Aktion Erntefest: The Extermination of Jews in the Lublin District

1. Introduction
2. Osti Facilities
3. Erntefest Beginnings
4. Genocide at Trawniki
5. Genocide at Majdanek
6. Genocide at Poniatowa
7. Naleczow Labor Camp
8. Milejow Jam Factory
9. German Participation in the Aktion
10. Erntefest Survivors


One element of "Operation Reinhard" -- the codename given to the secretive German Nazi plan to mass-murder most Polish Jews in the General Government district of German-occupied Poland, during World War -- was a work requirement for Jews, sanctioned by the General Governor Hans Frank's regulation in October, 1939. All Jews aged between 16 and 60 would be forced into slave labor.

This regulation was the basis for establishing the labor camps. There were 491 labor camps established in General Government, of which 154 were situated in Lublin district.
The forced labor camps in Lublin district were being established during the entirety of the occupation period. One of the first was set up at Lipowa 7, as early as in the autumn of 1939. Subsequently, camps at Poniatowa, Budzyn, Ossowa, Dorohucza, and many others were established.

Osti Facilities

From early 1943, the largest Jewish work camps in the Lublin district organized their war production under the name of Ostindustrie (Osti). This S.S. company was established on March 13, 1943 as a joint venture between the WVHA in Berlin and the SS and Police Leaders (SSPF) Lublin to exploit the Jewish manpower and obtain the Jewish victims' property.

In the Osti slave labor facilities, Jewish prisoners produced mainly army supplies for the German Wehrmacht. Material for the production was taken from the plundered Jewish property in the ghettos and death camps. The network of camps in the Lublin district became one of the largest centers of forced labor in occupied Europe.

On November 9, 1939, Himmler had appointed Odilo Globocnik as S.S. and Police Leader in the Lublin district of the General Government territory. In October of 1941, Globocnik was given complete control over the death camp program in the Lublin district, with the orders coming from Heinrich Himmler himself. Belzec was operational by March 1942, followed by Sobibor (May 1942) and Treblinka (July 1942). Due to large Jewish populations in Poland including Krakow, Lwow, Zamosc and Warsaw, Majdanek was refurbished as a killing center around March 1942. The gas chambers at Majdanek became operational in October, 1942.

The killing mechanism at the three main extermination centers -- Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka -- consisted of a large internal-combustion engine pumping exhaust fumes into gas chambers through long pipes. Starting in February 1943, the bodies of the dead were exhumed and cremated in pits.

By May 16, 1943, the SS Ostindustrie GmbH controlled several factories and workshops across Poland, grouped into five active Werke (factories). These included a glass works production plant in Wolomin (Werk I), a turf factory in
Dorohucza (Werk II), a broom and brush factory in Lublin (Werk III), and workshops in Blizyn, Radom, and Tomaszow Mazowiecki (Werk IV).

Also included was a turf factory in Radom and an iron foundry in Lublin (Werk V) as well as a Splitwerk combination of a shoe factory, tailor factory, and carpentry and joinery at Budzyn. Several additional Werke were under construction at that time, including vehicle spare parts factories, the Trawniki Arbeitslager (Werk VI), earth and stone works in Lublin (Werk VII), a medical sanitary ware factory (Werk VIII), various slave-labor workshops in Lwow, and the Poniatowa Arbeitslager (which became a slave labor-producing textile plant after it was transferred to German war profiteer Walter Toebbens). By mid-1943, Globocnik had around 45,000 Jewish slave laborers in the network of camps.

Erntefest Beginnings

The connection between Osti and the German intention to ultimately murder the Jews is reflected in who was chosen to head Osti: Odilo Globocnik -- who was also in charge of carrying out Aktion Reinhard, the Nazi program for exterminating all the Jews in the Generalgouvernement. In addition, the labor camps served as gathering points for transports being sent to the extermination camps.

The code name given for the extermination of the remaining Jews in the Lublin district was "Harvest Festival," or "Aktion Erntefest" in German. It took place between November 3-4, 1943 and reduced the Jews in the Lublin district from over 50,000 to under 10,000 in that one forty-eight hour period.

On November 2, 1943, around 3,000 S.S. and police troops from Krakow and Warsaw arrived in Lublin. S.S. men from Auschwitz (~150 in total), Konigsberg, and Poznan also arrived in Lublin for the operation. Nazi Police Leader for Lublin, Jakob Sporrenberg, met with the leaders of his SSPF staff, Waffen S.S. units from Krakow and Warsaw, Police Regiment 22 from Krakow, Police Regiment 25 from Lublin, the Lublin Security Police,
Reserve Police Battalion 101, and the commanders of Majdanek, Poniatowa, and Trawniki. Those Nazis marked with a ~ at this link were the main perpetrators of the Erntefest who were previously stationed in Lublin district.

The plan was developed between August and October of 1943. The S.S. men involved in planning the elimination of the Jews in the Lublin district were: Odilo Globocnik, Heinrich Himmler, Karl Putz, Friedrich Wilhelm Krueger, Jakob Sporrenberg, and Christian Wirth. No definitive reasons were given about why the murders were to take place on "Bloody Wednesday", but speculation by historians is that Heinrich Himmler believed the Jews in the Lublin district to be a threat to escape and join anti-Nazi partisan movements. Due to the uprisings in Warsaw, Sobibor, and Treblinka throughout 1943, the Nazi regime had faced much resistance from its Jewish subjects, including several resistance movements that had been quite successful.

The Genocide at Trawniki and Dorohucza

Trawniki, a small village near Lublin, became a transit station for Jews who were sent to the Belzec Death Camp from various ghettos and camps in the Lublin district. During February 1943 the German firm Schultz -- a fur and brush producer -- was relocated from the Warsaw ghetto to Trawniki, along with its Jewish workers. Among the prisoners were members of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto.

On November 3, 1943, the Trawniki Labor Camp was surrounded by Waffen S.S. and police units. Early in the morning, the Jews were driven from their barracks and taken in batches to the training camp of the S.S. auxiliaries in Trawniki. There, they were forced to undress, put their clothes in a huge pile, and enter the trenches. All of the Trawniki Jews, as well as hundreds of Jews from the nearby
Dorohucza Labor Camp -- who had arrived around 7:30 a.m. at Trawniki from Dorohucza -- were shot.

To overcome the cries of the victims and the noise of the shooting, loudspeakers were installed in the camp and music was heard throughout the entire area. By late afternoon, the murder aktion was complete. Around 10,000 prisoners from Dorohucza and Trawniki were murdered during the Erntefest.

The Genocide at Majdanek

The same day, Majdanek Concentration Camp was surrounded by S.S. and Police units. The roll call that day was very short and the S.S. men ordered the non-Jewish prisoners to return to their barracks. The Jewish prisoners were transferred to Field No. 5, close to the crematorium and execution ditches. Prisoners from other locations in the Lublin area were also transferred to Majdanek for the November 3, 1943 aktion. The locations where Jews were transferred from included: Lublin Airfield Camp, Lipowa 7 Camp (Jewish POWs) in Lublin, and Lublin Sportplatz.

On Field 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. These unfortunate souls were taken in groups of 100 and murdered in the trenches by German machine guns. Group after group of naked prisoners had to run to the trenches and lay down on the bodies of those already murdered before them.

A photo believed to be from "Bloody Wednesday" at Majdanek.

Whilst columns of thousands marched to their deaths, marches and waltzes by Johann Strauss were blasted loudly by two loud-speaker cars. The music was used to drown the noise of the shots and screams of the murder victims. Non-Jewish witnesses in Lublin remember that day, and heard the shots and the screams over the blasting music.

Jewish women that were locked in a barrack on Field No. 5 were screaming. At the same time, ex-Jewish soldiers that had been imprisoned at Lipowa 7 fought with the S.S. men escorting them to their deaths. Three of the S.S. men were killed, but none of the Lipowa 7 prisoners were able to escape.

A group of around 400 Jewish prisoners, including women, were selected and transferred to Field No. 4. The women had to comb through the belongings of the Erntefest victims. The men were divided into several Sonderkommando groups which were used to cremate the bodies of the murdered Jews.

The executions lasted from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Each hour, reports about the numbers of murdered Jews were given to Jakob Sporrenberg and Hermann Hofle. In total, 18,400 Jews at Majdanek Concentration Camp had been massacred.

The Genocide at Poniatowa

At the roll call in Poniatowa Labor Camp on November 4, 1943, the Jewish prisoners were surrounded by Ukrainian and German guards. The prisoners were kept in several barracks until groups of them were taken out to the trenches that were dug around Poniatowa. Prisoners were executed from between 6:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. when all Jews in Poniatowa had been murdered. Loud music blasted, like at Majdanek, while the prisoners were being shown to their burial sites.

One hundred and twenty prisoners from Majdanek -- who had been brought to Poniatowa to burn the bodies of the Poniatowa murder victims -- were kept alive. One hundred of the 120 were shot dead, and their bodies were burned by the 20 prisoners that remained. Sixteen of the prisoners that remained were shot, and the four remaining prisoners burned their bodies. The remaining four prisoners were shot and burned by the S.S.

Around 15,000 prisoners from Poniatowa were murdered during the Erntefest.

The Naleczow Labor Camp

In Naleczow, west of Lublin, a small forced labor camp existed employing around 400 Jewish prisoners from Slovakia and Austria. It was an agricultural camp. On November 3 or 4, 1943, around 100 Jewish prisoners -- those remaining in the camp -- were executed near the Naleczow railway station.

The Milejow Jam Factory

Around 150 Jewish men had been working slave labor at a jam factory located between Leczna and Trawniki in the Lublin district. Many were sent there in spring of 1940 from Leczna. On October 28, 1943, 51 Jewish women were sent from Majdanek to the jam factory. On November 12, after the Jews from the Lublin camps had been murdered in the Erntefest, this group of 200 prisoners was taken to Trawniki and given the task of covering up the Nazi crimes. The dead Jewish bodies at Trawniki were cleared and then burned. The clothing of the murder victims was searched through and thrown onto a truck.

The Jewish men from this group were all murdered at Trawniki on November 26, 1943. Under the threat of force, the group of 51 women at the camp were allowed to stay alive until March 1944 cleaning up the camp and covering up the crimes. In June 1944, the women were transported to Lublin, and then were sent to Auschwitz, where some of them were liberated.

German Participation in the Aktion

The German units responsible for the murders of the Jewish population in the Aktion are listed
here. In addition to the Lublin district personnel listed at the link, others involved in the decision-making included: Hans Frank, Chief of the Sipo in Krakow Walter Bierkamp, Chief of the Order of Police in Krakow Hans Dietrich Grunwald, and Chief Armaments Superintendent Maximilian Schindler.

Erntefest Survivors

In total, more than 44,000 prisoners from the Lublin district were murdered in a forty eight hour period. The names and identities of most of the victims will probably never been known.

There are four known testimonies written by Jewish survivors of the Erntefest from Majdanek. Three Jewish women-- Lea Ludka Chanesman,
Ludwika Fiszer and Estera (Winderbaum) Rubinsztajn -- survived the mass executions at the Poniatowa Labor Camp.

Three Jewish men -- Josef Reznik, Josef Sterdyner, and Perec Schechtman -- were dispatched with a group of 58 other POWs from Lipowa 7 to Borki near Chelm in November 1943. At Borki, they were responsible for burning the corpses of 30,000 Russian solders and Jews from Chelm district (eastern Poland) who had been shot and buried in eight mass graves. The trio escaped from the main group, joined the partisans, and moved to Israel or Australia.

An additional survivor, Chaim Zacharewicz from Bialystok, was transferred to the Gestapo prison in Lublin, miraculously escaped execution, and was liberated in the summer of 1944. After the war he was in Lodz, but his subsequent whereabouts are unknown.

Victims of the Erntefest.

Victims of the Erntefest.

Pits with victims of the Erntefest.

Survivors of the Shoah reunited in 1990 in Israel. These women were at the Milejow camp and survived.
In the photo (from left to right): Linda Penn, Riva Kremer, Vivian Chakin, Cantor Morris Lang, Pearl Lang,
unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown, and unknown.


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