Aktion Erntefest

Mass Murder of the Jewish Workforce in the Lublin District -November 1943


smoke over majdanek

Smoke over Majdanek – 3 November 1943

Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival) was the name given to the series of mass executions of the Jewish workers carried out by the Nazis in some of the labour camps in the Lublin district during 3 November 1943. Reichsführer- SS Heinrich Himmler almost immediately after the prisoner revolt at the Sobibor death camp on 14 October 1943, ordered the liquidation of he Jews in the Lublin district. The Nazis were concerned over the recent spate of Jewish uprisings, in the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos, and the prisoner uprising in Treblinka during August 1943.

It is difficult to say that the Jews who were held in Majdanek concentration camp, and the work camps in the Lublin district such as Budzyn, Poniatowa, Trawniki, and the labour camps within Lublin itself, such as Lindenstrasse 7, Der Alte Flugplatz and Sportplatz, could be classed as dangerous for the German authorities.  

From early 1943 the biggest Jewish work camps in the Lublin district operated their war production under the name of Ostindustrie GmbH (Osti). This SS company was established on 13 March 1943 as a joint venture between the WVHA in Berlin and the SSPF Lublin, Odilo Globocnik to exploit the Jewish manpower and utilize the Jewish victims property. In the OSTI workshops Jewish prisoners produced mainly army supplies for the German Wehrmacht. Equipment was confiscated from the liquidated ghettos, and material for the production was taken from the plundered Jewish property.  The network of camps in the Lublin district, established by Globocnik, was one of the biggest centres of compulsory labour in occupied Europe: Approximately 45,000 Jewish prisoners worked for the SS. Himmler was afraid that this ‘Empire of Jewish Workers’ could be taken over by the Inspectorate of Army Supplies in the General Gouvernement or by private German industrial companies.  

In September 1943, Oswald Pohl, Head of the SS Economics Administration (WVHA) decided that the complex of Osti work camps in the Lublin district and the camp on Janowska Street in Lwow and the Plaszow camp in Krakow should come under the control of the WVHA and be supervised by KZ – Lublin. The final decision was taken by Pohl on 22 October 1943. The decision was based on security concerns and Himmler’s personal ambitions – he did not want the SS to lose their control of these camps. The Jewish prisoners who worked in the camps in the Lublin district and elsewhere in the General Gouvernement still had the hope and illusion that they will survive because the Third Reich needed them as specialist workers. They were unaware that Himmler had already decided that they must be liquidated, following the recent spate of Jewish armed resistance. According to statements made by Jakob Sporrenberg, who had taken over from Globocnik as SSPF Lublin in September 1943, the first information about the planned massacre was already known by the end of August that year, and that Himmler had ordered Friedrich Kruger, Higher SS and Police Leader in the General Gouvernement accordingly. The final decision to liquidate the Jewish workers was taken by Himmler after the Sobibor death camp revolt in October 1943.  

Several days before the executions the prisoners of Majdanek,Trawniki, Poniatowa and smaller camps were ordered to dig ditches. They were told that they had to dig anti-aircraft ditches. During this time among the inmates there were rumors that something special will happen. Of course, nobody believed that all Jewish camps would be liquidated and the people had the hope they would survive. This illusion was also based on the fact that shortly before the executions both the Schultz Company in Trawniki and Többens Company in Poniatowa got new requests for work. At the Airfield Camp (Flugplatz-Lager) in Lublin still massive amounts of unsorted clothes were stored, taken from the Jews. The operation was given the code-name Aktion Erntefest (Harvest Festival).To carry out the murder of thousands of Jewish prisoners, SS units were transferred to Lublin from Auschwitz, Poznan, and Königsberg. Also police units (Polizei-Batallion 101 e.g.) were involved in the operation. A final conference, outlining the details connected with the mass execution, was organized the night before Aktion Erntefest in Lublin. Christian Wirth was recalled from Trieste (Italy), to supervise this operation.  Wirth, former Sonderinspekteur of Aktion Reinhardt, represented Odilo Globocnik, former SSPF Lublin and head of Aktion Reinhardt. Wirth probably supervised the executions at Majdanek concentration camp too.

On 3 November 1943, early in the morning, KZ Majdanek and the Trawniki work camp were surrounded by SS and Police units. The roll call that day was very short and the SS men ordered the non-Jewish prisoners to return to their barracks. The Jewish prisoners were transferred to
Feld No. 5, close to the crematorium and execution ditches. At the same time other prisoners were brought to Majdanek from other camps in Lublin, such as Airfield Camp, Lipowa Camp (Jewish soldiers) and Sportplatz. On Feld No. 5 the Jewish inmates were locked in barracks. One barrack was used as undressing barrack where everybody had to strip and leave money and valuables. The people were taken by groups of 100 and killed in the trenches by machine guns. Group after group of naked people had to run to the trenches and lay down on the bodies of the already killed and wounded. Whilst columns of thousands of people marched to their death, loud music was played from two loud-speaker cars, marches and waltzes by Johann Strauss. The music was used to drown the noise of the shots and screams of the murdered people.
This day at Majdanek became known as "Black Wednesday" and was described by non-Jewish prisoners who were in the camp at that time. Although the music was played, Polish prisoners heard the shots and screams. Also people who lived within a short distance of around 3-4 km from the camp on the eastern suburb of Lublin, heard the music, shots and screams. Prince Christopher Radziwill, one of the offcer-prisoners who had been in Majdanek since 1939 recalled:

I shall never forget the day the Nazis killed 17,000 Jews at Majdanek, while I was in another part of the concentration camp. That evening, many of my Polish fellow-prisoners got drunk to celebrate. That is terrible, but it is true.

During the executions at Majdanek an act of resistance occurred. The Jewish women who were locked in a barrack on Feld No. 5, seeing the Jewish soldiers from the camp on Lipowa 7, started to scream, pleading for their lives. That same moment several Jewish soldiers started to fight with the SS men escorting them. Three of the SS men were killed or injured but all people who resisted, were shot on the way to the ditches. Many Jews, locked in the barracks, collapsed and the group of Jewish doctors and nurses from the Revier committed suicide. At the end of the executions a group of about 400 Jewish women and men were selected and transferred to Feld No. 4. The women had to segregate the belongings of the Erntefest victims. The men were divided into several groups. This Sonderkommando was used to cremate the bodies of the murdered people, after having examined the bodies for gold teeth, which were extracted. The executions lasted from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m.. Everything was organized by the SS like a combat operation at the front. Every hour reports about the number of killed people were sent to Sporrenberg and Hermann Höfle, who resided in Sporrenberg's office. During the executions the SS men from Majdanek also participated in the action. Sporrenberg observed the massacre from an airplane. The estimates about the number of victims at Majdanek concentration camp vary. Various sources state the number of killed between 16,000 and 18,000. It was the biggest mass execution in one day, in the whole history of German atrocities during WW2.

These horrible months are remembered by every old inhabitant of Lublin. Old Lubliners stated that the smoke and stench of burning bodies was realized in the whole town. After burning the bodies at Majdanek, members of the Sonderkommando were sent to other places in the Lublin district where other mass executions took place. They had to excavate the mass graves and burn the bodies. There are four known testimonies written by Jewish survivors of the Erntefest from Majdanek. The Sonderkommando was executed probably in Poniatowa and Chelm. Only two Jews escaped: Josef Reznik and Josef Sterdyner. The selected women were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau in March 1944. On the way to Birkenau IdaMazower escaped, all the others were sent to the gas chambers. One survivor, Chaim Zacharewicz from Bialystok, was transferred to the Gestapo prison in Lublin. He survived the last executions in this prison during July 1944. On the 3 November the camp in Szebnie (near Jaslo, Krakow district) was liquidated. About 2,000 Jews who were selected from earlier deportations from the Krakow district to the Belzec death camp, were executed during the Aktion Erntefest in the forest near Szebnie. 800 prisoners from Szebnie were finally deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Also on 3 November 1943 the work camp in Trawniki was liquidated. The prisoners were executed at the border of this SS training camp. Together with the Jews from Trawniki (most of them worked for Schultz Company), several hundred inmates of Dorohucza work camp were executed. Among the prisoners were members of the Jewish Fighting Organisation. The resistance fighters were surprised by the camp liquidation and no resistance took place. The Polish inhabitants of Trawniki observed the
Aktion Erntefest executions from the attics and roofs of their houses. Most of the testimonies about these executions are from these people. During the executions about 200 people were selected. From this group only 2 survivors are known. During the Aktion Erntefest in Trawniki about 10,000 Jews were killed. Close to Trawniki another camp existed in 1943, a small camp in the village Milejow. About 200 Jewish prisoners produced food for SS and Wehrmacht in the local jam factory. This camp was not liquidated that day. A small group of its prisoners was transferred to Auschwitz, whilst others were sent to Trawniki where they were executed together with the members of the Sonderkommando in late 1943.

On 4 November 1943 the Poniatowa camp and small camps in Pulawy county were liquidated. In Poniatowa about 14,000 prisoners were executed and here the underground organization organized some resistance. Only two survivors of Poniatowa are known. There was also resistance during the final liquidation of the Pulawy camp. In this camp, which was located near a local saw mill, a group of about 400 prisoners (among them also Jewish soldiers from Lipowa 7 camp and Slovakian Jews) fought the SS. During this fight several people escaped, their fate is not known. About 100 Jewish prisoners were executed at the same time in a small work camp near the Naleczow railway station. The next executions were organized in the Galicia district. On 13-14 November 1943 the camp on Janowska Street in Lvov was liquidated. Around 4,000 Jews were killed in the "Sands" - a place which was used for earlier executions of Lvov Jews between 1942 and 1943. During the liquidation of the Janowska camp, a group of prisoners organized acts of resistance and several of them could escape.

Radom was the only district where the Jewish work camps were not liquidated. Thousands of Jews in this district were imprisoned in the camps that belonged mainly to the Hasag Company. In Radom district only two camps belonged to Osti Company: The camp on Szkolna Street in Radom and the camp in Blizyn. Because of negotiations between German industrialists and the SS, all Jewish work camps in the Radom district were connected with the Main Inspectorate for Supplies in the
General Gouvernement. About 25,000 Jewish inmates were held in these camps. Here also a wave of selections took place in November 1943. Mainly women with children were executed. Only the people who were able to work were left in the camps. The Aktion Erntefest operation did not involve the Jewish labour camps which were connected with Luftwaffe production or building airfields. The biggest camp was in Budzyn near Krasnik where the prisoners worked for the Hermann Göring Werke. This camp, with around 3,000 Jews, became a sub-camp of Majdanek. In Krasnik the camp was under the personal supervision of the SS- and Police Leader in Lublin district. 300 Jewish workers who had to work there until July 1944, survived. Other Jewish forced labourers survived also in Deblin, Biala Podlaska and Malaszewicze because these camps were supervised by the Luftwaffe until the end. During the two days that Aktion Erntefest took place 42,000 Jews were executed.

Sources:

Testimonies and documents from the Archive of the State Museum Majdanek in Lublin

Testimonies from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw

Materials from the investigations organized by the Regional Commission for the Investigations of the Nazi Crimes in Poland, Archive of the Institute for the National Remembrance in Lublin.

Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and Final Solution in Poland, HarpersCollins Publishers 1998. (Polish issue: "Zwykli ludzie. 101. Policyjny Batalion Rezerwy i 'ostateczne rozwiazanie' w Polsce". Warszawa 2000.)

Helge Grabitz; Wolfgang Scheffler, Letzte Spuren. Ghetto Warschau, SS-Arbeitslager Trawniki, Aktion Erntefest. Berlin 1988

Gerald Reitlinger, The Final Solution, Sphere Books Ltd, London 1971

Jozef Marszalek, Majdanek, Interpress Warsaw 1986

Photograph – USHMM


© Holocaust Historical Society 2014