of prisoners from field number 5 to the place of execution, smaller groups of ten men were marched along an earthen ramp that lead to the ditches until, at the opposite end, they were shot. Men and women were shot separately. The action lasted without interruption until 5 p.m. Only the firing squads changed.
According to the report by Erich Musfeldt, head of the crematorium at the Majdanek concentration camp, an SD officer, who was in constant contact by means of communication equipment with the command of the SS and police in the district of Lublin, directed the action. It may have been Sporrenberg, but it is also possible that the whole operation was coordinated by SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, who was chief of staff of Aktion Reinhardt.
Jewish prisoners who gathered in field number 5 understood that the aim of this operation was to eliminate all Jews from Majdanek concentration camp and other places. They reacted very differently. Some, albeit few, people tried to attack the Germans, even though the situation was hopeless. Others fell into despair and attempted suicide in various ways: by cutting their veins, poisoning, or hanging.
After the action in field number 5, twenty-three Jews who hid were found alive. They were taken to the crematorium and shot. Jews were also hunted in other fields. Those who were found were shot. During the action of November 3, 1943, about 300 Jewish women and 300 Jewish men were isolated and left alive. The women were recruited after the action for searching and sorting the clothing of the victims. In mid-April 1944, they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and gassed. The men were at different intervals taken by dozen to Sonderkommando 1005. These Jews were employed to dig up mass graves at execution sites and then to burn the recovered bodies. According to the testimony of Erich Muhsfeldt, chief of the crematorium in Majdanek, on November 3, 1943, in Majdanek, 17,000 Jews were murdered. According to the Polish-Soviet Commission that gathered the data after the liberation, 18,000 people had been shot, of which 8,100 were inmates of Majdanek. Among the executed prisoners of Majdanek about 1,660 were women. The others annihilated were from other camps of Lublin. In addition to the operation in Majdanek, at the same time similar actions were conducted in the camps in Trawniki, Poniatowa, Annopol-Rachów, Dorohucza, Puławy, and others.
Esther Rubinstein, who survived the massacre, related the following about the action that took place in the camp in Poniatowa on November 4, 1943. Ten days before the action digging of zigzag trenches began. It was argued that these were anti-aircraft trenches. On November 4, 1943 at 4:30 a.m., the guards began to drive out the prisoners for roll-call. They were joined by the Jewish prisoners in Poniatowa who lived outside the camp, in the so-called settlement (osiedle).
After collecting all the prisoners, they were driven to their barracks and then taken out in groups of fifty. Then the prisoners were forced to take off their shoes, strip naked and after that, they were driven to the place of execution.
In Poniatowa as well, loudspeakers that broadcast noisy music in order to drown out the shots were prepared. During the execution, Esther Rubinstein was wounded. She fell into a trench along with other victims but was one of the last to drop onto the top layer of dead bodies. After the action, German police checked if anyone was still alive. If they discovered anyone alive, they would shoot those people in the head. Because Rubinstein was splattered with blood, she did not arouse suspicion.
Afterwards, the corpses were covered with pine branches. In the darkness, Rubinstein crawled out of the mass grave and scampered into the woods, where she met another naked woman, who had also survived. Both naked, they moved away from the place of execution, but because they were undressed, they provoked fear in the local inhabitants. Only after a chance meeting with Maria Maciąg, a woman from the village of Rogowa, were the two women provided assistance. Maria Maciąg gave them clothes, allowed them to wash, fed them, led them to a doctor, and later helped get them to Warsaw.
As a consequence of Operation Erntefest, the Jewish labor force was almost eliminated in the Lublin District. The total number of Jews murdered during Operation Erntefest in the Lublin District is estimated at 42,000. This action depleted the three most important clusters of working Jews in Lublin, Poniatowa, and Trawniki. However, in Lublin, there were several different groups of Jews in various places in the city, such as Jewish prisoners from Majdanek, Jewish laborers from the camp at 7 Lipowa Street, and many other smaller installations.
In addition to these three major clusters in the district, executions also took place in other smaller towns, such as Annopol-Rachów. Although secondary literature states that this operation was limited to the Lublin District, nevertheless, similar smaller actions during this period also took place in the Galicia District, which probably had a connection to this operation. Despite Himmler’s efforts to murder the remaining Jews in the General Government, practically only the Jews in the Lublin District were murdered. In other districts Jews were still present, even though their number was very small. In the Warsaw District there were virtually no Jews, besides those in hiding. In the Galicia District all labor camps were murdered during the second half of 1943. In the Lublin District after Erntefest, some small groups of Jewish Kommandos in Dęblin, Budzyń, and other places remained. However, in two remaining districts—Kraków and Radom—tens of thousands of Jews remained alive.
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Aktion Erntefest demonstrated the power of the destruction machine and the extremely organizational capacity of forces and means to carry out the largest one-time mass murder of 42,000 people in the history of extermination. German police forces did this without the help of police support forces (HiWi) or the involvement of collaborators. Even the local police were not involved because of fear of corruption or spreading news of the intended action, which could cause panic or mass escapes. The Nazis did not need collaborators to destroy millions of Jews and other ethnic groups or prisoners of war. Aktion Erntefest showed this very clearly. However, even at a time when Germany needed labor for war production, ideological factors prevailed. Complete extermination of the Jews was more important than victory. However, ultimately Nazi Germany did not achieve any of these goals.