UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

“Operation Reinhard: Daily Torture, Mass Killings, and the SS”

Book Essay on: Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 437pages.
UCSB: D805.P7 A727 1987

by Z.Z. [edited 3/2/2015]
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon

About Z.Z.

I am a senior communication major and a sports management minor. I have been interested in the Holocaust since I heard a survivor speak about his experience when I was in third grade. I was deeply moved by his story and found the atrocities he experienced unimaginable. Since then, I have been very interested in how the camps were operated, specifically the daily life for prisoners and how they were able to survive such horrific circumstances. I chose to read Arad’s book because it provided detailed information about how the Operation Reinhard camps were operated and what the prisoners there experienced on a daily basis.

Abstract (back to top)

Yitzhak Arad descibes the Operation Reinhard death camps in great detail. He uses survivor testimonies, Nazi documents, trial testimonies, and testimonies from people who lived near the camps to write a thorough account of all the different aspects of the camps. For my topic I look at how Germans removed themselves from the process of mass extermination, how those mass exterminations took place, and tortuous life prisoners of the camps experienced.

Essay (back to top)

In Yitzhak Arad’s Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The operation Reinhard death camps Arad describes the three extermination camps from inception to destruction. Through Nazi documents, eyewitness accounts, and testimonies during war trials Arad is able to give a thorough and detailed account of how the camps were run, their attempts at secrecy and the unbelievable atrocities that occurred during the entire twenty-one month operation. Arad convincingly demonstrates that Operation Reinhard’s goal was to completely annihilate the General Government’s Jewish population. He attributes the operation’s success to the Germans creating a system that dissociated them from the murders and was more efficient. By delegating the majority of tasks to Ukrainian guards and Jewish prisoners, the Germans were able to remove themselves from the horrific process that was taking place. The Jewish prisoners who were in charge of the most gruesome tasks were tortured and dehumanized, thus ensuring their continuing cooperation. The gas chambers allowed for more efficient killings, which took the place of the mass shootings. These shootings proved to be psychologically disturbing for the guards, had errors with regards to gun malfunctioning and necessitated the use of needed resources such as ammunition. Victims would be gassed within hours of their arrival to the camps, which decreased the interaction and increased the killing capacity. Arad describes how the three camps were able to systematically murder 1.7 million people.

Arad begins the book by describing the problems with prior methods of killing the Jews. He states how mass shootings were not working and shock often left soldiers psychologically damaged, resulting in needed vacations and thus creating inefficiencies (Arad, 8). Also, the mass shootings required resources that were needed for the war front, such as guns and ammunitions. Also, guns tended to get stuck and made the murders slower. The implementation of Operation Reinhard called for a more massive and efficient system of killing that would quickly and secretly annihilate the Jewish population of the General Government. The Nazis were able to find the answer to their problem from the previous euthanasia program. Euthanasia personnel were brought to head the operation, specifically Christian Wirth, who was in charge of all three camps. Gas was decided as the most effective way to reach their goal and on site carbon monoxide machines were to be placed in the camps (Arad, 25). Throughout the book Arad recounts many testimonies from construction workers, prisoners and guards about the gas chambers. Although, some might say that many of his examples are hearsay or could be exaggerated by the survivors, this is refuted by the fact that all three different sources corroborate the same stories and description of the chambers.

During Operation Reinhard the Germans created a system that dissociated themselves from the mass killings. Ukrainian guards and prisoners were in charge of the most gruesome tasks. The Ukrainian guards were in charge of the deportations, which were brutal. Round ups were carried out in the early mornings and guards were instructed to shoot anyone who tried to escape or was too weak to make it to the assembly square (Arad, 54). The Ukrainian guards in charge of “cleansing the ghettos” were violent and shot at ghetto residents arbitrarily (Arad, 57). Once the residents had been congregated into a single area they were loaded into the trains. Unloading the passengers from the train and getting them to the gas chambers was again primarily the job of prisoners and Ukrainian guards. Oskar Berger testified, “Ukrainians were standing on the roofs of the barracks and firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Men, women, and children fell bleeding” (Arad, 84). The newly arrived prisoners who survived the initial disembarking were forced to go into a room and remove all their clothing and leave all their possessions with prisoner workers. Jewish prisoners would then sort through the possessions and get them ready to be sent back to Germany. Women were often checked in their bodily orifices for any hidden valuables, which again was a task assigned to prisoners (Arad, 90). Once they had been thoroughly checked the women’s hair was cut. Then they were led through the tube to the gas chambers. The tube was the path from the area were the victims were undressed to the gas chambers and Arab explains the brutality the victims were subjected to on their journey through the tube,

For example, there was a dog called Barry who was trained by the SS men to bite the Jews, especially when they were naked on the way to the gas chambers. The beatings, the bitings of Barry, and the shooting and shouting of the [Ukranian] guards caused the Jews to run through the ‘tube’ and push themselves into the ‘baths,’ hoping to find some escape. (Arad, 78)

Once the prisoners were in the gas chambers they were murdered, however there were often technical difficulties and during these times the victims were forced to stand there for hours as they slowly suffocated or until the problem was fixed, while Ukrainian guards guarded the chambers (Arad, 87). Between all three camps it is estimated that 1,700,000 Jews lost their lives this way with very little direct involvement by the Germans.

Although, the Germans removed themselves from the process of mass murder with the gas chambers, they played a more direct role in prisoners’ lives. The Germans tried to exert complete dominance over the prisoners and subject them to such torture and inhuman condition that they followed orders without objection. At first young strong men were kept to take care of the physical labor in the camps and later women were also kept. The guards constantly terrorized the prisoners who were selected and most of these ended up murdered as well. Initially, selected prisoners were only kept for days at a time before they were sent to the gas chambers and new transports replaced them. However, the Germans in command quickly realized that this was inefficient and it was best to keep prisoners as long as possible so they could develop skills at their work. Thus each prisoner belonged to a certain work group and developed specialized skills for his job. The worst work was that in the extermination area. These prisoners were isolated from the rest of the camp and were in charge of the getting rid of the murdered Jews; they had the highest rates of suicide (Arad, 223). Many of these prisoners had to learn to become part of the process despite removing the corpses of the acquaintances, friends, and relatives. In order to cope these prisoners had to become numb and not think about what they were doing; in part they became dehumanized (Arad, 224). Workdays for the men lasted for about twelve hours and were filled with brutal beatings and murders from the SS men (Arad, 200). The women in the camps were treated better than the men and there were few instances of women being beaten. However, they were at the mercy of the guards and many were sexually abused and then murdered (Arad, 116). SS Oberscharfuhrer Erich Bauer testified, “As it is known, these two girls lived in the forester house, and there visited frequently by the SS men. Orgies were conducted there... Ludwig told me that by his order a Ukrainian had shot the two girls” (Arad, 117). Arad is able to document these horrible conditions from not only survivors but also through SS men who worked in the camps.

The SS men implemented the Nazi ideology and viewed the Jews as cargo, which made it very easy for them to maltreat and torture them (Arad, 186). Dov Freiberg, a prisoner, testified about the usual tortures in an ordinary day,

An umbrella had gotten stuck in a roof beam and Groth ordered a boy to get it down. The boy climbed up, fell from the roof and was injured. Groth punished him with twenty-five lashes… The majority did not succeed; they fell down, broke their legs, were whipped, bitten by Barry, and shot. This game was not enough for Groth. There were many mice around and each of us was ordered to catch two mice. He selected five prisoners, ordered them to pull down their trousers, and we dropped the mice inside. The people were ordered to stand at attention, but they could not without moving. They were whipped. (Arad, 200)

On top of the usual indiscriminate murders, each night during roll call, workers who seemed unfit for work were taken to mass graves and were shot. Food was slim in the camps and prisoners were only given enough to slowly starve them, in the mornings they were given warm water and 150 grams of bread, for lunch soup with unpeeled potatoes, and for dinner they were only given coffee (Arad, 203). Sanitation in the camps was nonexistent. “There were no showers and the prisoners had no opportunity to wash or shower for months at a time” (Arad, 203). Yitzhak Lichtman a survivor from Sobibor testified, “The filth took its toll. Lice and bedbugs ate our bodies… Almost all of us broke out in a rash from the itching, but we had to hide the fact” (Arad, 220). Those who had visible rashes were shot. Almost all the prisoners except those who escaped were eventually murdered. These horrific conditions were testified over and over again by survivors. The conditions and torture of the prisoners is unimaginable and used as tactic by the SS to ensure the continuing cooperation of the prisoners. However, the hopelessness of the prisoners’ situation eventually led to resistance.

As Himmler became more insistent on secrecy, Jewish workers were forced to dig up the dead corpses and cremate them. In all the camps the number of corpses that needed to be cremated reached over 500,000. This work was both physically and mentally straining for the prisoners, who were shot after they had completed their work (Arad, 173). Once prisoners realized that death was inevitable in the camps higher-ranking Jews in Treblinka and Sobibor (no noted resistance group was documented from Belzec) began to form secret resistance groups (Arad, 360). These groups were highly organized and kept their plans secret from the rest of the prisoners. The main problem for the resistance group in both camps was to how to acquire weapons. In Treblinka, they tried to enlist the help of the Ukrainian guards, however were unsuccessful (Arad, 360). In Sobibor they tried to steal ammunitions from the Germans, yet were only able to smuggle a few (Arad, 361). The resistance group in Sobibor was able to kill all but one SS man, Frenzel (Arad, 333). About half the prisoners from both camps were able to escape into the neighboring woods due to the revolts. However, many were captured and shot. Despite the torture and efforts of the SS dehumanization led to resistance rather than ultimate submission. Altogether, about 120-130 prisoners were able to survive the war because of the brave efforts of the resistance (Arad, 364).

Yitzhak Arad’s detailed and haunting tale of Operation Reinhard serves as an important account of exactly what happened to the Jews in the General Government of Poland. He writes in an emotionless manner and takes the readers through the very beginning to the tragic end and leaves no questions left unanswered. Throughout his account he is able to convincingly demonstrate that Operation Reinhard’s goal was total and absolute annihilation of the Jewish population. He states that through increased efficiency through gas chambers, German removal from the process, and dehumanization of prisoners the camps were able to murder 1.7 million victims. His book serves as a voice for the all the victims of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka who cannot tell their own story.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Lawrence Baron, American Historical Review April 1988

    Baron provides an overview of what Operation Reinhard was. He praises Arad for his detailed account, specifically the use of different sources to explain what happened during the operation. He commends Arad for not only using survival testimony but also his ability to use Nazi documents, local residents' reports, and trial testomies.

  • Michael Berkowitz, Historian Fall 2000, Volume 63 Issue 1

    Berkowitz states that Arad’s book is outdated as more documents have surfaced about the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. However, he goes on to praise Arad for his ability to recount the operation objectively and to describe the guards without psychological analysis. Berkowitz ends his review by stating that Arad’s work is the best book to explain what happened to the Jews of the General Government of Poland.

  • James Street, Library Journal May 15, 1987, Volume 112 Issue 9

    Street gives a very brief review of Arad’s book. He praises Arad for his attention to detail and ability to recount all the different aspects of the operation in a thorough and detailed manner. He also commends Arad for effectively using testimonies and documents throughout his book.Street praises Arad for his academic contribution to the study of the Holocaust.

Books and Articles

  • Thomas Tovi Blatt, From the Ashes of Sobibor: A Story of Survival (1997) Evanston: Northwestern University Press. UCSB call number: DS135.P63 B547 1997 ISBN-10: 0810113023

    This book illustrates Sobibor through the eyes of a survivor. Thomas Blatt arrived at Sobibor in April 1943 and shows how the camp was for those who initially escaped the gas chambers. The cruelty of the guards is vividly depicted from someone who witnessed and experienced it. Through his book one is able to see the sheer terror in which the prisoners lived. The book is able to demonstrate how the Operation Reinhard death camps life was for prisoners rather than in a labor camp.

  • Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (1995) Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press. UCSB call number: DD256.5 .F739 1995

    This book explains the origin of murder by gas. It meticulously explains the euthanasia program and the people involved in it: scientists, doctors, and Nazi party leaders. It explains Nazi ideology, the protests to these killings, and how the program eventually led to the mass murders of the Holocaust. It accompanies Arad's book by describing the first step to starting the Reinhard Operation. Many of the head SS for the Reinhard camps started in the euthanasia program.

  • Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (1997) Princeton: Princeton University Press. UCSB call number: DD256.5 .S5813 1997

    In this book life in a concentration camp is thoroughly described through a sociological aspect. The book explains different types of camps and their functioning. Sofsky enlightens the reader on the power structure of the camps and looks at the psychological reasons for the brutality of the lower levels of power. This book while describing camps processes throws a twist by meticulously explaining the sociology of the camps. By using sociology to look at the camps the book goes beyond Arad's findings and gives a different understanding for the topic.

  • Rochelle G. Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (2006) Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. UCSB call number: D805.G3 M6143 2000

    This book describes life in a concentration camp as it pertained to women. It gives insight to the special issues and fears that women faced, such as sexual abuse and increased sanitary problems. It also depicts how some women formed bonds in order to survive. The book chronicles prisoner life from the inception of the camp until the end of the war. Arad briefly describes what life was like for women prisoners in the Reinhard camps and this book further eleborates on what women experienced.

Relevant Websites

  • Gord McFee, “The Operation Reinhard Extermination Camps” Last accessed March 6, 2010

    This website gives a brief overview of Operation Reinhard, while focusing on the efficiency rate, which the website states was 99.99% for the amount of victims they brought to the camps and then murdered. The website emphasizes how the camps were built for the sole purpose of killing and did not function as a labor camp like some other Nazi camps. It also describes about the plunder that was an economic by product of the murders. It continues to speak about the disposal and concealment of the dead but fails to describe the prisoners who had to perform these tasks.

  • Yad Vashem, “Operation Reinhard: The extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka” Last accessed March 6, 2010

    This website gives a summary of Operation Reinhard. It begins with the Wannsee Conference and chronicles each stage of the operation. The website focuses on the system of mass murder and does not explain camp life for prisoners. It overviews the construction, deportations, the process the victims went through as they were led to the gas chambers, deconstruction, and liquidation of the camps.

  • Y. Pfeffer, “Y. Pfeffer: Concentration Camp Life and Death” (1946) Last accessed March 6, 2010

    This website quotes a V. Pfeffer, a survivor of Majdanek, description of a typical day in the camp. Pfeffer begins when the prisoners had to wake up at 3am and thoroughly goes through the entire day until the 6pm headcount. Pfeffer illustrates the torture the prisoners experienced everyday. They guards cruelty and arbitrary beatings is vividly depicted. Pfeffer depicts how the guards would “punish” the prisoners for their transgressions and the different “games” they used to perform the punishments. This website allows the reader to gain an understanding of how truly awful and terrifying everyday was for prisoners in the camps.

  • , “I survived the 20th century Holocaust: Holocaust survivors and remembrance project” Last accessed March 6, 2010

    This website recounts the entire holocaust through pictures. Although description and texts are brief, the viewer can visualize every step of the holocaust. This web site is able to use pictures to show what words cannot describe. As the viewer continues to scroll down, the pictures become more and more appalling. The pictures have a strong impact, as they are both horrific and haunting.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Jacqueline Redruello on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10; 3/2/2015
back to top, to Hist 133D homepage, 133B+D Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage