17

THE SS AND THE POLISH JEWS

Once the civil administration and the security apparatus had been established, the “concentration” and elimination of the Jews could begin in earnest. As we have seen, before the war, the SS and the SD expropriated Jewish citizens and eventually coerced them to leave Germany and German-occupied territories. Furthermore, some Zionists actively cooperated with the Third Reich in this process to further their aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. The onset of war drastically reduced the number of potential destinations for Jewish “voluntary” emigration, so the programme was swiftly abandoned. However, the acquisition of new territory in the east offered an opportunity for involuntary deportation.

Eichmann, the SD’s Jewish affairs expert, had spent much of 1938 and 1939 in Vienna, managing the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, but he was summoned back to Berlin by his superior, SS-Senior Leader Heinrich Müller, in October 1939. Müller, who had recently become chief of the Gestapo and was now running the Central Office for Jewish Emigration for the entire Third Reich, had just received a personal order from Hitler: to remove all of the Jews from Katowice, which was about to be incorporated into the Reich as part of the reconstituted region of Silesia. Müller, in turn, had chosen Eichmann for the task. This was to be the first step in the deportation of all remaining 300,000 Jews of German nationality.1 Now Eichmann had to decide where to send them. The conquest of Poland provided an obvious answer: the unincorporated but occupied territory of the General Government.

Eichmann returned to Vienna and, over the next few days, set the wheels in motion for the deportations to begin. On 9 October, he briefed his staff on his plans. First, a labour force would be deported and forced to build crude, wooden, barracks-type accommodation. The Jewish community itself would be extorted to pay for the builders’ transportation, supplies and materials, and would then be deported en masse to join the advance party.

The following day, Eichmann summoned the leader of the Viennese Jews and ordered him to supply between a thousand and twelve hundred able-bodied Jewish labourers.2 Similar orders were given to Jewish leaders in Mährisch-Ostrau and Katowice. However, at this stage, Eichmann still did not know precisely where he was going to send the labour parties. So, on 12 October, he flew with Franz Stahlecker, his deputy in Prague, to Warsaw and then drove south-east towards Lublin. Eventually, they came upon the small village of Nisko on the banks of the River San, which had good rail and road communications. It would do.

On 17 October, a train loaded with 916 Jewish men, prefabricated huts, building equipment and food supplies set off from Mährisch-Ostrau, followed three days later by a train from Vienna with 875 men and one from Katowice with 1,029 labourers and their supplies.3 Eichmann was at Nisko to meet them. He gave them a pep talk to the effect that they were the brave pioneers of a new “home” for the European Jews, and told them that if they worked hard, they could make a go of it.

In theory, the deportation of the Jews was meant to run in parallel with another vital component in Hitler’s Third Reich. There were scattered German-speaking communities of ethnic Germans as far east as the River Volga. Now, Hitler planned to “bring them home to the Reich” and settle them on the “living space” that was being created by the expulsion of the Poles and Jews. They would simply be installed in the previous occupants’ homes and on their farms, and would go a long way to solving Germany’s acute labour shortage. From his large cast of racial zealots, Hitler selected Himmler as Reichskommissar für die Festigung Deutsche Volkstums (RKF—Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of “Germandom”), and he and Heydrich set to work on the logistics.

The scale of this scheme was enormous.4 The intention was to bring roughly 500,000 ethnic Germans into the Reich, which meant that existing Polish populations would have to be shunted around to accommodate the new arrivals. It was simply too ambitious at a time when the transport system was severely stretched by the demands of war. By late October, the decision had already been taken in Berlin to suspend both the deportations of the Jews and the German resettlement scheme for the time being.

Eichmann allowed the second wave of transports from Vienna, Mährisch-Ostrau and Katowice to go ahead as planned on 26 October, but after this they were halted. The Jewish labourers who were struggling to build their accommodation were more or less left to fend for themselves. The Nisko “settlement” struggled on for several months in the face of increasingly poor weather, malnutrition, disease and harassment from local SS and police units. Many of the workers were forced into the Soviet-occupied zone of Poland, while others voluntarily entered the labour camp at Sosnowiec. In April 1940, the settlement was officially abandoned and the remaining Jews were told to go home; only three hundred of the six thousand who had been deported eventually did so.

In a sense, Himmler brought the administrative problems on himself. The Volksdeutsche Mittelstelle (Central Office for Ethnic Germans), had been set up in 1936 by Rudolf Hess to coordinate the interaction of state and party offices with overseas German communities. But the original head of the office, Otto von Kursell, a party official, had lacked the influence to compete with the various other bodies that had an interest in the subject, so Hess had turned to the SS to make it work. The chief of SS-Regional Headquarters North-West, SS-Major General Werner Lorenz, was duly appointed in von Kursell’s place.5 When Himmler became Reich Commissar and gained total authority over the office, he planned to use it to implement what he regarded as his great project: the resettlement of Eastern Europe by Germans.* As he saw it, the Central Office for Ethnic Germans would organise the repatriation of the German communities; the Race and Settlement Head Office (RuSHA) would ensure their racial suitability; and the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) would weed out any undesirables and anti-state elements.

All of this was fine in theory, but Himmler needed to convince his rivals within the National Socialist hierarchy that they should go along with the idea. Of course, the project had the full backing of Hitler, and Goering was on board, too. (As head of the Four-Year Plan—the National Socialists’ strategic economic programme—Goering was fully aware of the Third Reich’s labour shortage and he saw the resettlement scheme as a potential solution.) But others were much more resistant. For example, both Erich Koch, Regional Leader of East Prussia, and Albert Forster, Regional Leader of West Prussia, refused point-blank to allow any ethnic Germans to resettle within their territories. This immediately scuppered Himmler’s plan to move the Baltic Germans to Prussia. Meanwhile, Alfred Rosenberg—who held the ministerial portfolio for the occupied territories in the East—added to the pressure on Himmler by criticising the treatment of the Baltic Germans. (He was one himself so he took a keen interest in their welfare.) Rosenberg claimed that they had been forced to live in unpleasant transit camps because of the failure of the Central Office for Ethnic Germans to find them somewhere to settle when they reached the “homeland.”

But it was General Governor Hans Frank who complained loudest and longest about the scheme. While Himmler and Heydrich saw the General Government as little more than a dumping ground for unwanted Jews, Frank firmly believed that it could be economically viable, and he intended to make it so. Depositing large numbers of Jews inside his borders and giving them nowhere to live and nothing to eat would put a huge strain on a system that was already fragile, at best.6

In November 1939, Heydrich ordered the deportation of 80,000 Jews and Poles from the newly annexed territories into the General Government; and Eichmann, as the officer charged with coordinating the process, was planning to move 600,000 more in the New Year. It was at this point that the plan truly hit the buffers, because Frank categorically refused to accept them. As a temporary solution, many of the Jews who had already been uprooted were moved to Lodz, now in the Warthegau (and renamed “Litzmannstadt” by the National Socialists), where a ghetto would be established while the problem was sorted out. By February 1940, the conflict between Himmler and Heydrich, on the one hand, and Frank, on the other, had become so heated that Goering was forced to intervene. He took Frank’s side, and the whole resettlement programme was effectively stymied. There was no transport available because the military had priority claims on it; there were disputes about who took control of property left behind by the deportees and who should pay for the expulsions; and now the man running the area designated as the destination for those deportees was not prepared to accept them. Furthermore, the civil governments in the newly annexed areas were becoming increasingly concerned by the condition of the Jews who were waiting to be expelled. Their homes, property and money had been plundered, they had been stripped of all political rights, and they were beginning to suffer from disease and malnutrition. On 30 April, supposedly as a health measure, the ghetto area of Lodz was sealed off to prevent the spread of typhus outside the Jewish population.7

However, these practical difficulties did not deter Himmler from planning a future for a re-engineered Europe. In May 1940, he wrote a secret memorandum entitled “Thoughts on the Treatment of Foreign Populations in the East.” In it, he argued that the “Polish” populations of the General Government and the incorporated territories needed to be subdivided into ethnic groups and assessed, so that “valuable” racial elements could be brought into Germany for assimilation into the Volk. The remainder would then provide a pool of labour for Germany, and their individual racial identities, such as Ukrainian, Lemke, Goral and so on, would slowly disappear. A different fate awaited the Jews: they were to be evacuated “to a colony in Africa or elsewhere,” which Himmler argued was the “mildest and best” solution “if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as being un-German and impossible.”8

Himmler presented this memorandum to Hitler on 25 May, by which point German tanks were on the Channel coast and the French and British armies were in disarray. Hitler liked what he saw and suggested that Himmler should show the memo to Frank. Himmler then asked permission to distribute the memorandum to the regional leaders in the East, and this was granted. Consequently, Himmler’s odd, racist musings had become official state policy.

GERMANY’S UNEXPECTEDLY RAPID, crushing victory in the western campaign gave new momentum to the National Socialists’ Jewish policy. In early June, Franz Rademacher—a lawyer and diplomat who had recently returned to Germany from the German Embassy in Chile to take over the Jewish Affairs Desk at the Foreign Ministry—submitted a paper. In it, he suggested deportation of the Jews of Western Europe to either the French-controlled island of Madagascar or South America. Meanwhile, the Jews of Eastern Europe could be held as hostages to prevent American Jews agitating for the USA to join the war against Germany. Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop seized on these proposals as a way to involve himself in Jewish policy and the paper was circulated for comment.

Himmler and Heydrich’s curt response was to point out that Goering had given them the authority to resolve the “Jewish question,” but they were still clearly interested in Rademacher’s ideas. Eichmann, whose Section II 112 of the SD had now become Section IV B4 within the RSHA,* was set to work to flesh out the proposals. In mid-August, Eichmann presented his detailed plan, which expanded Rademacher’s concept to include the eastern Jews as well. Using the methods that had already been employed in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, the Jews of Bohemia-Moravia, Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg and Slovakia would be registered, assembled, plundered and shipped out of Europe to Madagascar at the rate of three thousand per day. First to go would be workers with the skills to build the settlements, then the remainder. Each deportee would be allowed to take only twenty kilos of baggage; the rest of their possessions would be expropriated to fund the operation. On Madagascar, the German Navy would establish naval bases to suit its requirements. The rest of the island—with its estimated population of four million Jews, plus indigenous inhabitants—would be governed by the SS.

It seems that this Madagascar plan was seriously considered at the highest levels of the National Socialist establishment as a potential solution to the “Jewish question.” And Hitler was still discussing it as late as February 1941 in conversation with Dr. Robert Ley, the chief of the National Socialist Labour Front.9 However, it was only ever viable for a very brief period during the war. In June and July 1940, the assumption throughout Europe was that Great Britain would soon be forced to negotiate a peace settlement with Germany. After all, the German Army was massed on the Channel coast and the Luftwaffe seemed certain to win air superiority before too much longer. Once a peace agreement was signed, Britain’s naval blockade against Germany would be lifted, and the evacuation fleet could set sail for East Africa. However, as we now know, Winston Churchill did not sue for peace; and it was the RAF rather than the Luftwaffe that gained command of the skies in the Battle of Britain. Consequently, the naval blockade remained in place and the Madagascar plan evaporated as a practical proposition.

The plan is significant because it strongly suggests that a resettlement solution to the “Jewish question” was still being considered just a year before the extermination of the Jews began in earnest. Some historians have taken this to indicate that Hitler never really planned the extermination of the Jewish people; rather, that it came about because he was left with no other option. However, Daniel Goldhagen is dismissive of this argument, suggesting that the plan was “a phantom of a solution,”10 and would merely have been an interim step towards extermination. Madagascar would simply have been an island prison, housing Jews until they died or were killed. In effect, it would have been a replica of the Polish ghettoes off the coast of East Africa.

There can be no doubt that the welfare of the Jews was not a factor in Eichmann’s planning for Madagascar, but at this stage it seems clear that the aim was to get the Jews as far away from Germany as possible, rather than to eliminate them. What we cannot now be sure about is whether the plan represented a preferred non-lethal “final solution” or simply that those responsible for the Holocaust had yet to persuade themselves that extermination was a practical possibility.

The uncertainty created by the plan stalled the programme of mass deportations, which precipitated a return to the ghettoisation inaugurated by Heydrich’s instructions to the special task groups in September 1939. The authorities walled off the Warsaw ghetto in October 1940 and the Jewish district of Cracow in March 1941. Ghettoes were also created in Radom, Lublin, Csestochowa and Kielce the following month.11 All of these were established to isolate the Jewish population both physically and economically. Inside them, authority was held by Jewish councils set up by the Sipo (but subsequently placed under the control of the civil administration), in a bid to restrict the ghettoes’ contact with the outside world.* These councils organised the distribution of the meagre food supplies, allocated accommodation and provided whatever medical care and other public services could be arranged, as well as maintaining security through their own police forces. The external cordons around the ghettoes were secured by units of the Order Police and the Polish Police Force, often supplemented with a physical barrier: Warsaw’s ghetto, for example, was encircled by a large brick wall, with twenty-eight manned gates where permitted individuals could enter and exit; Lodz’s was surrounded by barbed wire. The Lublin ghetto could not be physically sealed off, but Jews still had to show permits to pass through its outer limits.12

At first, the German civil authorities viewed the ghettoes with anything from indifference to outright hostility, fuelled by the erroneous belief that they had adequate reserves of wealth and food to survive but were choosing not to use them. When it became clear that this assumption was wrong, two camps emerged with contrasting opinions of what to do with the ghettoes. Some believed that they had to become productive contributors to the Reich so that they did not become a drain on scarce resources. Others had a more drastic “solution”: the Jews should be left to starve to death. Eventually, after much discussion, the first group won the argument.13 This was not a humanitarian decision: it was taken simply because the civil administrations of late 1940 could not countenance letting hundreds of thousands of prisoners die through hunger and disease.

The result was that the ghettoes were steadily industrialised. Machinery that had been expropriated from Jewish businesses was returned to them, and before long the ghettoes were producing a wide range of goods, from footwear to furniture, under contract to German businesses. Of course, the desperate workers were paid rock-bottom wages. Oskar Schindler’s German Enamel Works was established near the Cracow ghetto in order to utilise its vast pool of skilled, cheap labour. Meanwhile, in Lodz, five thousand workers were manufacturing textiles and clothing in the ghetto in October 1940; by the spring of 1943, the number was eighty thousand.14

Nevertheless, the ghettoes still could not pay their way. The Jewish councils had no comeback when suppliers failed to fulfil orders or delivered insufficient or substandard goods; and many of the National Socialist authorities robbed and expropriated anything they wanted. Regional Leader Greiser of the Warthegau imposed a 65 per cent tax on Jewish workers’ wages, which was paid directly into the coffers of the NSDAP. By contrast, in Warsaw, confiscations were stopped to encourage free enterprise and this appeared to bear fruit. By the summer of 1942—the point at which the population of the ghetto started to be liquidated—they were producing significant quantities of revenue-earning “exports.”15

Irrespective of the contribution they were making to the German war economy, conditions within the ghettoes remained dire. Starvation was rife and with that came increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, exacerbated by the absence of medical supplies, decent sanitation and fuel for heating and cooking. The original plan had been for the Jews to purchase foodstuffs collectively through the councils, but their resources were quickly used up, so then there was much debate over whether to supply the ghettoes with food. It was finally decided that the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, for example, would receive “prison fare,”16 as long as this did not adversely affect the food supply outside. Such rations were never enough: the death rate in the Warsaw ghetto in the summer of 1941 reached over 5,500 per month, and conditions were similar in the others. Hilberg estimates that more than 600,000 people—most of them Jews*—died in the ghettoes from privation and disease.17

None of this was centrally planned. The ghettoes were established as brutal but temporary transit camps for the Jews. They became death traps only when the National Socialists proved incapable of working out where to send their inhabitants.

* This was a goal that harked all the way back to Himmler’s time as a member of the Artamanen Society.

* The rebranding was partly a result of a simple reorganisation of the RSHA, but it also reflected the fact that the section was now an operational unit, rather than an information clearinghouse. It was officially an office of the Gestapo, so Eichmann reported directly to Heinrich Müller.

* In reality, this was a somewhat futile hope. Hilberg, in The Destruction of the European Jews, notes that some 53,000 people held passes to enter or leave the Warsaw ghetto at one stage.

* Some gypsies were also confined in the ghettoes.

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