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The European rail network played a crucial role in the implementation of the Final Solution. Jews from Germany and German-occupied Europe were deported by rail to killing centers in occupied Poland, where they were killed. The Germans attempted to disguise their intentions, referring to deportations as "resettlement to the east." The victims were told they were to be taken to labor camps, but in reality, from 1942 onward, deportation meant transit to killing centers for most Jews. Deportations on this scale required the coordination of numerous German government ministries, including the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), the Transport Ministry, and the Foreign Office. The RSHA coordinated and directed the deportations; the Transport Ministry organized train schedules; and the Foreign Office negotiated with German-allied states to hand over their Jews.
Killing centers (also referred to as "extermination camps" or "death camps") were designed to carry out genocide. Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis established six killing centers in former Polish territory—Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex), and Majdanek. Chelmno and Auschwitz were established in areas annexed to Germany in 1939. The other camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek) were established in the Generalgouvernement (General Government) of Poland. Both Auschwitz and Majdanek functioned as concentration and forced-labor camps as well as killing centers. The overwhelming majority of the victims of the killing centers were Jews. An estimated 3.5 million Jews were killed in these six killing centers as part of the Final Solution. Other victims included Roma (Gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war.
At the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942, the SS (the elite guard of the Nazi state) and representatives of German government ministries estimated that the "Final Solution," the Nazi plan to kill the Jews of Europe, would involve 11 million European Jews, including those from non-occupied countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, and Great Britain. Jews from Germany and German-occupied Europe were deported by rail to the killing centers in occupied Poland, where they were killed. The Germans attempted to disguise their intentions, referring to deportations as "resettlement to the east." The victims were told they were to be taken to labor camps, but in reality, from 1942 onward, deportation for most Jews meant transit to killing centers and then death.
Jews are forced into boxcars for deportation to the Belzec killing center. Lublin, Poland, 1942.
Jewish deportees from Luxembourg, Austria, and Czechoslovakia during deportation from the Lodz ghetto to the Chelmno killing center. Lodz, Poland, 1942.
The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. Leo and his family were confined to a ghetto in Lodz. Leo was forced to work as a tailor in a uniform factory. The Lodz ghetto was liquidated in 1944, and Leo was deported to Auschwitz. He was then sent to the Gross-Rosen camp system for forced labor. As the Soviet army advanced, the prisoners were transferred to the Ebensee camp in Austria. The Ebensee camp was liberated in 1945.
Fritzie's father immigrated to the United States, but by the time he could bring his family over, war had begun and Fritzie's mother feared attacks on transatlantic shipping. Fritzie, her mother, and two brothers were eventually sent to Auschwitz. Her mother and brothers died. Fritzie survived by pretending to be older than her age and thus a stronger worker. On a death march from Auschwitz, Fritzie ran into a forest, where she was later liberated.
The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. When Makow was occupied, Sam fled to Soviet territory. He returned to Makow for provisions, but was forced to remain in the ghetto. In 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz. As the Soviet army advanced in 1944, Sam and other prisoners were sent to camps in Germany. The inmates were put on a death march early in 1945. American forces liberated Sam after he escaped during a bombing raid.
Abraham was raised in Czestochowa, Poland, and became a barber. He and his family were deported to the Treblinka killing center from the Czestochowa ghetto in 1942. At Treblinka, Abraham was selected for forced labor. He was forced to cut women's hair before they were gassed, and he sorted clothing from arriving transports. Abraham escaped from the camp in 1943 and made his way back to Czestochowa. He worked in a labor camp from June 1943 until liberation by Soviet troops in 1945.
Esther was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Chelm, Poland. In December 1942, she was deported from a work camp to the Sobibor killing center in occupied Poland. Upon arrival at Sobibor, Esther was selected to work in a sorting shed. She sorted clothing and the possessions of the people killed at the camp. During the summer and fall of 1943, Esther was among a group of prisoners in the Sobibor camp who planned an uprising and escape. Leon Feldhendler and Aleksandr (Sasha) Pechersky were the leaders of the group. The revolt took place on October 14, 1943. German and Ukrainian guards opened fire on the prisoners, who were unable to reach the main gate and thus had to try and escape through the minefield around the camp; about 300 escaped. Over 100 of them were recaptured and shot. Esther was among those who escaped and survived.
A collection of valises belonging to Jews who were deported to killing centers. These valises are displayed at the base of the railcar on the third floor of the Permanent Exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Washington, DC, 1993–1995.
One of many warehouses at Auschwitz in which the Germans stored clothing belonging taken from victims of the camp. This photograph was taken after the liberation of the camp. Auschwitz, Poland, after January 1945.
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