The Holocaust moves to the next stage
19th January 1942: The Nazis prepare for the murder of the millions living in the Polish ghettos
From the beginning of Barbarossa in June 1941 the SS had unleashed the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ - the mass murder of the Jewish populations of the Baltic States and Soviet Russia. They had begun by forcing groups of dozens or hundreds of people to dig their own graves and then shooting them. This had progressed to the mass shooting of tens of thousands of people - such as in the ravine at Babi Yar or in previously dug tank ditches, as at Kerch.
Soon after the invasion of Poland back in 1939 the Jewish population, around 3 million people, had been forcibly gathered in ghettoes in the cities and towns across the country. They had suffered terribly from starvation and cold, with tens of thousands of deaths. They lived in a limbo like existence, suffering with little hope of a better future, not knowing what the Nazis planned for them.
‘No one can say what will happen tomorrow. What will happen to all of us. What all this is for? Why the ghetto? Will there be a tomorrow? Is it worth thinking about?’
Now, in the middle of January 1942, deportations out from the ghetto began. The Germans never made clear why people were being deported - and they never denied the rumours that sprang up about people being sent to work on farms or factories elsewhere in Poland.
Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping a notebook1 of sketches about life in the Lodz ghetto, this undated record was made just after the deportations began:
Face of the Ghetto.
Mucky paths, half-covered with snow, lead between individual houses set here and there, grim and meaningless. Low trees and bushes spread their sparse, trembling branches against the sky. Gangs of scruffy children, their yellow, wrinkled faces looking aged, walk tiredly through the streets. Sometimes one sees a fleeting smile on their faces, hears singing from their bloodless lips. Sometimes they throw a snowball like children elsewhere.
No one can say what will happen tomorrow. What will happen to all of us. What all this is for? Why the ghetto? Will there be a tomorrow? Is it worth thinking about?
We are lepers, outcasts, common thieves, people without music, without earth, without beds, without a world.
There is no other city like this in the world. Come here, people from the outside, from over there where there are normal days and holidays, where there are dreams and desire and resistance. Come quickly. For when it is all over, we will be so thinned out and so miserable that we will no longer be able to enjoy the pleasure of seeing you again.
The snow is dirty, no one knows from what. Soot from the chimneys cannot fly over from there to us. A wagon rolls down the street. Instead of a horse, people are harnessed to it.
‘The only thing the ghetto knew and saw was the expulsion every day of 700 to 800 Jews from their huts and holes and rooms’
Preparation for the evacuation of 10,000 ghetto inhabitants is under way. Whose turn is it? People who have been sentenced, people on welfare, people unwilling to work and other “undesirables.” The sentenced are, for the most part, those who were imprisoned for a few weeks for having sold rations.
This began on December 26th. It was said: they were to go to Polish villages to work the land. But this was only rumor. The only thing the ghetto knew and saw was the expulsion every day of 700 to 800 Jews from their huts and holes and rooms. The police entered the apartments of those who were being deported. Not infrequently they found starved children, old people frozen to death. Fear had seized the ghetto.
It is not hard to imagine that some people thought that they might be better off wherever they were deported to. Even if they were made to do forced labour, somewhere they might find a way to eke out an existence that was somehow better than living in the ghetto. In this way the deportations proceeded in a relatively orderly manner.
In fact up to 800 people a day were being sent to a new Killing Centre - not by any means a ‘camp’ - at Chelmno. The Nazi's had arrived at the last stage of the 'Final Solution' - the mass murder of Jews by gassing. For the moment no-one in the ghetto would guess that this was their ultimate fate.
‘The corridors led to ramps, and the ramps led to the backs of lorries. When batches of 35-40 people had filled the lorries, the air tight doors were slammed shut, the exhaust vents were connected to the sealed interiors of the vehicles and the engines were started.’
At Chelmno a fiction was maintained right up until the end. Jews arriving at the camp were told that they were on their way to labour camps in Austria, that they needed to have their clothes disinfected before the journey and to take showers. Their clothes and belongings were collected in numbered baskets, with the number apparently recorded against their name.
Then groups of completely naked victims were directed to the clearly marked 'Bathhouse'. Only now did the guards become aggressive, forcing them to run along the corridors without pause for thought. The corridors led to ramps, and the ramps led to the backs of lorries. When batches of 35-40 people had filled the lorries, the air tight doors were slammed shut, the exhaust vents were connected to the sealed interiors of the vehicles and the engines were started.
Once the group had died from asphyxiation or carbon monoxide poisoning it was a simple matter to drive them to prepared ditches in the nearby woods for mass burial.