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Aktion Reinhardt

When Sobibor extermination camp was put into operation in the spring of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen of SS and SD had already been carrying out large-scale round-ups to eliminate Jews behind the Russian front for almost a year. These units targeted Jewish members of the Russian Communist Party and Jews in the civil service in particular. But the Nazis also fanatically hunted down other communist civil servants and Soviet party officials, because to Hitler the destruction of communism and Jewry were closely linked. Initially his plan had been to, after his victory over the Soviet Union, subject the Russians and then deport the European Jews to the East. Here they would perish en masse from starvation and hardship in labour camps. However, the Nazi leaders decided not to wait with the destruction of the Jews until after they defeated the Soviet Union, but rather to start the extermination during the war and in a radical manner. In all likelihood preparations for the systematic destruction of the European Jews started in the autumn of 1941.

Initially Jews in the East were killed by firing squads, later also by means of shots in the neck or head as the victims stood in front of graves they had dug themselves. At first only men were killed, later entire Jewish families. In addition, the scale of the executions increased. Late September 1941, for example, more than 33,000 Jews were shot and killed in Babi Yar near Kiev. Because the job of executioner was too much of a psychological burden for the Einsatzkommandos, the head of police and the SS, Himmler, ordered his right-hand man, chief of the SD Reinhardt Heydrich, to test less burdensome and more efficient methods for the mass killing of Jews. The subsequent experiments utilized the experiences gained since 1939 with Aktion T4, the large-scale killing of people with mental or physical disabilities, among other things with poison gas. This programme was discontinued following protests from the churches (among others). In response to these protests the Nazi leadership decided not to have the large-scale killing of European Jews take place within the Reich, but to move it out of sight of the German population. In October 1941 the first preparations were made to eliminate Jews by means of carbon monoxide in the remote ‘General Government’, the Eastern part of Poland that Nazi Germany had occupied rather than annexed.

The systematic murder of the Jews in faraway Eastern Poland was coordinated by Nazi zealot Odilo Globocnik, head of the SS and the police in the district of Lublin. Richter2415He was ordered by Himmler to organize the construction of the camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, where Jews were killed in gas chambers with carbon monoxide. This operation was given the code name Einsatz Reinhardt or Aktion Reinhardt and was named after SD chief Reinhardt Heydrich. The mass murder using poison gas started in March 1942 in Belzec. The first victims were Jews from Lublin and Lwow (Lemberg). After Treblinka was put into operation, Himmler gave the order to step up the pace of the genocide and also kill the Jews from Western Europe in the Aktion Reinhardt camps. In the major concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek prisoners were also gassed, but in addition there was large-scale forced labour. The only raison d’être of the extermination camps was the fastest and most efficient killing of Jews possible, while a fraction of the prisoners in the camp were made to work to maintain the camp and take care of camp personnel. In total the Nazis and their accomplices murdered between five and six million European Jews.

Read more about the structure of the camp

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