Poniatowa Labour Camp

2 GIRLS PONIATOWA861 

Poniatowa-  2 Jewish women pose outside the Kommandantur

Poniatowa is located about 25 miles to the west of Lublin. At the end of the 1930’s, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Polish government had planned a telephone and telegraph centre in Poniatowa, which was never completed. In July 1942, Amon Göth, who was part of Odilo Globocnik’s Aktion Reinhardt staff in Lublin, inspected Poniatowa and recommended it as a site to hold Jewish labour, a proposal that was followed by Heinrich Himmler when, on 9 October 1942, he issued an order to concentrate all Jewish labour working in the armaments sector in camps under SS administration in the Warsaw –Lublin area. Poniatowa was one of the chosen locations because it was deeply hidden in the forests and had buildings already available and with a light railway connection to Naleczow, a station on the Warsaw –Lublin line. The Schmidt-Munstermann company in Warsaw and the Deutsche Elektro-Unternehmem company in Lublin received the contracts to expand the site. The Soviet Prisoners of War who were at this time in the camp at the site, Stalag 359, were executed in the following weeks, the number executed was approximately 24,000. On 15 October 1942, 600 Jews from the Opole Lubelskie ghetto were brought to Poniatowa. The numbers were increased with Jews from the Staszow and Belzyce ghettos, so that by the beginning of 1943 there were around 1,500 prisoners in the Poniatowa forced labour camp for Jews.

On 9 January 1943, Himmler directed the Higher SS and Police Leader of the General Gouvernement Friedrich – Wilhem Krüger, to transfer the Jews and businesses from the Warsaw ghetto to the Lublin area. Himmler was exasperated about the enormous profit that individual employers such as Bremen coffee wholesaler Walter Caspar Toebbens were making from the exploitation of more than 20,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Toebbens was directed to immediately transfer his labour force to Poniatowa and to transfer direct supervision to the SS. At the end of January 1943, Toebbens concluded a contract with Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader Lublin, under which the SS assured him the supply of at least 10,000 Jewish workers. At the end of February 1943, the first group of Toebbens Jewish  workers were sent from the Warsaw ghetto to Poniatowa, another 1,200 followed on 12 March 1943, and a further 450 in April 1943. The last transport arrived in Poniatowa on 8 May 1943. All the prisoners arrived at the Naleczow railway station, where they put on narrow gauge railway trains that took them to Poniatowa. A labour detachment was based in Naleczow to load and unload the trains.

The arrival of the Jews from Warsaw, some of whom travelled as family units, and this gave the camp its own unique structure, men and women mostly slept in the same barracks, and contact between them was largely allowed. Around 700 children lived in the Poniatowa camp. They had their own barracks and kitchen. The Poniatowa inmates wore their own clothes, however in the autumn of 1943, their shoes were replaced with the usual wooden concentration camp clogs. The workshops and accommodation barracks were fenced in with barbed wire. The prisoners slept in around 35 barracks, each about 35 meters long and 12 meters wide. More than 2,000 prisoners slept in the 80 meter long, 40 meters wide and 10 meter tall workshop number 3, in four-tiered bunk beds. A 2 kilometer –long road led from the camp grounds to a ‘settlement’, where the non-Jewish prisoners, foremen and those Jews who worked in the camps’ administration were held. The road was fenced and controlled by machine-gun posts in guard towers. The camp was guarded by 10 Germans and 50 Ukrainian –SS, who had been trained at the Trawniki SS training camp. The first camp commandant, until the end of April 1943, was SS- Oberscharführer Birmes-Schulten, who was succeeded by SS- Oberscharführer Otto Hantke, from Globocnik’s staff in Lublin. In the summer of 1943, Hantke was replaced by SS- Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Herring, the second commandant of the Belzec death camp. The civilian camp commandant was Heinrich Gley, who also served at the Belzec death camp. Survivors report that all of them brutally mistreated the prisoners.

The number of prisoners in Poniatowa was approximately between 14,000 and 25,000 and Poniatowa was the largest Jewish labour camp in the General Gouvernement. Around 10,000 to 12,000 of the prisoners worked for the Toebbens company; the others under much less brutal conditions, worked for the SS, building roads and sewers. The prisoners in Poniatowa, came from across Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria and the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1943, Jews were brought to Poniatowa from the dissolved ghettos in Demblin, Dorohucza and Smolensk. Between May and October 1943, the camp also functioned as a transit camp for Jews, who were needed by the SS to work in other locations. Until the summer of 1943, enclosure of the ‘settlement’ the camp security, and prisoners’ working conditions were relatively bearable. Prisoners repeatedly were able to escape, and those who had contact with the outside world were able to smuggle food into the camp. It was only with Globocnik’s visit in June 1943 that the camp was sealed and the exploitation of prisoners intensified. There were several reported cases of resistance: the Jews from Opole attempted to poison the camp commandant Hering. All of the members of the kitchen detachment, who were involved, including six women, were hanged once the assassination attempt was discovered. The Jews from Warsaw had their own resistance movement, which was based on organisational structures and contacts from their time in the ghetto, aimed to free the inmates at the time the camp was liquidated.

The prisoners’ day began with a roll call at 6.00 a.m. and between 7.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. most of the prisoners manufactured products for the Wehrmacht. Globocnik reported in the summer of 1943 that each week the Poniatowa SS Labour Camp produced 38,000 blouses and coats, 18,000 shirts and items of underwear, 6,000 caps, 7,200 pairs of socks, 4,200 haversacks, and 2,400 army kit belts. The prisoners also worked at a sorting station, sorting the clothes of murdered Jews for dispatch to the Ethnic German Liaison Office (VOMI). In September – October 1943, hundreds of prisoners were deported to work at the airfields at Zamosc and Biala Podlaska. In the summer of 1943, Toebbens had made contact with the Armaments Ministry in Berlin, requesting new work orders. As a result, in September 1943, the prisoners who lived in workstation 3 were moved out, and the building was prepared for metal processing machines. At the same time, there began massive construction work for a planned, but ultimately unrealised relocation of part of the Litzmannstadt (Lodz) ghetto production facilities to Poniatowa. 48 accommodation and 28 barracks for foremen were planned to be built. However, with the transfer of Odilo Globocnik from Lublin to Trieste, and the appointment of Jakob Sporrenberg, as SSPF Lublin, meant that these plans did not come to fruition.    

During September – October 1943, the SS Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), took over the labour camp, and Poniatowa was now regarded as a sub-camp of the Lublin concentration camp. However, this was a short-lived arrangement as on 4 November 1943, all the inmates of Poniatowa were murdered as part of ‘Aktion Erntefest’ (Harvest Festival). On the morning of 4 November 1943, a double security cordon was put around the camp, and the telephone lines were cut. Loudspeakers were set up to broadcast music, in order to drown out the shots and the screaming of the victims. According to Lea Chanesman, one of only three survivors of the massacre, on the morning of 4 November, the prisoners had to assemble for roll call, then assemble in a large building. From here, in groups of 50, naked and with raised hands, they were led to an area where trenches had been dug in the days before, trenches that now served as mass graves. Here the prisoners had to lie down and were shot. Around 100 prisoners from one block tried to escape the massacre and set several storage and supply buildings on fire. The SS had to call the fire brigade from Opole Lubelskie to put out the fire. The fire-fighters were witness to the SS driving the prisoners back into the flames. Members of the labour detachments in Naleczow and Kaimierz were also murdered after strong resistance. Altogether, around 14,500 prisoners fell victim to the massacre within a few hours.

The Poniatowa camp continued to function with 100 prisoners who had been brought from the Lublin concentration camp, under SS and Ukrainian-SS guards, until the spring of 1944. These prisoners had to search the corpses for gold, silver and jewels and gold teeth. They then had to pull down and burn the workshops and accommodation barracks. Once these tasks were completed the SS executed them all. Toebbens was arrested after the war but was able to escape in 1946, and in 1949 the Bremen denazification court sentenced him in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment. Otto Hantke was convicted in 1960 in Hamburg and released in 1967. He was arrested again in 1974 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Gottlieb Hering died on 9 October 1945, in unknown circumstances in the waiting room at the Katherinen Hospital in Stetten im Remstal, Württemberg, Germany.


SOURCES:


The Encyclopaedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, Volume 1, USHMM ,Indiana University Press Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012

Photograph: Wiener Library, London


© Holocaust Historical Society 2014