Trawniki Labour Camp

lehnert -trawniki

SS Officer Lehnert in Trawniki

Less than two weeks after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, German SS and police authorities in the Lublin District, acting on the orders of the SS- Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik the SS and Police Chief of the Lublin District, established a detention facility on the grounds of an abandoned sugar refinery outside of Trawniki, a small town located just south of the Lublin-Chelm road, 20 miles east-southeast of Lublin and about the same distance due east of Chelm.  This camp was initially under the control of SS- Hauptsturmführer Herman Julius Höfle, and it served originally as a holding centre for refugees and Soviet Army Prisoners of War, and at July 1941, 676 inmates were incarcerated there.  

In September 1941, following Globocnik’s appointment to the post of Commissioner for the Establishment of SS and Police Bases in the New Eastern Territory, Globocnik transformed the facility into a training camp for auxiliary police personnel to maintain security in support of German rule over the ‘wild East.’ Globocnik staff recruited captured Soviet Prisoners of War who, after being trained in Trawniki, entered the Guard Forces (Wachmannschaften) of the SS und Polizeiführer in the Lublin District. The basis to recruit these so-called ‘Trawnikimanner’ lay in high-level SS orders to the Security Police and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) teams screening the Soviet Prisoners of War, to identify from among the captured Soviet soldiers ‘persons who appear especially reliable and are therefore suitable for deployment in the reconstruction of the occupied territories.’ Noting on 5 August 1941, that the establishment of SS and police bases before the winter, was ‘an urgent task,’SS- Obergruppenführer Kurt Daleuge, the chief of the German Order Police, ordered Globocnik and other senior SS and police leaders to give high priority in recruiting indigenous defence units. One month later, the first recruits from the Prisoner of War camps arrived at Trawniki. On 27 October 1941, Globocnik appointed SS- Hauptsturmführer Karl Streibel to command the Trawniki Training Camp, a position Streibel held until the evacuation of the camp in July 1944.

The first 2,500 auxiliary police guards were inducted and trained between September 1941 and September 1942. Virtually all of them were Soviet Prisoners of War. As German military reverses and the murderous treatment of the Soviet Prisoners of War dried up the supply of suitable Soviet soldiers in the autumn of 1942, Streibel’s men conscripted civilians, primarily young Ukrainians residing in Galicia, Wolhynia, Podolia, and the Lublin District. When Globocnik left Lublin in September 1943, he reported that 3,700 Wachmanner were serving in the Trawniki system, in fact, more than 4,750 identification numbers had been issued by this time. Approximately 5,082 men were trained at Trawniki between 1941 and 1944. They were organized into two battalions under the command of SS- Untersturmführer Willi Franz and SS- Obersturmführer Johann Schwarzenbacher.

Deployment in the operations of the Aktion Reinhardt, the name given to the mass murder of Polish Jewry became a key function of the Trawniki- trained guards. They provided the guard units for the three Aktion Reinhardt killing centres, at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. They also served as guard detachments at Lublin and Auschwitz concentration camps. They also provided the guard units for various other forced labour camps for Jews. In addition, German SS and police authorities deployed the Trawniki trainees in the deportations from large and small ghettos in the General Gouvernement and as escorts for the transport trains from the ghetto to the killing centre. That the Trawniki-manner implemented their hideous tasks to the satisfaction of their leaders was expressed in Globocnik’s recommendation for Streibel’s promotion. Streibel had commanded the Trawniki Training Camp, ‘with the greatest discretion and understanding for the special leadership needs of this unit. These units have proved themselves in the best way in many anti-partisan missions, but especially in the framework of the resettlement of the Jews.’

In 1942, Trawniki served as a transit camp for local Jews, for example after an early April ‘selection’ of those incapable of work in the transit ghetto of Piaski, located about 6 miles away. The Ukrainian ‘Wachmanner’ escorted several hundred Polish, German, and Austrian Jews from Piaski to Trawniki. Scheduled for deportation to Belzec the following day, many of the victims were locked up in a large barnlike structure overnight. Between 200 and 300 died from suffocation, their bodies were tossed the next morning into the freight cars destined for Belzec.

During the summer of 1942, Trawniki also began to serve as a forced labour camp for Jews (Zwangsarbeitslager fur Juden). Under the auspices of ‘Aktion Reinhardt’ the SS and police constructed a labour camp adjacent to the training camp, separated only by the original stone wall that surrounded the abandoned sugar factory. The appearance of a Jewish workforce at Trawniki coincided with the establishment of procedures for disposing of some of the property of the Jews murdered in ‘Aktion Reinhardt.’ In June 1942, three freight cars stocked with baggage taken from Viennese Jews bound for Sobibor were diverted to Trawniki, the same month a small Jewish labour detachment of 20 to 40 women was assigned to sort, clean and repair the clothing. As his SS and police continued to murder the vast majority of Jews in the General Gouvernement, Heinrich Himmler grew increasingly concerned over private companies, exploiting the Jewish labour force and making huge profits, at the expense of the SS. On 9 October 1942, he ordered the transfer of all privately owned factories producing armaments and related goods, along with their Jewish forced workers from ghettos in the General Gouvernement to camps, including Trawniki, where the Jews could be easily guarded. In the late autumn of 1942, SS authorities moved a brush factory and its workers from the Miedzyrzec- Podlaski ghetto, which had just been liquidated, to Trawniki. On 8 February 1943, Globocnik signed a contract with Fritz Emil Schultz of F.W.Schultz and Co, which produced mattresses and furs and repaired boots and uniforms. The contract provided that the Schultz fur production plant with its 4,000 Jewish workers and brush-making plant with 1,000 more workers be transferred with all movable equipment and civilian personnel from the Warsaw ghetto to Trawniki. Streibel was named commander of the Trawniki labour camp, with responsibility for distribution of labour, collection of fees for the forced workers – 5 zloty a day for men, and 4 zloty a day for women, and security. Day to day management of the camp, however, was the duty of SS- Hauptscharführer Franz Bartetzko and his deputy SS- Scharführer Josef Napieralla. To manage the provision of forced labourers to the Schultz firm and to other firms located at other labour camps, the SS leadership founded the Ostindustrie GmbH, holding company on 12 March 1943.

Initially, the SS encouraged Schultz workers to voluntarily relocate, and on 16 February 1943, transports began to leave Warsaw for Trawniki. Despite threats to shoot those who ignored SS incentives, Schultz could only persuade 448 out of 1,500 workers scheduled for transfer by 14 April 1943 actually to board the trains. Losing patience, the SS decided to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto. At 3.00 a.m. on the morning of 19 April 1943, SS and police units, including a battalion of 350 Wachmanner, sealed off the ghetto, sparking the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Johann Schwarzenbacher saw active service in the Warsaw ghetto uprising along with his SS-Trawniki-manner.Between 15 February 1943 and 30 April 1943, 2848 men, 2,397 women, and 388 children were removed from Warsaw to Trawniki in 17 transports via truck and train. Some of the Jews captured in the Warsaw ghetto uprising were sent to Trawniki, including Emanuel Ringelblum, who was later smuggled out of the camp, and he returned to Warsaw and went into hiding in the “Ayran” part of the city. By 1 May 1943, at least 5,633 Jews, mostly Polish Jews, but including German, Austrian and Slovak Jews, were incarcerated in the Trawniki labour camp. Between 27 May 1943 and 24 July 1943, eight new barracks were constructed to accommodate the influx of prisoners. The construction of barracks continued until September 1943. The number of prisoners who worked for the Schultz concern at Trawniki hovered around 6,000 from May 1943 until the liquidation of the camp in November 1943.

Small detachments of prisoners worked directly for the SS in barracks construction and camp upkeep and two transports of Jewish workers arrived in Trawniki from the Minsk ghetto after its liquidation in September 1943. In the interests of heightened production, Bartetzko initially maintained relatively decent conditions in Trawniki. He reportedly tolerated illicit trade in food and alcohol, permitted Jewish prisoners to form their own musical band and even offered opportunities to play football. After August 1943, however, conditions deteriorated, medical care became non-existent and the fear of sickness became endemic. Though the weather was cold in October the workers received no winter clothing. Violations of camp regulations, such as theft or attempting to escape, brought swift and brutal retribution. One day in the summer of 1943, Bartetzko shot a prisoner for attempting to escape. As a deterrent the body was left where it fell for 24 hours. When three Jews were caught stealing equipment, Bartetzko assembled all available guards, prisoners and Schultz executives to watch each of the three prisoners receive 25 lashes with a bullwhip. Frequent violators risked transfer to a sub-camp located at Dorohucza, about 2 miles north of Trawniki. This sub-camp was under the control of  SS- Unterscharführer Robert Juhrs, who had also served at the Belzec death camp, and this camp dug peat – in dangerous and harsh conditions and approximately 100 Jewish prisoners toiled at this work.

For a variety of reasons, including Globocnik’s quarrels with the civilian District Governor in Lublin and Osti’s failure to secure contracts with the Wehrmacht, the SS leadership transferred the Trawniki complex to the jurisdiction of the SS –Business Administration Main Office (WVHA) in September 1943. Trawniki thus became a sub-camp of Lublin concentration camp. In the following months, 1,000 Trawniki-trained guards were transferred to concentration camps in the Reich, while 150 members of the SS-Death’s Head units arrived in Trawniki. In late October 1943, stunned by the prisoner revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, Himmler ordered the murder of the remaining Polish Jews in the Lublin District. This brutal ‘Aktion’, which was known as ‘Aktion Erntefest’ (Harvest Festival) took place during the 3 -4 November 1943, when at least 6,000 Jewish inmates of Trawniki and Dorohucza were shot in specially dug mass graves in Trawniki. On 3 November 1943 the camp was surrounded by Waffen –SS and police units. Early in the morning the Jews were driven from their barracks and taken in batches to the training camp of the SS auxiliaries in Trawniki.

There they were forced to undress, put their clothes in a huge heap, and enter the trench, where they were shot. Those who arrived subsequently were forced to lie on the corpses that had been shot before. When there was no more room in the trench in the training camp, some of the Jews were shot in the sand or in a gravel pit in the labour camp. To overcome the cries of the victims and the noise of the shooting, loudspeakers were installed in the camp and music was heard throughout the entire area. By late afternoon the murder action was completed –all the Jews had been shot and the few Jews who had succeeded in escaping from the shooting site had been caught and shot. A German manager of the Schultz’s enterprises in Trawniki, Kurt Ziemann testified about the events on the morning of 3 November 1943: The labour camp was surrounded. As we found out later, there was an entire SS battalion – young SS men from the Waffen-SS. We were asked to come to the headquarters of the training camp. The commander of the Waffen- SS unit announced to us that the enterprise would not be operational that day. We could see that the Jews were taken in groups from the labour camp to the training camp. There they had to undress and put their clothes in a huge heap. Everything was done at a run. I could not see the execution place from where I was standing..The nude Jews disappeared behind a barrack. We merely heard the shooting. The next morning I went to Warsaw for 3-5 days. When I returned, already at the station I could smell the odour of the corpses that had been cremated.

After the massacre, the Trawniki SS and police staff imported a small detachment of Jewish workers from Milejow to burn the corpses on massive grills made from railway tracks, then to disperse the ashes and bone fragments into trenches, which they covered with earth. After completing this dreadful work, the Jewish workers were shot and their bodies cremated. For weeks after this massacre, the Trawniki –manner searched the camp grounds for hidden Jews. Those who were found within the first few weeks were shot. Zina Czapnik and her niece, Raja Mileczina , were able to hide away for nearly two months before the Wachmanner discovered them. To Czapnik’s astonishment, both women were permitted to live. They joined a detachment of approximately 40 Jewish women of Austrian and Dutch origin, who had been brought to Trawniki after the massacre to perform domestic tasks inside the camp complex, such as laundry, and cleaning the barracks for the SS staff and the Wachmanner. They also sorted and recycled Jewish clothing and property. In May 1944, the SS transferred this small detachment to the Lublin concentration camp and the Trawniki labour camp was dissolved.

Neither, Willi Franz and Johann Schwarzenbacher, survived the war; Franz went missing on 11 July 1944, while Schwarzenbacher was killed by partisans near Trieste, Italy on 2 June 1944. Franz Bartetzko was also killed in action at the front in January 1945. Karl Streibel, the camp commandant and Bartetzko’s deputy Josef Napierella and four Trawniki company commanders were indicted by a West German court in Hamburg, during 1970. All six defendants were acquitted in 1976, as they had no knowledge or control of the ‘Aktion Erntefest’ massacres of November 1943.


SOURCES:

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

Robert Kuwalek, From Lublin to Belzec –Traces of Jewish Presence in South Eastern Part of the Lublin region, AD REM Lublin 2006

Y. Arad, Belzec, Sobibor Treblinka,Indiana University Press – Bloomington and Indianapolis 1987

Sir Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust ,Collins, London 1986

French L. Maclean, The Camp Men, Schiffer Military History Atglen PA 1999

Johann Schwarzenbacher- Personnel File – NARA, Washington DC

Photograph – Yad Vashem, Israel


© Holocaust Historical Society 2014