Jewish ghettos in German-occupied Poland
Jewish ghettos in German-occupied Poland including
Białystok, Częstochowa, Kraków, Lublin, Łódź, Warsaw and others
Approximately 2 million Jews
On camp sites and deportation points
This was the most lethal phase of the Holocaust.
Operation Reinhard or Operation Reinhardt (German: Aktion Reinhard or
Aktion Reinhardt also Einsatz Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhardt) was the
codename given to the secretive German Nazi plan to exterminate the
majority of Polish Jews in the
General Government district of
German-occupied Poland during World War II. The operation marked the
deadliest phase of the Holocaust by the introduction of extermination
As many as two million Jews were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór, and
Treblinka, to be put to death in gas chambers built for that
purpose. In addition, mass killing facilities using Zyklon B
were developed at about the same time within the Majdanek
concentration camp, and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau near the existing
Auschwitz I camp for Polish prisoners.
2 Operational name
3 Death camps
3.1 Extermination process
3.2 Camp commandants
4 Temporary substitution policy
5 Disposition of the property of the victims
6 Aftermath and cover up
7 See also
The first concentration camps in
Nazi Germany were established in 1933
as soon as the National Socialist regime developed. They were used for
coercion, forced labour, and imprisonment, not for mass murder. The
camp system expanded dramatically with the Nazi-Soviet invasion of
Poland at the onset of the World War II in September 1939. The new
Nazi concentration camps
Nazi concentration camps built by SS in Germany, Austria,
Poland, and elsewhere in Europe began exploiting foreign captives in
war industry. The prisoners locked into forced labour began dying by
the tens of thousands from starvation and untreated disease, or
summary executions meant to inflict terror. The Soldau concentration
camp opened in September 1939. Also in September, the Stutthof
concentration camp was built, with 40 sub-camps set up contingently
for maximum profit. Some of the most notorious slave labour camps
included Mauthausen, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Gross-Rosen (with 100
subcamps), Ravensbrück (70 subcamps), and Auschwitz (with 44
subcamps eventually), among other places.
After the German-Soviet war began, the Nazis had decided to undertake
Final Solution to the Jewish Question. In January
1942, during a secret meeting of German leaders chaired by Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was drafted; soon to become a major step
in the systematic murder of the Jews in occupied Europe, beginning in
General Government district of German-occupied Poland. Within
months, three top-secret camps (at Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka)
were built to efficiently kill tens of thousands of Jews every day.
These camps differed from Auschwitz and Majdanek, because the latter
operated as forced-labour camps initially, before they became death
camps fitted with crematoria. Unlike "mixed" extermination camps,
the extermination camps of
Operation Reinhard kept no prisoners,
except as a means of furthering the camps' sole purpose of industrial
scale murder. The very few Jews who successfully escaped death
(notably, only two at Bełżec), were members of the
Sonderkommando. All other victims were killed on arrival.
The organizational apparatus behind the new extermination plan had
been put to the test already during the euthanasia
Aktion T4 programme
ending in August 1941, which resulted in the murders of more than
70,000 Polish and German disabled men, women, and children. The SS
officers responsible for the Aktion T4, including Christian Wirth,
Franz Stangl, and Irmfried Eberl, were all given key roles in the
implementation of the "Final Solution" in 1942.
Reinhard Heydrich shown as the SS-Gruppenführer and General of the
The origin of the operation's name is debated by Holocaust
researchers. Various German documents spell the name differently, some
with "t" after "d" (as in "Aktion Reinhardt"), others without it. Yet
a different spelling was used in the Höfle Telegram. It is
generally believed that Aktion Reinhardt, outlined at Wannsee on 20
January 1942, was named after Reinhard Heydrich, the coordinator of
the Endlösung der Judenfrage (the
Final Solution of the Jewish
Question), which entailed the extermination of the Jews living in the
European countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Heydrich was attacked by
British-trained Czechoslovakian agents on 27 May 1942 and died of his
injuries eight days later. The earliest memo spelling out Einsatz
Reinhard was relayed two months later.
In November 1946, Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz,
suggested in a report while in Polish custody in Kraków, that
Operation Reinhardt might have been named after the German State
Secretary of Finance Fritz Reinhardt, who was in charge of the
collection, sorting, and utilisation of personal belongings acquired
from Jews killed at the extermination camps. However, Höss' claim
is not proven by surviving documents. Heydrich himself had spelled
his first name both Reinhard and Reinhardt throughout the 1930s
Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Meanwhile, Fritz
Reinhardt and his ministry became involved with the operation well
after it had received its name, according to historians Peter Witte
and Stephen Tyas, thus confirming that the operation was indeed named
after Reinhard Heydrich.
SS and Police Leader
SS and Police Leader
Odilo Globocnik in charge of Operation Reinhard
On 13 October 1941,
SS and Police Leader
SS and Police Leader
Odilo Globocnik headquartered
in Lublin received an oral order from Himmler – anticipating the
fall of Moscow – to start immediate construction work on the first
killing centre at Bełżec in the
General Government territory of
occupied Poland. Notably, the order preceded the
Wannsee Conference by
three months. The new camp was operational by March 1942, with
leadership brought in from Germany under the guise of Organisation
Globocnik was given control over the entire programme. All highly
secretive orders he received came directly from Himmler and not from
SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks, head of the greater Nazi
concentration camp system, which was run by the SS-Totenkopfverbände
and engaged in slave labour for the war effort. Each death camp
was managed by between 20 and 35 officers from the Totenkopfverbände
(Death's Head Units) sworn to absolute secrecy, and augmented by
Aktion T4 personnel selected by Globocnik. The extermination
program was designed by them based on prior experience from the forced
euthanasia centres. The bulk of the actual labour at each "final
solution" camp was performed by up to 100 mostly Ukrainian Trawniki
guards, recruited by SS-
Karl Streibel from among the
Soviet prisoners of war, and by up to a thousand Sonderkommando
prisoners whom the
Trawniki guards used to terrorise. The SS
called their volunteer guards "Hiwis", an abbreviation of Hilfswillige
(lit. "willing to help"). According to the testimony of SS-Oberführer
Arpad Wigand during his 1981 war crimes trial in Hamburg, only 25
percent of recruited collaborators could speak German.
By mid-1942, two more death camps had been built on Polish lands:
Sobibór (operational by May 1942) under the leadership of
Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl, and
Treblinka (operational by July
1942) under SS-
Obersturmführer Irmfried Eberl.
The 1944 aerial photo of
Treblinka II. The new farmhouse for a guard
and a livestock building are visible to the lower left. The
photograph is overlaid with already-dismantled structures (marked in
red/orange). On the left-hand side are the SS and the
quarters (1) with barracks defined by the surrounding walkways. At the
bottom (2) are the railway ramp and unloading platform (centre),
marked with the red arrow. The "road to heaven" is marked with a
dashed line. The undressing barracks for men and women, surrounded by
a solid fence with no view of the outside, are marked with two
rectangles. The location of the new, big gas chambers (3) is marked
with a cross. The burial pits, dug with a crawler excavator, are in
The killing mechanism consisted of a large internal-combustion engine
pumping exhaust fumes into homicidal gas chambers through long pipes.
Starting in February–March 1943 the bodies of the dead were exhumed
and cremated in pits. Treblinka, the last camp to become operational,
utilised knowledge learned by the SS previously. With two powerful
engines,[a] run by SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs, and the gas
chambers soon rebuilt of bricks and mortar, this death factory had
killed between 800,000 and 1,200,000 people within 15 months, disposed
of their bodies, and sorted their belongings for shipment to
The techniques used to deceive victims and the camps' overall layout
were based on a pilot project of mobile killing conducted at the
Chełmno extermination camp
Chełmno extermination camp (Kulmhof), which began operating in late
1941 and used gas vans. Chełmno was not a part of Reinhard. It
came under the direct control of SS-
Standartenführer Ernst Damzog,
commander of the SD in Reichsgau Wartheland. It was set up around a
manor house similar to Sonnenstein. The use of gas vans had been
previously tried and tested in the mass killing of Polish prisoners at
Soldau, and in the extermination of Jews on the Russian Front by
the Einsatzgruppen. Between early December 1941 and mid-April
1943, 160,000 Jews were sent to Chełmno from the General
Government via the Ghetto in Łódź. Chełmno did not have
crematoria; only the mass graves in the woods. It was a testing ground
for the establishment of faster methods of killing and incinerating
people, marked by the construction of stationary facilities for the
mass murder a few months later. The Reinhard death camps adapted
progressively as each new site was built.
Taken as a whole, Globocnik's camps at Bełżec, Sobibór, and
Treblinka had almost identical design, including staff members
transferring between locations. The camps were situated within wooded
areas well away from population centres. All were constructed near
branch lines that linked to the Polish railway system. Each camp
had an unloading ramp at a fake railway station, as well as a
reception area that contained undressing barracks, barber shops, and
money depositories. Beyond the receiving zone, at each camp was a
narrow, camouflaged path known as the Road to Heaven (called
Himmelfahrtsstraße or der Schlauch by the SS), which led to the
extermination zone consisting of gas chambers, and the burial pits, up
to 10 metres (33 ft) deep, later replaced by cremation pyres with
rails laid across the pits on concrete blocks; refuelled continuously
by the Totenjuden. Both
Treblinka and Bełżec were equipped with
powerful crawler excavators from Polish construction sites in the
vicinity, capable of most digging tasks without disrupting
surfaces. At each camp, the SS guards and Ukrainian Trawnikis
lived in a separate area from the Jewish work units. Wooden
watchtowers and barbed-wire fences camouflaged with pine branches
surrounded all camps.
The killing centres had no electric fences, as the size of the
Sonderkommandos (work units) remained relatively easy to
control – unlike in camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz. To assist
with the arriving transports only specialised squads were kept alive,
removing and disposing of bodies, and sorting property and valuables
from the dead victims. The Totenjuden forced to work inside death
zones were kept in isolation from those who worked in the reception
and sorting area. Periodically, those who worked in the death zones
would be killed and replaced with new arrivals to remove any potential
witnesses to the scale of the mass murder.
During Operation Reinhard, Globocnik oversaw the systematic killing of
more than 2,000,000 Jews from Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, the
Reich (Germany and Austria), the Netherlands, Greece, Hungary, Italy
and the Soviet Union. An undetermined number of Roma were also killed
in these death camps, many of them children.
Deportation of Jews to
Treblinka during liquidation of the Biała
Podlaska ghetto, perpetrated by the
Reserve Police Battalion 101
Reserve Police Battalion 101 in
In order to achieve their purposes, all death camps used subterfuge
and misdirection to conceal the truth and trick their victims into
cooperating. This element had been developed in Aktion T4, when
disabled and handicapped people were taken away for "special
treatment" by the SS from "Gekrat" wearing white laboratory coats,
thus giving the process an air of medical authenticity. After
supposedly being assessed, the unsuspecting T4 patients were
transported to killing centres. The same euphemism "special treatment"
(Sonderbehandlung) was used in the Holocaust.
The SS used a variety of ruses to move thousands of new arrivals
Holocaust trains to the disguised killing sites without
unleashing panic. Mass deportations were called "resettlement
actions"; they were organised by special Commissioners, and
conducted by uniformed police battalions from
Orpo and Schupo in an
atmosphere of terror. Usually, the deception was absolute. For
example, in August 1942, people of the
Warsaw Ghetto lined up for
several days to be "deported" in order to obtain bread allocated for
travel. Jews unable to move or attempting to flee were shot on the
spot. Even though death in the cattle cars from suffocation and
thirst was rampant, affecting up to 20 percent of trainloads, most
victims were willing to believe that the German intentions were
different. Once alighted, the prisoners were ordered to leave their
luggage behind and march directly to the "cleaning area" where they
were asked to hand over their valuables for "safekeeping". Common
tricks included the presence of a railway station with awaiting
"medical personnel" and signs directing people to disinfection
Treblinka also had a booking office with boards naming the
connections for other camps further East.
The railway schedule (or Fahrplananordnung) outlining all transports
being sent to
Treblinka on 25 August 1942
The Jews most apprehensive of danger were brutally beaten in order to
speed up the process. At times, the new arrivals who had suitable
skills were selected to join the Sonderkommando. Once in the changing
area, the men and boys were separated from the women and children, and
everyone was ordered to disrobe for a communal bath: "quickly – they
were told – or the water will get cold." The old and sick, or
slow, prisoners were taken to a fake infirmary named the Lazarett,
that had a large mass grave behind it. They were killed by a bullet in
the neck, while the rest were being forced into the gas
To drive the naked people into the execution barracks housing the gas
chambers, the guards used whips, clubs, and rifle butts. Panic was
instrumental in filling the gas chambers, because the need to evade
blows on their naked bodies forced the victims rapidly forward. Once
packed tightly inside (to minimize available air), the steel air-tight
doors with portholes were closed. The doors, according to Treblinka
Museum research, originated from the Soviet military bunkers around
Białystok. Although other methods of extermination, such as the
cyanic poison Zyklon B, were already being used at other Nazi killing
centres such as Auschwitz, the Aktion Reinhard camps used lethal
exhaust gases from captured Soviet tank engines. Fumes would be
discharged directly into the gas chambers for a given period, then the
engines would be switched off. SS guards would determine when to
reopen the gas doors based on how long it took for the screaming to
stop from within (usually 25 to 30 minutes).
Special teams of camp
inmates (Sonderkommando) would then remove the corpses on flatbed
carts. Before the corpses were thrown into grave pits, gold teeth were
removed from mouths, and orifices were searched for jewellery,
currency, and other valuables. All acquired goods were managed by the
Main SS Economic and Administrative Department.
The Höfle Telegram, which was an intercepted SS Enigma message,
records the total number of people sent to KL Lublin/Majdanek,
Treblinka as 1,274,166 in 1942.
During the early phases of Operation Reinhard, victims were simply
thrown into mass graves and covered with lime. However, from 1943
onwards, to hide the evidence of this war crime, all bodies were
burned in open air pits.
Special Leichenkommando (corpse units) had to
exhume bodies from the mass graves around these death camps for
Nevertheless, Reinhard still left a paper trail. In January 1943,
Bletchley Park intercepted an SS telegram by SS-Sturmbannführer
Hermann Höfle, Globocnik's deputy in Lublin, to
Adolf Eichmann in Berlin. The decoded Enigma
message contained statistics showing a total of 1,274,166 arrivals at
the four Aktion Reinhard camps until the end of 1942, but the
British code-breakers did not understand the meaning of the message,
which amounted to material evidence of how many people the Germans
themselves confirmed they had murdered.
Sturmbannführer Christian Wirth
December 1941 – 31 July 1942
Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering
1 August 1942 – December 1942
Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla
March 1942 – April
Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl
May 1942 – September 1942
Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner
September 1942 – October 1943
Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla
May 1942 – June
Obersturmführer Irmfried Eberl
July 1942 – September 1942
Hauptsturmführer Franz Stangl
September 1942 – August 1943
Untersturmführer Kurt Franz
August 1943 – November 1943
Standartenführer Karl-Otto Koch
October 1941 – August 1942
(78,000 confirmed) 
Sturmbannführer Max Koegel
August 1942 – November 1942
Obersturmführer Hermann Florstedt
November 1942 – October 1943
Obersturmbannführer Martin Gottfried Weiss
November 1, 1943 – May 5, 1944
Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel
May 5, 1944 – July 22, 1944
Temporary substitution policy
In the winter of 1941, before the
Wannsee Conference but after the
commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi demands for forced
labor greatly intensified. Therefore, Himmler and Heydrich approved
the Jewish substitution policy in Upper Silesia and in Galicia under
the "destruction through labor" doctrine. The masses of ethnic
Poles had already been sent to the Reich, creating a labour shortage
in the General Government. Around March 1942, while the first
extermination camp (Bełżec) only began gassing, the deportation
trains arriving in the
Lublin reservation from the Third Reich and
Slovakia were searched for the Jewish skilled workers. After
selection, they were delivered to Majdan Tatarski instead of for
"special treatment" at Bełżec. For a short time these Jewish
laborers were temporarily spared death, while their families and all
others perished. Some were relegated to work at a nearby airplane
factory or as forced labor in the SS-controlled Strafkompanies and
other work camps.
Hermann Höfle was one of the chief supporters and
implementers of this policy.
However, the problems were the food they required and the ensuing
logistical challenges. Globocnik and Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger
complained, and the mass transfer had stopped even before the three
extermination camps were working at full throttle.
Disposition of the property of the victims
See also: August Frank memorandum
Approximately 178 million German Reichsmarks' worth of Jewish property
(current approximate value: around US$700 million or 550 million Euro)
was taken from the victims, with vast transfers of gold and valuables
to the Reichsbank's "Melmer" account, Gold Pool, and monetary
reserve. But this wealth did not only go to the German
authorities, because corruption was rife within the death camps. Many
of the individual SS members and policemen involved in the killings
took cash, property, and valuables for themselves. The higher-ranking
SS men stole on an enormous scale. It was a common practice among the
top echelon. Two Majdanek commandants,
Karl-Otto Koch and Hermann
Florstedt, were tried by the SS for it in April 1945.
Sturmbannführer Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS judge from the SS
Courts Office, prosecuted so many Nazi officers for individual
violations that Himmler personally ordered him to restrain his cases
by April 1944.
Aftermath and cover up
Operation Reinhard ended in November 1943. Most of the staff and
guards were then sent to northern
Italy for further Aktion against
Jews and local partisans. Globocnik went to the San Sabba
concentration camp, where he supervised the detention, torture, and
killing of political prisoners.
At the same time, to cover up the mass murder of more than two million
people in Poland during Operation Reinhard, the Nazis implemented the
secret Sonderaktion 1005, also called Aktion 1005 or Enterdungsaktion
("exhumation action"). The operation, which began in 1942 and
continued until the end of 1943, was designed to remove all traces
that mass murder had been carried out. Leichenkommando ("corpse
units") comprising camp prisoners were created to exhume mass graves
and cremate the buried bodies, using giant grills made from wood and
railway tracks. Afterwards, bone fragments were ground up in special
milling machines, and all remains were then re-buried in freshly dug
pits. The Aktion was overseen by squads of the Trawniki
After the war, some of the SS officers and guards were tried and
sentenced at the
Nuremberg trials for their role in Operation Reinhard
and Sonderaktion 1005; however, many others escaped conviction, such
as Ernst Lerch, Globocnik's deputy and chief of his Main Office, whose
case was dropped for lack of witness testimony.
Action 14f13 (1941–44), a Nazi extermination operation that killed
prisoners who were sick, elderly, or deemed no longer fit for work
Aktion Erntefest (November 1943), an operation to kill all the
remaining Jews in the Lublin Ghetto
August Frank memorandum
August Frank memorandum theft of victim's property
Operation Reinhard in Warsaw (Grossaktion Warsaw, July 1942), a
similar operation to move Jews to the death camps
Katzmann Report (1943), a document detailing the outcome of Operation
Reinhard in southern Poland.
Korherr Report, a report from the SS statistical bureau detailing how
many Jews remained alive in
Nazi Germany and occupied Europe in 1943
Operation Reinhard in
Kraków (June 1942), the clearance of the Jewish
Treblinka and Sobibor death camps were built in roughly the same
timeframe. During the construction of the gas chambers at Sobibor
Erich Fuchs installed a 200 horsepower, water cooled
V-8 gasoline engine as the killing mechanism there, according to his
own postwar testimony. Fuchs installed a similar engine at
Treblinka as well. There's an ongoing debate with regard to the type
of fuel at
Treblinka used as the lethal agent. The chief argument
for its identification as petrol (i.e., gasoline, or gas) comes
directly from the eyewitness testimonies of insurgents who survived
Treblinka uprising. On 2 August 1943, they set ablaze a petrol
tank causing it to explode. No second tank containing a different type
of fuel (i.e., diesel) was ever mentioned in any known literature on
the subject. All diesel motors require diesel fuel; the engine and the
fuel work together as a system. An effort in the late '30s to extend
the diesel engine's use to passenger cars was interrupted by World War
II. Therefore, the cars driven by the SS at Trebinka (see Rajzman
1945 at U.S. Congress, and Ząbecki's court testimonies at
Düsseldorf) could not have been fueled by diesel, and neither was the
killing apparatus without a second fuel tank on premises.
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^ Ruckerl, Adalbert (1972). NS-Prozesse. C. F. Muller.
^ Piotr Ząbecki;
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^ Browning, Christopher R. (2011). Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi
Slave-Labor Camp. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 53–54.
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Chełmno Muzeum of Martyrdom, Poland, archived from the original on
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^ Ghettos, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
^ Golden, Juliet (January–February 2003). "Remembering Chelmno".
Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. 56 (1): 50.
^ Arad 1999, p. 37.
^ Radlmaier, Steffen (2001). Der Nürnberger Lernprozess: von
Kriegsverbrechern und Starreportern. Eichborn. p. 278.
^ Kopówka & Rytel-Andrianik 2011, pp. 44, 74.
The Holocaust Encyclopedia. "Belzec". United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum. Archived from the original on January 7, 2012.
Retrieved 4 August 2015 – via Internet Archive.
^ Kopówka & Rytel-Andrianik 2011, pp. 78–79.
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Interrogation of the Defendant Pavel Vladimirovich Leleko, Original:
the Fourth Department of the
SMERSH Directorate of Counterintelligence
of the 2nd Belorussian Front, USSR (1978). Acquired by OSI in 1994:
Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, p. Appendix 3: 144/179, Archived
from the original on 16 May 2010, retrieved 5 August 2016 – via
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^ Arad, Yitzhak (1999). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation
Reinhard Death Camps. Indiana University Press. pp. 152–153.
^ Christopher R. Browning,
Jürgen Matthäus (2007), The Origins of
the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September
1939 - March 1942. University of Nebraska Press, pp. 191–192.
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^ Israel Gutman. Resistance. Houghton Mifflin. p. 200.
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Zenith Imprint. p. 101. ISBN 0-7603-1933-2.
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^ Browning 1998, p. 116.
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^ Arad 1999, p.76.
^ Shirer 1981, p. 969, Affidavit (Hoess, Nuremberg).
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Sobibor and Treblinka. Descriptions and Eyewitness Testimony".
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might be considered significant.
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^ Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team (2007). "Ernst
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Obóz zagłady" [
Treblinka II – Death Camp monograph] (PDF), Dam im
imię na wieki [I will give them an everlasting name. Isaiah 56:5] (in
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selected testimonies, bibliography, alphabetical indexes, photographs,
English language summaries, and forewords by Holocaust scholars.
Archived 10 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
Shirer, William L. (1981), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A
Nazi Germany (internal link), Simon and Schuster,
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Smith, Mark S. (2010).
Treblinka Survivor: The Life and Death of
Hershl Sperling. The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-5618-8.
Retrieved 12 November 2013 – via Google Books. See Smith's
book excerpts at: Hershl Sperling: Personal Testimony by David Adams,
and the book summary at Last victim of
Treblinka by Tony Rennell.
The Holocaust in Poland
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