Dark heart

New study delves into hor­rors of the Nazis’ Op­er­a­tion Reinhard

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By MELISSA HEALY

In the ledger of evils per­pe­trated by hu­mans, Op­er­a­tion Reinhard holds a special place. Over the course of 21 months start­ing in March 1942, Nazi forces and their col­lab­o­ra­tors rounded up 1.7 mil­lion Jews from 393 Pol­ish towns and ghet­tos and dis­patched them in tightly packed rail cars to three camps in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Poland – So­bi­bor, Tre­blinka and Belzec.

At these three killing cen­ters, mem­bers of Poland’s once-thriv­ing Jewish com­mu­nity were mur­dered with such ef­fi­ciency and ruth­less­ness that a mere 102 would survive to bear wit­ness. By Novem­ber 1943, when Op­er­a­tion Reinhard ended, es­sen­tially no Pol­ish Jews were left for the Ger­mans to kill.

In a bid to cap­ture the scope and in­ten­sity of geno­ci­dal killing sprees, a Tel Aviv Univer­sity re­searcher has dis­sected Op­er­a­tion Reinhard and found its dark heart.

Biomath­e­mati­cian Lewi Stone drew upon a painstak­ing ac­count­ing of Nazi train sched­ules to an­a­lyze the “kill rate” of Jews be­tween Fe­bru­ary 1942 and De­cem­ber 1944. Within Op­er­a­tion Reinhard’s 21-month cam­paign of ex­ter­mi­na­tion, he dis­cov­ered a 92-day pe­riod that stands out for its fe­roc­ity.

In Au­gust, Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber of 1942, he cal­cu­lated, Ger­man forces and their al­lies in Poland killed at least 1.32 mil­lion Jews. That av­er­ages out to 14,348 per day, ev­ery day. Vir­tu­ally all of the vic­tims were from Poland and its im­me­di­ate neigh­bors.

This con­cen­tra­tion of mur­ders in a three­month pe­riod “likely cre­ated sub­stan­tial con­fu­sion among its vic­tims, and its speed would have made the pos­si­bil­ity of or­ga­nized re­sis­tance dif­fi­cult to co­or­di­nate in time,” Stone wrote in a study pub­lished re­cently in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vances. “The mas­sacre was ef­fec­tively over be­fore there was time for an or­ga­nized re­sponse.”

Stone uses au­thor­i­ta­tive es­ti­mates of the Holo­caust’s toll on Jews – which range from 5.1 mil­lion to 6.2 mil­lion – to reckon that as many as a quar­ter of the Nazis’ Jewish vic­tims were mur­dered dur­ing these three months of Op­er­a­tion Reinhard. It ap­pears to have taken place at roughly the same time that Ger­man forces, hav­ing in­vaded the Soviet Union and been thrown back from the out­skirts of Moscow, were ad­vanc­ing in­stead on Stal­in­grad. His­to­ri­ans have noted that around this time, Adolf Hitler or­dered his plan for the “fi­nal so­lu­tion of the Jewish ques­tion” to be ac­cel­er­ated.

DOC­U­MENTS RE­CENTLY un­earthed from United Na­tions ar­chives also re­veal that as early as De­cem­ber 1942, the gov­ern­ments of the United States, Bri­tain and the Soviet Union were aware that at least 2 mil­lion Jews had been mur­dered and a fur­ther 5 mil­lion were at risk of be­ing killed. Al­though they were pre­par­ing war crimes charges against Hitler and his generals on the ba­sis of sur­vivors’ re­ports, the Al­lied pow­ers did lit­tle to pro­tect or pro­vide sanc­tuary to Europe’s Jews.

Op­er­a­tion Reinhard was launched with the March 1942 open­ing of the Belzec death camp near Poland’s bor­der with mod­ern-day Ukraine. Start­ing in late July 1942, Tre­blinka’s gas chambers would be­gin to empty the War­saw Ghetto of Jews. The ex­panded death camp of So­bi­bor re­opened soon af­ter, ful­fill­ing Gestapo chief Hein­rich Himm­ler’s July 19, 1942, or­der that, with few ex­cep­tions, all Jews within Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Poland should be ex­ter­mi­nated by the end of the year.

An es­ti­mated 292,000 of the 1.32 mil­lion who per­ished dur­ing this spasm of vi­o­lence were killed with bul­lets by special mo­bile shoot­ing squads called the Ein­satz­grup­pen. The re­main­der were dis­patched by poi­son gas within hours of their ar­rival at the death camps, Stone dis­cerned.

To clar­ify the rate at which Jews were mur­dered in the course of Op­er­a­tion Reinhard, Stone turned to de­tailed rail­way sched­ules com­piled by Is­raeli his­to­rian Yitzakh Arad. These sched­ules in­cluded data on 480 train de­por­ta­tions to So­bi­bor, Belzec and Tre­blinka car­ried out by the Ger­man Na­tional Rail­way dur­ing this pe­riod.

In an ef­fort to glean the full ex­tent of the Nazis’ geno­ci­dal ma­chine, Stone then in­cor­po­rated the well-doc­u­mented death tolls from Auschwitz-Birke­nau in western Poland and from the Ein­satz­grup­pen, which were ac­tive across the coun­tries that Ger­man troops had en­tered, in­clud­ing the Soviet Union. BY DE­CEM­BER 1942, long be­fore Op­er­a­tion Reinhard for­mally ended, the rate of train de­por­ta­tions – and of mur­ders at the three camps – slowed markedly, Stone found. It wasn’t that the Nazis had a change of heart. Rather, he wrote, the plung­ing death rate “simply re­flects that there were very few Jews left to mur­der” in oc­cu­pied Poland. The fi­nal rem­nants of the Jewish com­mu­nity in Bi­a­lystok were rounded up in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber of 1942 and sent to Tre­blinka.

By mid-July of 1942, the Nazis be­gan de­port­ing Dutch Jews to con­cen­tra­tion camps and killing cen­ters in Ger­many and Poland. The Jews of Nor­way fol­lowed by late Oc­to­ber.

The re­main­ing Jewish pop­u­la­tions of Europe were dis­patched to Auschwitz-Birke­nau, which saw what Stone called “ex­cep­tion­ally high kill rates” in 1944, when Hun­gar­ian Jews were sent there in large num­bers.

Some his­to­ri­ans have sug­gested that the 1994 Rwanda geno­cide, in which an es­ti­mated 800,000 mem­bers of the Tutsi tribe were mur­dered by Hu­tus in a span of about 100 days, might have ex­ceeded the Holo­caust in the pace of its geno­ci­dal may­hem. Ac­cord­ing to Stone’s cal­cu­la­tions, it did not.

Dur­ing the three most mur­der­ous months of Op­er­a­tion Reinhard, the in­ten­sity with which the Nazis sought to ex­ter­mi­nate Jews was 83% higher than that seen in Rwanda’s geno­cide, Stone found. In both its ex­tent of killing and in the ex­panse of space over which it un­folded, the Holo­caust rep­re­sents a more ex­treme man­i­fes­ta­tion of or­ga­nized vi­o­lence against a sin­gle group, he wrote.

His­to­ri­ans, so­cial sci­en­tists, pol­icy mak­ers and jour­nal­ists “have con­sis­tently re­lied on in­ac­cu­rate as­sess­ments that greatly un­der­es­ti­mated the Holo­caust kill rate dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Reinhard,” Stone con­cluded. “These un­der­es­ti­mates have been re­peated for over two decades with­out sub­stan­tial crit­i­cism, a pat­tern that has ef­fec­tively rewrit­ten the his­tory of the Holo­caust in a way that di­min­ishes its his­tor­i­cal stand­ing and the scale of hu­man life it en­com­passes.”

THE NEW study is part of an ef­fort to push schol­ar­ship on the Holo­caust – and on the phe­nom­e­non of geno­cide gen­er­ally – be­yond ag­gre­gated num­bers of the dead, and to re­veal their in­ner dy­nam­ics. Un­der­stand­ing the pat­terns of vi­o­lence that lie be­tween a geno­ci­dal event’s be­gin­ning and end points might un­cover what fac­tors touch them off, sus­tain or ac­cel­er­ate them, or bring them to a close, Stone sug­gested.

Fo­cus­ing on piv­otal phases of the Holo­caust may also of­fer new per­spec­tives on death tolls that have either be­come the sub­ject of dry aca­demic de­bate or that defy easy com­pre­hen­sion by the pub­lic.

A re­cent schol­arly es­ti­mate – that be­tween 5.4 mil­lion and 5.8 mil­lion Jews were mur­dered over World War II’s four years – has “lim­ited ex­plana­tory power be­cause in the end we are left with a sin­gle ag­gre­gate num­ber that is be­wil­der­ingly large and dif­fi­cult for the hu­man mind to re­late to,” Stone wrote.

“With all this com­plex­ity, here we ask, ‘Are there any sim­ple de­fin­i­tive killing pat­terns that can be dis­tilled from this pe­riod that can shed bet­ter light on the large-scale dy­nam­ics of the large-scale Nazi op­er­a­tion?’”

(Los An­ge­les Times/TNS)

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

A RUSTY ROAD SIGN is seen out­side the perime­ter of the Nazi death camp of So­bi­bor.

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