Aktion Erntefest – Lublin District – November 1943

In the latest in Senior Fellow, Chris Webb’s series on Jewish Resistance and Concentration Camps of the Holocaust, Webb looks into the biggest mass execution in one day, in the whole history of German atrocities during WW2, Aktion Erntefest, among others.

Aktion Erntefest Execution Pits in Majdanek 2004 (©Chris Webb Private Archive)

On 3 November 1943, early in the morning, SS and Police units surrounded the KZ Lublin (Majdanek) and the Trawniki work camp. There was a very short roll call that day and the SS men ordered the non-Jewish prisoners to return to their barracks. The Jewish prisoners were transferred to Feld No. 5, close to the crematorium and execution ditches. At the same time, other prisoners were brought to Majdanek from other camps in Lublin, such as Airfield Camp, Lipowa Camp (Jewish soldiers) and Sportplatz. On Feld No. 5 the Jewish inmates were locked in barracks. One barrack was used as undressing barrack where everybody had to strip and leave money and valuables. The people were taken in groups of 100 and killed in the trenches with machine guns. Group after group of naked people had to run to the trenches and lay down on the bodies of individuals already killed and wounded. Whilst columns of thousands of people marched to their death, loud music was played from two loud-speaker cars, principally marches and waltzes by Johann Strauss. The music was used to drown out the noise of the shots and screams of the murdered people.

This day at Majdanek became known as “Black Wednesday” among non-Jewish prisoners who were in the camp at that time. Although the music was played, Polish prisoners heard the shots and screams. Also people who lived within a short distance of around 3-4 km from the camp on the Eastern suburb of Lublin, heard the music, shots and screams. Prince Christopher Radziwill, one of the officer-prisoners who had been in Majdanek since 1939, recalled:

“I shall never forget the day the Nazis killed 17,000 Jews at Majdanek, while I was in another part of the concentration camp. That evening, many of my Polish fellow-prisoners got drunk to celebrate. That is terrible, but it is true.”

During the executions at Majdanek, an act of resistance occurred. The Jewish women who were locked in a barrack on Feld No. 5, seeing the Jewish soldiers from the camp on Lipowa 7, started to scream, pleading for their lives. That same moment several Jewish soldiers started to fight with the SS men escorting them. Three of the SS men were killed or injured but all people who resisted, were shot on their way to the ditches. Many Jews, locked in the barracks, collapsed and a group of Jewish doctors and nurses from the Revier committed suicide. At the end of the executions, a group of about 400 Jewish women and men were selected and transferred to Feld No. 4. The women had to segregate the belongings of the Erntefest victims. The men were divided into several groups. This Sonderkommando was used to cremate the bodies of the murdered people, after having examined the bodies for gold teeth, which were extracted. The executions lasted from 6 am until 5 pm. Everything was organized by the SS like a combat operation at the front. Every hour reports about the number of killed people were sent to Sporrenberg and Hermann Höfle, who resided in Sporrenberg’s office. During the executions, the SS men from Majdanek also participated in the action. Sporrenberg observed the massacre from an airplane. The estimates about the number of victims at Majdanek concentration camp vary. Various sources state the number killed as ranging between 16,000 and 18,000. It was the biggest mass execution in one day, in the whole history of German atrocities during WW2.

These horrible months are remembered by every old inhabitant of Lublin. Old Lubliners stated that the smoke and stench of burning bodies was sensed by the whole town. After burning the bodies at Majdanek, members of the Sonderkommando were sent to other places in the Lublin district where other mass executions took place. They had to excavate the mass graves and burn the bodies. There are four known testimonies written by Jewish survivors of the Erntefest from Majdanek. The Sonderkommando was executed probably in Poniatowa and Chelm. Only two Jews escaped: Josef Reznik and Josef Sterdyner. The selected women were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau in March 1944. On the way to Birkenau Ida Mazower escaped, all the others were sent to the gas chambers. One survivor, Chaim Zacharewicz from Bialystok, was transferred to the Gestapo prison in Lublin. He survived the last executions in this prison during July 1944. On the 3 November 1944, the camp in Szebnie (near Jaslo, Krakow district) was liquidated. About 2,000 Jews who were selected from earlier deportations from the Krakow district to the Belzec death camp, were executed during the Aktion Erntefest in the forest near Szebnie. 800 prisoners from Szebnie were finally deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In addition, on 3 November 1943, the work camp in Trawniki was liquidated. The prisoners were executed at the border of this SS training camp. Together with the Jews from Trawniki (most of them worked for Schultz Company), several hundred inmates of Dorohucza work camp were executed. Among the prisoners were members of the Jewish Fighting Organisation. The resistance fighters were surprised by the camp liquidation and no resistance took place. The Polish inhabitants of Trawniki observed the Aktion Erntefest executions from the attics and roofs of their houses. Most of the testimonies about these executions are from these people. During the executions about 200 people were selected. From this group only 2 survivors are known. During the Aktion Erntefest in Trawniki about 10,000 Jews were killed. Close to Trawniki another camp existed in 1943, a small camp in the village Milejow. About 200 Jewish prisoners produced food for SS and Wehrmacht in the local jam factory. This camp was not liquidated that day. A small group of its prisoners was transferred to Auschwitz, whilst others were sent to Trawniki where they were executed together with the members of the Sonderkommando in late 1943.

On 4 November 1943, the Poniatowa camp and small camps in Pulawy county were liquidated. In Poniatowa about 14,000 prisoners were executed and here the underground organization organized some resistance. Only two survivors of Poniatowa are known. There was also resistance during the final liquidation of the Pulawy camp. In this camp, which was located near a local saw mill, a group of about 400 prisoners (among them also Jewish soldiers from Lipowa 7 camp and Slovakian Jews) fought the SS. During this fight several people escaped, their fate is not known. About 100 Jewish prisoners were executed at the same time in a small work camp near the Naleczow railway station. The next executions were organized in the Galicia district. On 13-14 November 1943, the camp on Janowska Street in Lvov was liquidated. Around 4,000 Jews were killed in the “Sands” – a place which was used for earlier executions of Lvov Jews between 1942 and 1943. During the liquidation of the Janowska camp, a group of prisoners organized acts of resistance and several of them escaped.

Mr Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Founder at Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.

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