Operation Reinhard became the code name for the German plan to murder the approximately two million Jews residing in German-occupied Poland. Though initiated in the autumn of 1941, the operation was later named after SS General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), who died in June 1942 from injuries sustained during an assassination attempt by Czech partisans. The RSHA was the agency responsible for coordinating the deportation of European Jews to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. In January 1939, December 1940, and July 1941, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering had tasked Heydrich personally to draft plans for a solution of the “Jewish question” – the solution was to systematically murder all the Jews in Europe.
SS General Odilo Globocnik, SS and police leader in the Lublin District of German-occupied Poland directed Operation Reinhard between autumn 1941 and late summer 1943. He established two departments on his staff for this purpose. The first was a deportation coordination team under SS Major Hermann Hoefle, who was responsible for arranging personnel and transport for the planned deportations. The second department was the Inspectorate of SS Special Detachments under Criminal Police captain Christian Wirth, who was responsible for the construction and management of the three Operation Reinhard killing centers (Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II). The Operation Reinhard killing centers were managed by small detachments of German SS and Police and guarded by detachments of police auxiliaries usually made up of Ukrainians.
As Globocnik listed them in January 1944, the aims of Operation Reinhard were: (1) to “resettle” (i.e., to kill) the Polish Jews, (2) to exploit the skilled or manual labor of some Polish Jews before killing them, (3) to secure the personal property of the Jews (clothing, currency, jewelry, and other possessions), and (4) to identify and secure alleged hidden and immovable assets such as factories, apartments, and land.
Construction of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II began in autumn 1941. Wirth, who had played a significant role in the murder of institutionalized persons with disabilities in Germany between 1939 and 1941, applied his experience of killing with carbon monoxide exhaust fumes to the construction of the Operation Reinhard killing centers. In all three camps, guards, supervised by Operation Reinhard staff, murdered their victims by using carbon monoxide gas generated by stationary engines and pumped into gas chambers. After a few test gassings using Polish prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war, killing operations at Belzec began in March 1942 and continued until December 1942. Sobibor began operating in May 1942 and remained functional until October 1943. Treblinka II opened in July 1942 and was closed in August 1943.
German staff and their auxiliaries murdered at least 434,508 Jews in Belzec; at least 250,000 Jews in Sobibor; and approximately 925,000 Jews in Treblinka II. In addition, an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war were killed at these camps.
The overwhelming majority of victims in the Operation Reinhard killing centers were Jews deported from ghettos in Poland. Once the killing centers were operational, German SS and police forces liquidated the ghettos and deported Jews by rail to those killing centers. The victims of Belzec were mainly Jews from the ghettos of southern Poland; Jews deported to Sobibor came mainly from the Lublin area and other ghettos of the eastern German-occupied Poland; Deportations to Treblinka originated mainly from central Poland, primarily from the Warsaw ghetto.
In November 1943, after the Sobibor uprising, SS and police units shot the Jewish labor forces still incarcerated at the concentration camps of Trawniki, Poniatowa, and Majdanek, 42,000 in all, within the framework of Operation “Harvest Festival.” With the completion of “Harvest Festival,” Operation Reinhard came to a conclusion, with Globocnik submitting to Himmler a final report in January 1944.
In all, the SS and police killed approximately 1.7 million Jews as part of Operation Reinhard.
Taken in part from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s web site.