The Nazi Prosecution of the Holocaust – “The Final Solution”
Most people would say that this wasn’t a battle, but a massacre. I would argue that while most phases of this horror were one-sided, the Jewish victims in Warsaw and several other locations put up a determined fight, the psychological effect of which still influences our world today. This visit is going to multiple spots, so your biggest decision will be to go by car or by train once you get to Europe. I have always chosen train, but that may be less convenient for traveling in a group. Lots of Americans visiting Europe head for Dachau, outside Munich, and while I would not ever discourage a visit to the Bavarian capital, Dachau is too sanitized and too “touristy.”
You need to go to the heart of darkness on this one and much of that is far to the east – some still in the wild areas of eastern Poland. Here are the spots I would try and visit.
Berlin – here you’ll see the Wannsee Conference site in the German suburb of Wannsee, where the German SS and governmental bureaucrats began the wheels of destruction; there is a nice museum there. You should also travel downtown and see the former sites of the Gestapo headquarters and the Reichstag. You could also add in a short train ride to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Two or three days in Berlin will get your feet on the ground.
Warsaw – you want to see the remains of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto, in which the Jews revolted against the Nazis in April 1943. You can also drive out or take a train to Treblinka to the east. This was the biggest and worst extermination camp in the war. One day looking over old Warsaw and one day (including travel) to Treblinka is adequate. Remember, there were two uprisings in Warsaw: the Jewish Uprising in April-May 1943 and the general Polish Uprising in August-October 1944. There are remnants to see for each.
Lublin – Lublin was an SS city. Beginning in 1940, Lublin and its surrounding area became a center of SS economic enterprises. Later, the city became a base for future SS colonization plans of Eastern Europe. A branch of the German Armament Works (Deutsche Ausrustungswerke), supported by five thousand slave laborers, set up shop in Lublin in December 1940. In the summer of 1941, the SS clothing workshops (SS-Bekleidungswerke) moved into the old landing strip on Chelmska Street in Lublin; the facility would soon have a sinister mission of sorting the clothes of those murdered in nearby extermination camps. On July 20, 1941, Heinrich Himmler visited the city and ordered that a large concentration camp be built on the south edge of the city – it would later be named the Majdanek concentration camp.
The German police used the Lublin Castle as the central prison for the city. During the Nazi occupation, of the prisoners processed at the castle after their arrival from the “House under the Clock,” about 4,500 prisoners were executed, while 4,700 simply disappeared. The German Police Headquarters (Polizeidirektion) was located on Sadowa Street.
Several other SS offices began operations in Lublin. The headquarters for the 25th SS Police Regiment was on Parkstrasse (Stanislawa Leszczyriskiego.) The Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS and Police supervised all construction projects associated with these two organizations. The SS Central Hospital, with the SS Dental Office, provided medical service to SS personnel in Lublin. The SS Economic Operations Offices also established itself in Lublin. The Research Center for Eastern Settlement was engaged in planning for the forced deportations of Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Belarusians from Eastern Europe to Western Siberia to make room for Germans moving eastward. Most important, the SS and Police Leader Lublin headquarters was located in the center of the city on Wieniawska Street. In addition, the Gestapo headquarters in Lublin (Known as the “House under the Clock” on Uniwersytecka Street 1), under Hermann Werthoff, reported to the SS chief; in the basement were torture and holding cells. Hans Maubach, Globocnik’s adjutant, lived in a set of quarters (Ostlandstrasse), opposite Globocnik’s villa mansion.
In 1941, special personnel reported to Lublin from Berlin. They included ninety-two SS officers and men who had been assigned to the T4 Euthanasia Program, operating out of the Chancellery of the Führer. To these men, Odilo Globocnik attached 153 SS and police officers from the Higher SS and Police Leader Lublin staff and 205 SS and police members from local SS/Police staffs and units. This group of men would form Operation Reinhard, which began operations in March 1942. The first group from Berlin arrived in Lublin between October and December 1941. At this same time, the SS established a training camp at Trawniki, some fifteen miles southeast of Lublin; this facility would train Ukrainian guards assigned to the operation, and be under the command of SS-Sturmbannführer Karl Streibel. Operation Reinhard headquarters set up shop at the Julius Schreck Barracks, located in the former Stefan Batory College at Pieradzkiego 11, in Lublin. A three-story building, the second floor also had a large room that served as the living quarters for the operation’s chief-of-staff, Hermann Höfle.
Directly responsible to Oswald Pohl, in Berlin, Georg Wippern oversaw the processing and forwarding of valuables and goods – previously owned by the victims killed in Operation Reinhard – to the German capital. To store the most valuable material, prior to its shipment to Berlin, Wippern had specially built strongroom – even the location of this vault was considered secret. He also was in charge of smelting gold and silver from objects originating at the three extermination camps – this included gold teeth – and sending the ingots to Berlin.
Remember, in Lublin you are way out east and in the heart of the old SS Empire in Poland. Contact me before you go, as some of the sites there are hard to find. You can see the former headquarters of “Operation Reinhard,” the SS plan to exterminate the Jews of Poland and also see where some of the real bad men lived such as Odilo Globocnik. In Lublin is the Majdanek concentration camp that actually still smells of those times in some of the wooden barracks. Lublin is not as well organized as the other places; you should read several articles or books on “Operation Reinhard” before you go. Two days will get you around Lublin.
Auschwitz – Auschwitz is not a Polish town name; you will be visiting Oswiecim, Poland (about ninety minutes from Cracow.) Make sure you visit both the main camp (red brick buildings) about 1.5 miles south of the train station. Take in all the movies and the tour of the camp; it is sometimes referred to as Auschwitz I. Then travel over the mile or so to Brzezinka, where the other Auschwitz camp is. This was known as Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is where most of the people were killed and where the destroyed remnants are of the gas chambers and a few barracks. It has its own museum. It’s a tough, emotional slog (I’ve been there six times) but you can do all of Auschwitz in a complete day, two days if you really want to take your time. Then it’s back to Berlin.
Pick up a copy of Concentration Camps: A Traveler’s Guide to World War II Sites by Marc Terrance (Universal Publishers, 1999.) If you don’t want to go to Poland, check Marc’s book and perhaps go to Buchenwald (Weimar) or Flossenbürg, not far from Nürnberg.
Don’t worry about knowing all the names of the commandants or how many people were killed and where. These places will cause you to think about human behavior. What motivates some people to do terrible things? It also gives you an insight into how some victims were able to survive. At the National War College, I used the Nazi “Final Solution” in an elective on genocide to teach the students what to look for in a regime, how to identify it, as it moved down the path toward killing massive numbers of people.
If you only have time for one place, go to Auschwitz.