“The horror of the holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t.” Yehuda Bauer
When the Nazi’s invaded Poland on September 1 1939, Hitler gained control of the largest Jewish city in Europe. In fact Warsaw, with around 360,000 Jewish residents, was second only to New York in the size of its Jewish population. Immediately life changed… The city’s Jews were required to register for forced labour and to wear white arm bands to mark them out. They were also banned from public places such as restaurants, theatres and parks, and forbidden to use public transport. Failure to obey these decrees was punishable by death.
After twelve months of relative calm, in October 1940, the German authorities ordered all of the city’s Jews to move into a section in the north-west of the city which was to become the Warsaw ghetto. In November the ghetto was sealed off from the rest of Warsaw’s population. The walls surrounding the ghetto were around 11 miles in circumference, from 10 to 20 feet high, and topped with glass and barbed wire.
Food supplies were intentionally limited in order to cause mass starvation. During 1942, up to 5,000 people die each month within the ghetto from starvation, disease, and arbitrary executions.
The Nazi’s Perfect their Killing Machine
In January 1942 the Wansee Conference, in a suburb of Berlin, finalised plans for the annihilation of Jews in all Nazi held territories, estimated by the Nazi authorities at around 11 million men, women and children.
The Nazi’s had originally planned to deport Europe’s Jews to Stalin’s Gulag, a massive network of prison and labour camps that stretched the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and imprisoned an estimated ten million Soviet citizens. Germany’s failure to defeat the Soviet Union as swiftly as Hitler had envisaged, however, meant that was no longer an option.
In November 1942, Himmler ordered the murder of all Jews in the Baltic states. The liquidation of the Riga ghetto began on 30 November when 14,000 Latvian Jews were taken into the forest and shot. The Riga ghetto was then liquidated in a similar manner.
In Poland, the governor in charge of the Jewish ghetto at Lodz, Arthur Greiser, seized the opportunity. He asked Himmler to provide trained executioners to liquidate all 100,000 men, women and children in the ghetto as quickly as possible.
The enormous numbers ruled out shooting as the means of execution. Instead an extermination camp was established near Chelmo, forty miles north-west of Lodz, which used gas vans as the means of killing. These vans had their exhaust fumes diverted into the sealed rear compartment where the victims were locked in. 700 Jews a day were taken from the Lodz ghetto to Chelmo where they were loaded into the vans and driven a short distance to woods where their mass graves awaited. The dead were searched for valuables including gold fillings before being buried by forced Jewish labour.
The Death Factories Open
At Chelmo the Nazi’s had developed the prototype for their killing machine. By the time of the Wansee conference, more than 40,000 Jews and gypsies had already been murdered at Chelmo.
The first of the new camps, built specifically as extermination camps using carbon monoxide, opened on March 17 1942 at Belzec. It was capable of killing 15,000 people a day. A second camp at Sobibor opened in April, with a capacity of 20,000 a day. A third camp at Treblinka opened on 23 July. Its thirty gas chambers were able to kill 25,000 people a day. In the autumn, gas chambers began operating at an existing concentration camp at Majdenek. Gas chambers at a fifth camp at Auschwitz, which was originally a slave camp for Poles and Soviet prisoners of war, was pressed into service in the spring of 1943.
During the fifteen months following the first killings at Chelmo, the four camps at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdenek murdered some 2 million people . Deaths at Auschwitz would eventually lie between 1.2 and 1.5 million, of whom around 800,000 were Jews.
Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto Begins
Once construction of Treblinka was completed the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began. In four phases from July to September 1942, more than 300,000 Jews were forced to the Umshlagplatz deportation point in the ghetto, delivered to Treblinka in crowded freight trains, and murdered in the gas chambers. Those not fit to travel were murdered in the streets of the ghetto.
To prevent people from realising their fate, the arrival point at Treblinka was disguised as an authentic railway station, complete with made-up train schedules, a fake train-station clock, names of destinations, and a fake ticket window. New arrivals were told that they had stopped at a transit point on the way to Ukraine and needed to shower before receiving work uniforms and new orders.
According to the post-war testimony of some SS officers, men were gassed first. Women first had their hair cut off, meaning that it took longer to prepare them for the gas chambers than men. Their hair was used in the manufacture of socks and in-soles for the German military. Women and children were forced to wait outside the gas chambers for their turn. They could clearly hear the sounds of suffering from inside the gas chambers, and were thus aware of the fate that awaited them.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Destruction of the Ghetto
In April 1943, German attempts to renew deportations to Treblinka spark the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The revolt is the largest Jewish uprising during the Holocaust. Beginning on April 19, with minimal arms and training, members of the Jewish resistance—including many young children—force the Germans from the ghetto within four days. The uneven battle rages until 16 May.
After defeating the rebellion, and murdering the remaining survivors, the Germans set fire to the Ghetto, and level it to the ground. On 16 May 1943 Hitler receives a report that ‘Warsaw’s Jewish district has ceased to exist.’
Treblinka was dismantled during the Autumn of 1943. The site was levelled and planted and a farmhouse was built in an attempt to hide the evidence of the genocide.
 Anthony Read, The Devil’s Disciples: The lives and times of Hitler’s inner circle, Pimlico, 2003, p757