The Final Solution

How the Nazis planned and executed the systematic murder of European Jewry.

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Majdanek, set up in September 1941 as a camp for Soviet prisoners‑of‑war and as a concentration camp for Polish Jews and non‑Jews, became the base for the SS advancing in the East and a reservoir of slave labor for factories in the Lublin region. Extermination installations were built there in the autumn of 1942, but it was only in the winter of the following year that the Zyklon B gas chambers and the crematorium were used­ for the first time. Of the 200,000 persons killed in Majdanek, about 50,000‑60,000 were Jews.

Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka formed part of what the Nazis called "Operation Reinhard," whose sole purpose was the systematic massacre of Jews. A labor camp existing in Belzec since 1940 was turned into an extermination camp in the autumn of 1941, becoming operative in March 1942. In the same month, the camp at Sobibor was set up to alleviate the overburdened camp of Belzec. The third, Treblinka, received the Jews from Warsaw and the Radom district.

These three extermination factories--with Belzec responsible for about 600,000 victims, Sobibor 200,000, Treblinka 900,000--shared certain features. Like Auschwitz at a later stage, they were equipped with railroad terminals that the trains entered in reverse. The victims were ordered to undress and then led through a corridor to the gas chambers; the gas was composed of carbon monoxide produced by diesel motors. At first, the corpses were buried in mass graves, later they were burnt in crematoria. The similarity to the "euthanasia" program was evident here too. In August 1941, the camps inspector was SS Sturmbannfiihrer Christian Wirth who, like dozens of other specialists of "Operation T4," was placed under Odilo Globocnik, the commander of the SS for the region of Lublin.

However, the capital of this bureaucratized and industrialized world of mass murders was Auschwitz. An operative concentration camp since May 1940, in the autumn of 1941 it was equipped with gas chambers. According to the latest estimates, the number of Jews killed in this camp approximated 1.5 million. In Auschwitz II (Birkenau), symbol and synonym of the Holocaust, the Nazi program of mass extermination reached its highest level of "perfection."

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University