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    Operation Reinhard Transit Camps: Survivors of the Camps

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    If some Jews survived their deportation to Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, does this mean they were transit camps, not death camps?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    A handful of Western European Jews survived their deportation to Sobibor. If the Operation Reinhard camps were “death camps,” there should have been no survivors at all. The Sobibor camp—and by extension Belzec and Treblinka (also Operation Reinhard camps)—must not have been a death camp, but a transit camp.

    More specifically, Carlo Mattogno, an Italian Holocaust denier, documented 101 male Jews who were deported from the Theresienstadt ghetto to Osawa-Sobibor on May 9, 1942. These Jews did not die at Sobibor, but rather died at the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. Mattogno asserts that this means Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec were not death camps, but transit camps. From these transit camps, Jews were pushed further east [1]

    The facts are:

    Evidence shows that most Western European Jews who were deported to the East were murdered immediately on their arrival at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka. The Nazis selected some, however, as forced labor in the death camps themselves, or in nearby labor camps. Thus, only a tiny fraction of the 250,000 Western European Jews survived deportation to Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. This does not change the fact that they were extermination camps.

    The fate of Western European Jews deported to the East:

    About 250,000 Jews from Germany, France, Slovakia, Austria, former Czech lands, and the Netherlands were deported to Poland and the occupied Soviet territories during the course of WWII. The Nazis intended their journey to be a one-way trip ending in death. However, it was not always a straight line from a city or transit camp in Western Europe to a mass grave in one of the death camps. In general, one of two things happened to Western European Jews:

    1. Most Jews transported from Western Europe were immediately murdered upon their arrival at the Operation Reinhard death camps. As labor needs arose within the extermination camps themselves, some Jewish males from the transports were selected for work in the Sonderkommandos. These work details were essentially forced labor details that the Nazis used to maintain camp operations.
    2. The Nazis selected and rerouted some Western European Jews to ghettos or labor camps in Poland or the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories. Here, they often died of starvation, abuse, or execution.

    How many Western European Jews were rerouted to other locations? How many died at the Operation Reinhard camps? Let us take a look at these two results of “resettlement” in the East.

    The majority of Western European Jews: Murdered upon arrival

    The Nazis and their collaborators murdered upon arrival the majority of Western European Jews sent to the Operation Reinhard death camps. How do we know? Only a few transports from Western Europe to Eastern Europe actually had any survivors. A example will illustrate how only a tiny minority of Western European Jews survived deportation to Operation Reinhard camps. Between March 2, 1943 and July 20, 1943, the Nazis sent 34,313 Jews from the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands directly to Sobibor on 19 transports [2]. Of the 34,313 Jews on these transports, only 18 Jewish men survived the war. Holocaust deniers have to then consider the follow-up question: where did the other 34,295 Jews from Westerbork go? If all of them had been transported to the East for work detail, as Holocaust deniers claim, it is far more likely that a larger number than 18 would have returned after the war. The sheer minority who survived these transports shows that the Nazis and their collaborators murdered the vast, vast majority, usually directly upon arrival at Sobibor.

    Western European Jews sent to ghettos or labor camps in the East:

    Holocaust denier Carlo Mattogno argues that that since 101 German and Czech Jewish men survived a transport to Sobibor on May 9, 1942, this must mean that it was not a death camp but a transit camp. Contrary to Mattogno’s erroneous claims, the Germans actually had established a labor camp at Osawa, which is on the rail line to Sobibor. When the transport in question stopped at Osawa, the Nazis selected some of the Jewish men to work in the Osawa camp. The Nazis sent the remainder of the transport—women, children, elderly, infirm, and the unselected men—to Sobibor, where they were all murdered on arrival. Later, the Nazis transferred some of the Jews in the Osawa labor camp to the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland [3]. By being rerouted away from the death camps, a small number of Jewish men were able to survive the horrors of the concentration camp and live to tell their story.

    How do we know that the Nazis selected some Western European Jews for manual labor? Several Jewish deportees from Western Europe testified that the Nazis selected them for forced labor, redirecting them from their original destination, the flames of Sobibor. Jules Schelvis, a Jewish man from Holland, was deported on June 1, 1943, along with 3,005 other Jews, including his wife Rachel and her family. On his arrival at Sobibor, the Nazis selected him, with 79 other Jewish men, for work in Dorohucza, a nearby labor camp for digging peat. [4] The remaining 2,875 Jews in Schelvis’s transport (including his wife and her family) disappeared.

    From another witness: Albert Adejes, a French Jew, was deported to Sobibor on March 4, 1943. He recalled that after a six-day journey: “We had to get off the train and step into the ice-cold night. When we had all gathered between two or three SS barracks, they asked us if we wanted to work. I was one of forty who stepped forward and volunteered. The others stayedd back. Forty of us went straight back into the wagons that had taken us from Drancy to Sobibor.”[5] Adejes was one of only four Jews from this transport (out of forty) to survive, eventually ending up at Auschwitz-Birkenau by the end of the war [6].

    Excavations at Belzec: The Case of Max Munk.

    To settle the issue once and for all, Professor Andrzej Kola, director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography at the Nicolaus Copernicus University (Torun, Poland), surveyed the Belzec camp from 1997-1999. He wanted to locate the mass graves, and in midst of his search investigators found the lid of a silver cigarette case with the inscription: “Max Munk, Wien 27.” With some further research, it was found that Max Munk was born in Vienna in 1892; he was deported to Theresienstadt via Prague on December 17, 1941, arriving on Transport N. From Theresienstadt; he was sent on transport ‘Ag’ to the transit ghetto in Piaski on April 1, 1942.  Ultimately, Munk was placed on another transport to Belzec from the Piaski ghetto. Munk’s ashes are buried somewhere in Belzec, but his cigarette case is evidence that Belzec was, for him and some 450,000 other Jews, the final destination [7].

    By Julian Nitzsche (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
    Excavation Site at Sobibór. By Julian Nitzsche (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


    The evidence shows that most of the Jews from Western Europe who were deported to the East were murdered immediately upon their arrival at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka. Sometimes the Nazis selected a small number for work in labor camps or for work in the Jewish Sonderkomandos of the death camps. Holocaust deniers argue that because a handful of Western European Jews survived the transports to Sobibor, these camps as a whole must have been transit camps. The argument of deniers does not hold. There are clear reasons why a tiny minority of Jewish deportees from Western Europe survived the death camps. Again, most of the Jews who were deported to Sobibor—or to Belzec and Treblinka—were murdered on arrival.


    [1] Carlo Mattogno, Belzec in Propaganda, Testimonies, Archeological Research, and History (Theses & Dissertations Press, 2004), (“Table 1”), p. 112 at http://vho.org/dl/ENG/b.pdf.

    [2] Jules Schelvis, Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp (Berg, 2007), pp. 198, 199.

    [3] Martin Gilbert, Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past (Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 248.

    [4] Schelvis, Sobibor, p. 4.

    [5] Ibid., p. 217.

    [6] Ibid., p. 217.

    [7] Robin O’Neill and Michael Tregenza, “Archeological Investigations: A Review by Historians,” Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, 2007, www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/modern/archreview.html. See also Andrzej Kola, Belzec: The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archaeological Sources, Excavations 1997-1999 (Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2000), “Summary, Figure 95,” p. 76.