Mass Murder of the Jewish Workforce in the Lublin District -November 1943
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
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
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-
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
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-
Gerald Reitlinger, The Final Solution, Sphere Books Ltd, London 1971
Jozef Marszalek, Majdanek, Interpress Warsaw 1986
Photograph – USHMM
© Holocaust Historical Society 2014