Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps by Yitzhak Arad

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

The death camps that were erected in Nazi-occupied Poland served one purpose, and that was to murder, unto extinction, the Jewish people.  Yitzhak Arad, in his book Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, discussed the three extermination camps in eastern Poland, which were set up to gas mass numbers of Polish Jews. These camps were so efficient that other groups of Jews from all over Europe were sent there to die. By 1943, the camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka had completed their job and were dismantled, only Auschwitz-Birkenau remained. Not until the 1960s were the perpetrators brought to trial, and so the story of the Nazis’ Ukrainian killing partners was late, but eventually surfaced. Arad has extensively researched the wholesale slaughter of the Polish camps, and brings valuable insight into the 1,700,000 Jews who were killed as a result of “Operation Reinhard, which was the extermination of the Jews who lived in the General Government of Poland, as well as Jews from Holland, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and the Soviet Union.” (p. viii)

Yitzhak Arad is an Israeli historian, retired IDF brigadier general, and a former Soviet partisan. Arad was born in 1926, in the Second Polish Republic. During an interview with Harry J. Cargas in 1993, Arad stated that he was an active member of the ghetto underground movement from1942-1944. By 1943 he had joined the Soviet partisans of the Markov Brigade, which dealt with anti-Semitism. He was with the Soviet partisans until the end of the war, fighting the Germans, and involved in mining trains and ambushes around the Narocz Forest of Belarus. It was eventually discovered that he served in the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Arad was investigated for war crimes against humanity in Lithuania. However, insufficient evidence forced the prosecutor to drop the investigation. In 1979, Arad wrote The partisan: from the Valley of Death to Mount Zion, in which he describes what could be considered war crimes. Some of which was the shooting of an Armia Krajowa officer, as well as a Lithuanian policeman taken as a prisoner of war. Arad also described burning down houses in a Lithuanian village.

Yitzhak Arad has worked as a lecturer on Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. He has studied extensively and written about, World War II and the Holocaust in the USSR. He served as a director of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority, for over twenty years and remains in an advisor’s capacity. In 1980, Arad wrote Ghetto in flames: the struggle and destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust, and in 2010, he published In the Shadow of the Red Banner. Praise from the New York Times for Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka is, “…Mr. Arad reports as a controlled and effective witness for the prosecution…Mr. Arad’s book, with its abundance of horrifying detail, reminds us of how far we have to go.” They also wrote, “Drawing on a wealth of evidence…[Arad] lets the terrible record speak for itself.” Raul Hilberg wrote that “This is the authentic, exhaustive, definitive account of the least known death camps of the Nazi era.”

Arad begins by outlining the structure of his book. He not only discusses the tragic and cruel events in the camps but what he considers the complete story. He begins as 1941 wanes, with the preparations for construction of the camps, through the final push in the fall of 1943. He leaves few details uninvestigated and lets the reader know immediately what will be covered throughout the work. He starts by describing the physical layout of the camps, how the victims were transported to the camps, including the deaths during the move. There is also a complete depiction of the process and technique of the extermination, and the deeds of the SS men who held positions of authority in the camps, and the Ukrainian guards. (p. vii)

The majority of the victims only stayed in these camps for a matter of hours, which consisted of the process of disembarking from the train cars, then shortly later, their dead bodies removed from the gas chambers and buried in mass graves until the SS had time to cremate them. Considering Arad’s descriptions of the victim’s transport to the camps, the quick death may have been a blessing, putting an end to the misery. The ones left to live were forced to run the killing system until they became too knowledgeable of the process, then they too were killed, and replaced with fresh victims.

There are three parts to Arad’s book, “The Extermination Machine,” “Life in the Shadow of Death,” and finally, “Escape and Resistance.” Having expounded further on Operation Reinhard, Arad moves the reader through each camp, the officers and guards, and the experiments that helped to create such a perfectly functional killing arena. With the camps set-up complete, it was time to herd the Jewish people to slaughter. In Chapter 8, “The Trains of Death,” Arad explains that the plan was to exterminate the Jews once they got to the camps, but “…death and destruction began while the Jews were still in the freight cars…” (p. 63) Survivor’s testimonies are liberally used throughout, the situations described, so dire and horrific, that any lived to write of it is amazing.

As mentioned previously, some Jewish prisoners were spared to carry out the physical work. Arad explains that the prisoners kept working in the extermination process were killed regularly and replaced by new arrivals. Soon the camp authorities realized that this slowed the killing rate considerably and settled on a more permanent workforce. Women prisoners were used as well in jobs all over the camp; as laundresses, cleaning ladies, etc. Some unfortunate women were used solely for sexual exploitation and then shot. There were only two women survivors from the Treblinka camp.

Chapter 23, “The Erasure of the Crimes,” expounds on the process of disposing of the thousands of bodies. The mass graves would swell as the bloated deceased decomposed. The stench and vermin issue became such a problem, the camp commanders began experimenting ways to burn bodies. Excavators were used and the corpses were eventually reduced to ash. A particularly moving account by one of the surviving pit workers, Abraham Goldfarb, describes how he, and other pit workers, left some whole skeletons with notes placed in glass bottles in some of the pits. They hoped that if anyone ever tried to learn of the Jewish massacre and the victim’s fate, they may find it. (p. 176) Arad does not comment on whether these notes were ever found.

Arad includes a chapter that explores the daily life of the prisoners who were not immediately killed. When they woke, when they slept, when they began work, and also what they were given to eat; food is a relative term in death camps. Life consisted of daily selections, or those chosen to die, torture and punishment, and hunger and illness. The average life of a prisoner was but a few months. (p. 207) Arad includes several poignant descriptions, one of which comes from Rudolf Reder from Belzec. He writes, “We were one mass. I knew few names, very few. It was meaningless for me to know who a man was or what his name was.” (p. 207)

The final part of the book focuses on those who escaped, tried to escape, and of those brave souls who found a way to resist against their jailers and tormentors. Arad relates how information began trickling back to the Jews in the ghettos on the fate of their fellows. They heard of the trains, and of the mass killings. Many who tried to escape from the train cars were caught and shot. They would pull out loose boards and jump. The percent of those who escaped was low, but some did. There were guards who offered a chance to escape for money, only to shoot them as they ran. Jerzy Krolikowski, a Polish engineer, wrote in his memoirs of witnessing such occurrences. He explained that the few who managed to make it to the trees and escape was due largely to the intoxicated guards not aiming well. (p. 250)

Operation Reinhard, Arad explains, was the largest single massacre of the Holocaust. It lasted only twenty-one months and “…was an integral and substantial part of the overall plan for the Final Solution of the Jewish problem.” (p. 377) The camps’ intent was kept quiet from the public for an absurd amount of time before leaks of what was truly transpiring came out.

Arad shows how the prisoners choice in some instances, to band together, gave them purpose and hope. Workers in the camps would diligently prepare in helping give a single person a chance at freedom. This was done at great danger to themselves. Those who never gave up, and refused to crumble under such terrible duress, are the only reason that historians like Arad are able to piece together what life was like for them.

The camps were demolished and memorials erected. These memorials, Arad writes, are to “…bear witness to the tragedies and massacres…a reminder of the brutality and inhumanity that were the essence of Nazi Germany…” (p. 380) Unlike other works dedicated to the Holocaust, Arad shows the second wave of deportees in 1942 as anything but passive. He effectively shows the emergence of Jewish resistance by those still in the ghettos, and by those already in the camps. This is a study that all students of history should add to their book list. It is a powerful book and one that creates a thoughtfulness in the reader that is not always found.

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