Operation Reinhard (Aktion Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhard) was the code name for the German plan to murder the approximately two million Jews residing in what the Germans termed the General Government (Generalgouvernement).
Though initiated in the autumn of 1941, the operation was later named after SS General Reinhard Heydrich, who was chief of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA) from September 1939 until his death in 1942. The RSHA was the Nazi agency responsible for coordinating the deportation of European Jews to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. Heydrich died in June 1942 from injuries sustained during an assassination attempt by Czech partisans.
Heydrich was a key architect of the “Final Solution.” In January 1939, December 1940, and July 1941, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering personally tasked Heydrich with drafting plans for a solution of the "Jewish question."
Administration of Operation Reinhard
SS General Odilo Globocnik, SS and Police leader in the Lublin District of the General Government, directed Operation Reinhard between the autumn of 1941 and the late summer of 1943. He established two departments on his staff for this purpose.
The first was a deportation coordination team under SS Major Hermann Höfle. Höfle was responsible for arranging personnel and transport for the planned deportations. He also coordinated deportation operations, which was usually under the command of the regional SS and police commander, with the support of regional SS and police and civilian occupation authorities.
The second department was the Inspectorate of SS Special Detachments under Criminal Police captain Christian Wirth. Wirth was responsible for the construction and management of the three Operation Reinhard killing centers (Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka). The Operation Reinhard killing centers were managed by small detachments of German personnel and guarded by detachments of police auxiliaries trained at the Trawniki training camp.
Connection with Operation T4 (Euthanasia Program)
The overwhelming majority of German camp personnel deployed at the Operation Reinhard camps came from Operation T4 (the Euthanasia Program). Operation T4 was the Nazi’s first secret program of mass murder in which institutionalized persons with disabilities were killed using pure, bottled carbon monoxide gas. The T4 staff brought to Operation Reinhard direct experience with the killing process, including knowledge about gassing and cremation technology. Without exception, every commandant of an Operation Reinhard killing center came to German-occupied Poland via the T4 "euthanasia" action, as did Christian Wirth, who served as Inspector General for Operation Reinhard. This was a role similar to the one he had had in the T4 program.
In March 1942, T4 functionaries arrived in the General Government. “ Euthanasia” personnel dispatched to Lublin for the Reinhard action assumed SS membership and donned the field grey uniforms of the Waffen-SS. They stood under Globocnik’s direct orders, but formally remained employees of the T4 organization. “Euthanasia” officials in the headquarters of the secret program, located at the address Tiergartenstrasse 4, Berlin, managed all personnel issues for the new Reinhard recruits, including salary, leave, and benefits.
The Goals of Operation Reinhard
In his final Operation Reinhard report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler in January 1944, SS General Globocnik listed the goals of Operation Reinhard as follows:
- to “resettle” the Jews of the General Government (by “resettle” Globocnik actually meant to murder them)
- to exploit the skilled or manual labor of some Polish Jews before killing them
- to secure the personal property of the Jews (clothing, currency, jewelry, and other possessions)
- to identify and secure alleged hidden and immovable assets such as factories, apartments, and land.
The Operation Reinhard Killing Centers: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka
In order to achieve the goals of Operation Reinhard, construction of the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka killing centers began in autumn 1941. Captain Christian Wirth had played a significant role in Operation T4 in Germany between 1939 and 1941. He now applied his earlier experience murdering institutionalized persons with disabilities with carbon monoxide gas to the construction of the three Operation Reinhard killing centers. At all three Operation Reinhard killing sites, camp personnel murdered their victims by using carbon monoxide gas. This gas was first generated by the exhaust from large motor engines and then was channeled into stationary gas chambers.
After a few test gassings using Polish prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), killing operations at Belzec began in March 1942. They continued there until December 1942. Sobibor began operating in May 1942 and remained functional until October 1943. The killing center at Treblinka, called Treblinka II, opened in July 1942 and was closed in August 1943.
German staff and their auxiliaries, most of them trained at the Trawniki training camp, murdered at least 434,508 Jews and an undetermined number of Poles, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet POWs in Belzec; at least 167,000 Jews and an undetermined number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs in Sobibor; and approximately 925,000 Jews and an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs in Treblinka.
Property belonging to the victims of the Operation Reinhard camps was stored in depots in the city Lublin, at the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp, and at the Trawniki and Poniatowa forced labor camps.
Deportations to Operation Reinhard Killing Centers
The overwhelming majority of victims in the Operation Reinhard killing centers were Jews deported from ghettos in German-occupied Poland. Once the killing centers were operational, German SS and police forces liquidated the ghettos and deported Jews by rail to those killing centers.
The victims of Belzec were mainly Jews from the ghettos of southern Poland, and included German, Austrian, and Czech Jews held in the Piaski and Izbica transit ghettos in the Lublin District of the General Government.
Jews deported to Sobibor came mainly from the Lublin area and other ghettos of the eastern General Government. This killing center also received transports from France and the Netherlands.
Deportations to Treblinka originated mainly from central Poland, primarily from the Warsaw ghetto, but also from the Radom and Krakow Districts in the General Government, from District Bialystok, as well as from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia.
Other Operation Reinhard Camps
Also part of Operation Reinhard were several forced labor camps for Jews in the General Government’s District Lublin, including: Poniatowa; Trawniki; Budzyn; Krasnik; and Lublin-Majdanek before its formal conversion into a concentration camp in February 1943. For a time, Majdanek also served as a killing site for Jews whom the SS could no longer kill at Belzec in the late autumn of 1942.
Conclusion of Operation Reinhard
In June 1943, the Belzec killing center was liquidated and the Jewish forced laborers were either shot or deported to the Sobibor killing center to be gassed. The last two Operation Reinhard killing centers, Treblinka and Sobibor, were liquidated in the autumn of 1943 following prisoner uprisings. Camp officials ordered the camps to be dismantled and murdered the remaining prisoners. At Belzec and Treblinka, the Nazi authorities built a manor house and planted trees and crops to disguise the area as a farm. A former auxiliary police guard was housed at these sites to further camouflage the former camp and to discourage looting at the site.
Fearing further insurrections in the General Government, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the murder of the remaining Jewish prisoners engaged in forced labor in the Lublin District. The resulting murder action, codenamed Operation Harvest Festival (Erntefest) deployed over 2,000 shooters from the Waffen-SS and regional police units and took place in the labor camps of Lublin-Majdanek, Trawniki, and Poniatowa. The two-day killing operation, on November 3-4, 1943, claimed the lives of some 42,000 Jews and brought Operation Reinhard to a close. Globocnik submitted a final report to Himmler in January 1944. Most of the German staff were now transferred to Trieste to carry out anti-partisan warfare. They were also meant to carry out the “Final Solution” in German-occupied Italian territory under the command of Christian Wirth.
In all, the SS and police killed approximately 1.7 million Jews as part of Operation Reinhard. The victims of the Operation Reinhard camps also included an unknown number of Poles, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet POWs.