The deadliest year during the Holocaust was 1942; more than three million Jews were killed. High-ranking Nazi officials convened at the Wannsee conference in January 1942 to discuss the organization, coordination and implementation of the “Final Solution,” the plan to murder all Jews.
They assembled to make the ongoing process of eradicating the Jews centralized and more efficient. Six killing centres (Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek) built on Polish soil operated that year. Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka were planned for the Jews who resided in the Generalgouvernement. The mass murder of Polish Jews started in the spring.
On July 19, 1942 Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and the Gestapo, ordered that the removal of all Jews from the Generalgouvernement be expedited. By December 31, 1942 all Jews residing within the Generalgouvernement had to be "resettled".
This plan to murder close to two million Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was code named Operation Reinhard.
Below are eye-witness accounts of the violent round ups and deportations that followed the implementation of Operation Reinhard from those lucky enough to survive:
Amek Adler lived in Lodz with his grandmother, parents and three brothers when World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. As the war continued and Nazi persecution intensified, Amek moved from place to place. Each move included fewer family members.
During most of the war Amek was in Radom, a city in central Poland, which was the headquarters of the Radom district. The district was one of the original four districts: Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin, and Radom, which comprised the General Government (a fifth district, Galicia, was added following the attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941).
In August 1942, the Germans liquidated the two Radom ghettos, sending most of their inhabitants to the gas chambers in Treblinka.
Amek Adler recall the last time he saw his grandparents alive and how he miraculously escaped deportation, and almost certain death:
In the late summer of 1942, the Jews of Wolbrom were rounded up and his mother and four sisters were put on a cattle car and deported to Treblinka. He never saw them again. He and his brothers and father were sent to the ghetto in Krakow where they survived until October, when the rest of his family (his father and two brothers) were murdered in an Aktion, a violent roundup of Jews that more often than not resulted in murder.
He never saw them again. He and his brothers and father were sent to the ghetto in Krakow where they survived until October, when the rest of his family (his father and two brothers) were murdered in an Aktion, a violent roundup of Jews that more often than not resulted in murder. Following the death of his father and brothers Sterner left the place where he was hiding and was captured. He spent the remainder of the war as a slave labourer.
" We were ordered to take only what we could carry in our hands and given only thirty minutes to an hour to assemble in the market square. They gave us no time to think. The biggest tragedy of our lives had begun to unfold.
We were in shock. It was impossible to believe what was happening. I could see how horrified my parents and siblings were. We felt scared and paralyzed. We didn’t know where we would end up or what would happen to us. There was nothing we could do to help one another. It was especially painful to see the confusion on the face of my youngest sister, Sarah, who was only ten years old.
We looked around our home for the last time and left. We knew that we would never come back. Then we ran to the market square in the middle of town. It was a very hot day. We assembled there in the terrible heat and waited for new orders from the Nazis. We had no water to drink and no food to eat. Thirsty and hungry children began to cry. In the past, the market square had been a community place where farmers came to sell their goods every Thursday. Now Jewish families were crowded together in the square, waiting to find out what the Nazis had in store for us.
Soon the market square became a place of terror. The Nazis and their collaborators – the Jewish police and the Ukrainian police – began to push and shove us. We were beaten up for no reason. Then the Ukrainians began to kill a lot of our people by beating them with iron bars or shooting them. Adults and children cried for water to drink, but instead of getting water, they were shot.
...the Nazis ordered us to march more than one and a half kilometres to an open field on the outskirts of the town, near the railway station. We had to walk under the scorching sun – the heat was like fire coming from the sky. Our God seemed to have given us such a hot day so we could suffer even more. Our children were screaming and crying; they were scared, hungry and thirsty. The Nazis killed a lot of those children.
We waited for many hours in that field of barbarism. We didn’t know what we were waiting for. We had no bathrooms, so we had to relieve ourselves where we were standing, among hundreds of people, including women and children. We were disgraced and ashamed. But the terror didn’t stop – the Nazis and the Ukrainian guards continued killing Jewish men, women, children and babies. The blood of the murdered people was everywhere. It was devastating to watch our loved ones – especially our children – suffer so much and know that we couldn’t help. Meanwhile, the Nazis walked around taking pictures.
A train pulling empty cattle cars arrived at the station and the Nazi murderers pushed our mothers, sisters, little brothers, babies and old people into the cattle cars. The cars were packed so tightly that people had no place to move or sit down; we knew that they had no food or water; there were no bathrooms. We were sure that the people inside couldn’t get enough air to breathe and would suffocate. The Nazis pushed my mother and my four sisters into one of the cattle cars. My father, brothers and I all watched in horror but were helpless. It was the first time that I’d ever seen my dear father cry. Once a happy family man, energetic, a good provider for our family, my father was now a broken man. It was heart-wrenching to watch his suffering.
Inside the locked cattle cars, we heard people screaming and crying out. But after a while, we heard less and less crying. Our loved ones had no more strength to cry. Some were half dead; some had already died. Finally, there was only silence. After long hours of waiting in anguish, we watched the trains begin to slowly pull away. One of the guards told me that they were being taken to Treblinka.
My father, my two brothers and I didn’t know if we would ever see our dear mother and four sisters again. We didn’t believe the story that they were being transported to a “labour camp” – the way that they were thrown into the cattle cars like trash and crushed inside them, we didn’t believe that they could survive. I’m not sure how many of them were still alive when they arrived in Treblinka.
It must have been so painful for my mother to see her four lovely young girls suffer on that train. How painful it must have been for all the Jewish mothers. To this day, it haunts me that I don’t know if anybody survived that harrowing journey of death."
In September 1942, the most well-known mass deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto to Chelmno took place. In the szpera or “Gehsperre Aktion,” from September 5 to September 12, 1942, children under ten, the elderly, and the unemployed were deported. This was a devastating blow for ghetto inhabitants, most of whom were affected directly or indirectly. These brutal deportations took their toll on many families in the ghetto. Afterward, the remaining Jews of all ages had to be put to work to demonstrate their usefulness to the Nazis, in order to avoid future deportations. Many very young people, including Eddie Klein, found themselves part of the workforce.
Eddie Klein was among those who had lost a parent to the great deportation of September 1942. His mother was taken and his father had already succumbed to hunger. This left Eddie, a very young boy, alone in the ghetto.
Below he recounts the day he lost his mother to Nazis' genocidal mission:
" They would make all the inhabitants assemble in the different courtyards to undergo inspection. Men, women and children were separated, and a number of people were then taken away.
At the beginning of September 1942, after an inspection, I could not find my mother. We knew that the people had been taken to Łagiewnicka Street, number 34 or 36. Toward evening, despite a curfew, I made my way to find my mother, to join her. I noticed her with another woman at a second-floor window. We saw each other. I heard my mother express to the other woman her concern about what would happen to me. I was holding the remaining ration of our bread and was able to throw it directly into my mother’s hands.
A Jewish policeman, on witnessing this, grabbed me and slapped me around behind a gate across the street. I felt beaten and humiliated. Avoiding police patrols, I dragged myself back to the house. There was no one there. Even the young couple and their child who occupied the other room were gone. At that point, I remembered our friend Mrs. Krykusova, who now had a position in a ghetto factory in Marysin, and whom I hoped had some connections. I went to her in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness, and asked her if there was a way to either release my mother or have me join her. She promised to try. Exhausted, I made my way home.
A few days later, all the Jews rounded up by the Germans were shipped away. My mother was gone. I did not know where to.
I stopped caring about anything else and remained in that state for days; I didn’t even attempt to obtain my weekly food rations. I had no energy, and I became apathetic."
Born in 1926 in Lodz, Poland, an industrial city approximately 120 kilometres southwest of Warsaw, Henele was raised in a closely knit extended family that was, in many ways, typical of Polish Jewish families in the early part of the twentieth century. By that time, Jews had lived in Poland for almost a thousand years, and the country had become home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world.
Henia's happy childhood and family life came to an abrupt end with the German invasion on September 1, 1939. On the eve of the German invasion of Poland, the Jewish population of the country numbered approximately 3.3 million, roughly one-tenth of the total population of Poland. By the end of the war, only 10 per cent of those Jews remained alive.
The Jewish community of Lodz was second in size only to Warsaw, comprising roughly one-third of the population of the city. One week after invading Poland, Germany took control of Lodz, renaming it Litzmannstadt.
Henia and her family suffered greatly under the new anti-jewish laws, were torn from their home and forced to live in inhumane and unbearable conditions in the Lodz ghetto, and as time went on were terrorized by increasing aktions, round ups of Jews for deportation to Nazi camps.
Henia recalls the infamous Gehsperre Aktion that took place on September 5, 1942.
" Hunger and disease were our constant companions in the ghetto, but as long as there were no deportations and no Germans, our spirits did not surrender. We refused to give up hope that we would live to see better days. This hope was difficult to nurture when there were deportations since nobody knew whose turn it would be next to be taken away.
The most nightmarish action in the ghetto took place in September 1942. It became known as the Sperre, which in German means “closing.” For ten days, we were not allowed to leave our homes. First, on September 1, the Germans liquidated the one hospital that had remained in the ghetto. Then they went from house to house and ordered everyone out. We were forced to assemble in the courtyards where the selection took place. The Germans took children, elderly people and those who were not to their liking. They forced them into trucks and took them away. There was hardly a home that remained untouched. What I remember most from those ten days was the screaming, the lament that rose from all the homes, from all corners of the ghetto. I also remember running with my father at night to hide in a part of the ghetto where the selection had already taken place. I can also recall the book I was reading, Gone with the Wind in Polish translation. I sat on the floor somewhere in a corner, with my fingers in my ears to shut out the screaming world around me, trying to escape the fear and the pounding in my heart. It was at that time that I became sick with typhus. However, we were lucky to still be alive. Our close family was gone, the last trace of my Tziotzia Adele. So many of our friends were taken away. The ghetto was decimated. For a time, it seemed that our spirits were broken and that we had given up. But after a while, we dared to hope again, to dream and to fight for survival. "