In 1941, the Nazi leadership decided to implement the "Final Solution," the systematic mass murder of European Jewry. The Nazi regime used rail transport as one method to forcibly reorder the ethnic composition of eastern Europe within the framework of Nazi racial policy. The German authorities used rail systems across the continent to transport, or deport, Jews from their homes, primarily to German-occupied eastern Europe. Once they had begun to methodically kill Jews in specially constructed killing centers, German officials deported Jews to these facilities by train or, when trains were not available or the distances were short, by truck or on foot.

Officials Coordinate Mass Transport by Train

European rail system, 1939

At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, held in a southwestern suburb of Berlin, SS, Nazi Party, and German state officials met to coordinate the deportation of European Jews to killing centers (also known as “extermination camps”) already in operation or under construction in German-occupied Poland. The participants of the conference estimated that the "Final Solution" would involve the deportation and murder of 11 million Jews, including Jewish residents of nations outside German control, such as Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, and Great Britain.

Deportations on this scale required the coordination of numerous German government agencies including the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt—RSHA), the Main Office of the Order Police, the Ministry of Transportation, and the Foreign Office. The RSHA or regional SS and police leaders coordinated and often directed the deportations. The Order Police, often reinforced by local auxiliaries or collaborators in occupied territories, rounded up and transported the Jews to the killing centers. Working with Department IV B 4 of the RSHA commanded by SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, the Ministry of Transportation coordinated train schedules. The Foreign Office negotiated with Germany's Axis partners over the transfer of their Jewish citizens to German custody.

The Germans attempted to disguise their intentions. They sought to portray the deportations as a "resettlement" of the Jewish population in labor camps in the "East." In reality, the "resettlement in the East" became a euphemism for transport to the killing centers and mass murder.

Inside the Railcars

German railroad officials used both freight and passenger cars for the deportations. In order to convince the German population that the deportees were bound for resettlement, most Jews from the German Reich itself were dispatched to the east by passenger train. Jews in the German-occupied east fared far worse. German authorities generally did not give the deportees food or water, even when the journey was long or the hapless victims had to wait for days on railroad spurs for other trains to pass. Packed in sealed freight cars and suffering from overcrowding, they endured intense heat during the summer and freezing temperatures during the winter. Aside from a bucket, there was no sanitary facility. The stench of urine and excrement added to the humiliation and suffering of the deportees. Lacking food and water and proper ventilation, many deportees died before the trains reached their destinations. Armed police guards accompanied the transports; they had orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

Deportation from Westerbork

Between December 1941 and July 1942, the SS and police officials established five killing centers in German-occupied Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka II (Treblinka I was a forced-labor camp for Jews), and Auschwitz-Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. SS and police authorities in the Lublin District of the General Government (that part of German-occupied Poland not directly annexed to Germany) managed and coordinated the deportations to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka within the framework of “Operation Reinhard.”

The Victims

The principal victims at Belzec were Jews from southern and southeastern Poland, but also Jews deported from the so-called Greater German Reich (Germany, Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia) to District Lublin between October 1941 and the end of summer 1942. Most Jews deported to Sobibor came from the Lublin District; but German authorities also transported French and Dutch Jews to Sobibor in spring and summer 1943, along with small groups of Soviet Jews from Belarusian [Belorussian] and Lithuanian ghettos in late summer 1943. German officials transported the Jews from the Warsaw and Radom districts of the General Government and from the Bialystok administrative district to Treblinka II, where SS and police officials murdered them. German authorities deported most of the Jewish residents of the Lodz ghetto as well as the ghetto's surviving Roma and Sinti (so-called "Gypsy") residents to Chelmno between January 1942 and spring 1943, and then in early summer 1944.

Leo Schneiderman describes arrival at Auschwitz, selection, and separation from his family

In 1943 and 1944, the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center played a significant role in the German plan to kill the European Jews. Beginning in late winter 1943, trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau on a regular basis, carrying Jews from virtually every German-occupied country of Europe—from as far north as Norway to the Greek island of Rhodes off the coast of Turkey in the south, from the French slopes of the Pyrenees in the west to the easternmost reaches of German-occupied Poland and the Baltic states. Another concentration camp, located near Lublin and known as Majdanek, served as a site for murdering targeted groups of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners by gas and other means.

The Germans killed nearly three million Jews in the five killing centers.

Western and Northern Europe

German officials and local collaborators deported Jews from western Europe via transit camps, such as Drancy in France, Westerbork in the Netherlands, and Mechelen (Malines) in Belgium. Of the approximately 75,000 Jews deported from France, more than 65,000 were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and approximately 2,000 to Sobibor. The Germans deported over 100,000 Jews from the Netherlands, almost all from Westerbork: about 60,000 to Auschwitz and over 34,000 to Sobibor. Between August 1942 and July 1944, 28 trains transported more than 25,000 Jews from Belgium to Auschwitz-Birkenau via Mechelen.

In the autumn of 1942, the Germans seized approximately 770 Norwegian Jews and deported them by boat and train to Auschwitz. An effort to deport the Danish Jews in September 1943 failed when the resistance in Denmark, alerted to the impending roundup, assisted the mass escape of Danish Jews to neutral Sweden. Of the approximately 7,500 Jews living in Denmark, only 470 were deported to Theresienstadt.

Southern Europe

The Germans deported Jews from Greece, from Italy, and from Croatia. Between March and August 1943, SS and police officials deported more than 40,000 Jews from Salonika, in northern Greece, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the camp staff killed most of them in the gas chambers upon arrival. After the Germans occupied northern Italy in September 1943, they deported about 8,000 Jews, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Based on an agreement with their Croatian Axis partner, German officials took custody of around 7,000 Croat Jews and deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Bulgarian gendarmes and military units rounded up and deported around 7,000 Jewish residents of Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia, formerly a part of Yugoslavia, via a transit camp at Skopje. Bulgarian authorities concentrated approximately 4,000 Jews residing in Bulgarian-occupied Thrace at two assembly points in Bulgaria and transferred them to German custody. In all, Bulgaria deported more than 11,000 Jews to German-controlled territory. The German authorities deported these Jews to Treblinka II and killed them in the gas chambers.

Jews interned in the

Central Europe

German authorities began to deport Jews from the Greater German Reich in October 1941, while the construction of the killing centers was still in the planning stage. Between October 15, 1941, and November 4, 1941, German authorities deported 20,000 Jews to the Lodz ghetto. Between November 8, 1941, and October 1942, German authorities deported approximately 49,000 Jews from the Greater German Reich to Riga, Minsk, Kovno, and Raasiku, all in the Reich Commissariat Ostland (German-occupied Belarus [Belorussia], Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). SS and police officials shot the overwhelming majority of the deportees upon arrival in the Reich Commissariat Ostland. German authorities deported another approximately 63,000 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews to the Warsaw ghetto and to various locations in District Lublin, including the transit camp-ghettos at Krasnystaw and Izbica and the killing center in Sobibor, between March and October 1942. German Jewish residents of the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos were later deported with Polish Jews to Chelmno, Treblinka II, and, in 1944, to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A Jewish woman during a deportation from the Warsaw ghetto

The first transport of Jews from the Greater German Reich directly to Auschwitz arrived on July 18, 1942, from Vienna. From late October 1942 until January 1945, German authorities deported more than 71,000 Jews remaining in the Greater German Reich to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Germans deported elderly or prominent Jews from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and western Europe to the Theresienstadt ghetto, which also served as a transit camp for deportations further east, most often to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Between May and July 1944, Hungarian gendarmes, in cooperation with German security police officials, deported nearly 440,000 Jews from Hungary. Most of them were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. With the cooperation of Slovak authorities, the Germans deported more than 50,000 Slovak Jews to the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. The Slovak Jews were the first to be selected for the gas chambers at Birkenau. In the autumn of 1944, German SS and police officials deported 10,000 Slovak Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Slovak uprising. This deportation was the last major one to a killing center.

Deportations from Hungarian ghettos to Auschwitz

Between March 1942 and November 1943, the SS and police deported approximately 1,526,000 Jews, most of them by train, to the killing centers of Operation Reinhard: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Between December 1941 and March 1943, and again in June-July 1944, SS and police officials deported at least 167,000 Jews and approximately 4,300 Roma to the killing center at Chelmno by train, by truck, and on foot. Between March 1942 and December 1944, the German authorities deported approximately 1.1 million Jews and 23,000 Roma and Sinti to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the overwhelming majority by rail. Fewer than 500 survived the Operation Reinhard killing centers. Only a handful of Jews survived the transports to Chelmno. Perhaps as many as 100,000 Jews survived deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau by virtue of having been selected for forced labor upon arrival.