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Operation Harvest Festival

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Operation Harvest Festival
Alinas PL Maceba miejsce zamordowania 18400 zydow na MajdankuP5130085.jpg
Remains of the mass graves at Majdanek
LocationMajdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki concentration camps in the Lublin District of the General Governorate
Date3–4 November 1943
Attack type
WeaponsRifles, automatic weapons
PerpetratorsSS, Order police, Trawniki men

Operation Harvest Festival (German: Aktion Erntefest) was the murder of as many as 43,000 Jews at the Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki concentration camps by the SS, the Order Police battalions, and the Ukrainian Sonderdienst on 3–4 November 1943. Ordered by Heinrich Himmler, the aim of the operation was the extermination of Jews who had been pressed into forced labour in the camps which were located in and around Lublin in the General Governorate region of German-occupied Poland. Afterwards, the bodies of the victims were burned by other Jews, who had been spared temporarily from death. Operation Harvest Festival was the largest single massacre of Jews by German forces during the Holocaust.


Forced-labor camps in the General Governorate; those affected by Operation Harvest Festival  are in the upper right.
Forced-labor camps in the General Governorate; those affected by Operation Harvest Festival are in the upper right.

In 1942, 360,000 of the Jews who lived in the Lublin District of the General Governorate of German-occupied Poland were murdered during Operation Reinhard. By the end of the year, only 20,000 Jews were living in German camps and ghettos and no more than another 20,000 were in hiding.[1][2] Beginning in January 1943, Jews launched a series of revolts in the General Governorate, including those at Warsaw Ghetto, Białystok Ghetto and Treblinka extermination camp, while anti-Nazi partisan activity was increasing throughout the area.[3][4] Although the proximate reason for ordering Harvest Festival is unknown, historians believe that it was in response to the uprising at Sobibór extermination camp on 14 October 1943.[3] Thousands of the Jewish prisoners in the camps of the Lublin District had been transported there from the Warsaw Ghetto after the failure of the uprising there.[5][6]

In order to avoid further resistance, Heinrich Himmler decided to exterminate the Jewish prisoners at the Lublin camps in a single decisive blow using overwhelming military force.[3][7][5] Himmler ordered Friedrich Krüger, Higher SS and Police Leader in the General Governorate, to carry out the murder; Krüger delegated it to SS and Police Leader Jakob Sporrenberg, who had recently succeeded Odilo Globocnik.[8][7][9] Jewish inmates were ordered to dig zigzag trenches along the perimeter of Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki concentration camps. At Majdanek the trenches were dug by a team of 300 prisoners working in three shifts in field 5, south of the crematorium, and measured about 100 metres (330 ft) long, 2–3 metres (6 ft 7 in–9 ft 10 in) deep and 1.5–3 metres (4 ft 11 in–9 ft 10 in) wide. Although the trenches were supposedly for defense against air raids, and their zigzag shape granted some plausibility to this lie, the prisoners guessed their true purpose.[7][10][11]

On 2 November, 2,000 to 3,000 SS and police personnel arrived in Lublin: Waffen-SS from as far away as Kraków, Police Regiment 22, Police Regiment 25 (including Reserve Police Battalion 101) and the Lublin Security Police. That evening, Sporrenberg convened a meeting between his own staff, the commandants of Majdanek, Trawniki, and Poniatowa, local Security Police commander Karl Pütz [de], and the commanders of the various units to plan the murder operation.[3][12] The murder operation, due to begin at dawn the next day, was planned as a military operation, with the code name Erntefest ("Harvest Festival").[5] Two loudspeakers, installed on police cars, were positioned at Majdanek, one near the trenches and the other by the entrance of the camp.[13][14]



Camp 5 is the rectangle to the lower left in this map of Majdanek.
Camp 5 is the rectangle to the lower left in this map of Majdanek.

At 5:00 on 3 November 1943, prisoners at Majdanek were awoken as usual in the dark, but the camp had been surrounded by an additional 500 soldiers over the night.[3][13][14] The 3,500 to 4,000 Jewish prisoners[15] lived among non-Jewish prisoners. After morning roll call, the groups were separated with Jews ordered to go to camp 5.[13][14] Jews in the infirmary trucked to that location while the non-Jewish prisoners at camp 5 were moved to camp 4. The barbed wire fence was repositioned to include the execution area within the cordon. Prisoners were forced to undress and driven in groups of one hundred[16] to the three trenches in the field beyond the camp.[17] At the beginning of a ramp leading to the trenches, the Jews were separated into groups of ten and forced onwards to the trenches.[18] Execution squads of 10–12 men each from police battalions and 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking were waiting,[17] and were replaced every few hours. The prisoners were forced to lie down in the trenches and were shot in the nape of the neck.[19]

About 600 prisoners, half men and half women, were selected at the Lublin airfield camp to clean up after the massacre at Majdanek. The rest, some 5,000 or 6,000, along with Jewish prisoners of war at Lipowa 7 in Lublin, were marched towards Majdanek.[20] Despite special precations,[18] the Jewish prisoners of war rushed their guards and tried to escape, but almost all were shot before they could get away. The first prisoners from the other camps arrived at Majdanek around 7:30 and continued to arrive throughout the morning.[21][15] Among the Jews from Majdanek, some tried to escape their fate through suicide or hiding in the barracks. The next day, twenty-three Jews were discovered and were executed at the Majdanek crematorium.[22][18] The speakers were turned on as soon as the gunfire started, but it could still be heard.[18][15] Local Poles watched from the rooftops of nearby buildings outside the camp,[17][23] while Sporrenberg observed from a Fieseler Storch airplane.[23] It is not clear who directed the operation as it was ongoing; it may have been Sporrenberg or Hermann Höfle.[18] The execution continued uninterrupted until around 17:00,[22][18] when all 18,400 prisoners had been killed.[17]


List of Jewish prisoners working at the camp office at Trawniki. All were murdered on 3 November.
List of Jewish prisoners working at the camp office at Trawniki. All were murdered on 3 November.

Previous to the operation, Polish residents who lived adjacent to the camp were forced to move and those who lived a bit farther away were forced to stay in their homes. Jewish prisoners who lived in the settlement outside the camp proper were returned to the camp. At 5:00 on 3 November, the prisoners were mustered for roll call,[24] rounded up, and marched to the Hiwi training camp, where loudspeakers were playing music beside the trenches. The victims were ordered to disrobe and place their clothing in piles, then to lie face down on top of those already shot, at which point the executioner would dispatch them by a shot to the nape of the neck.[20] Men were shot before women and children.[24] The shooting was already well underway when prisoners from Dorohucza arrived by rail at 7:00.[20] After the trenches were filled, some Jews were executed at a sand pit in the labor camp.[25] The execution of 6,000 Jews occurred continuously until 15:00 (or 17:00),[20][24] with only a few managing to hide and survive.[20]


Many of the SS and police soldiers who had been at Majdanek continued to Poniatowa, some 50 kilometres (31 mi) distant, after the massacre had finished.[17][26] At Poniatowa, there were 13,000 to 15,000 Jews at the camp before the massacre, most of them having come from the Warsaw Ghetto.[5] On 3 November, the Jews were sent back to their barracks after roll call.[27] The camp was sealed and telephone lines were cut, so that the prisoners would not know what fate awaited them.[23] Some thought that there was going to be a selection, and tried to make themselves look healthier.[17] That evening, the camp was surrounded by 1,000–1,500 German and Ukrainian soldiers.[25]

The next morning (4 November), at 4:30, the prisoners were awoken for roll call and removed from their barracks in groups of 50,[24][28] forced to line up and strip naked. As loud music blared, the prisoners were herded to the two trenches by the entrance of the camp, 95 metres (312 ft) long, 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) wide, and 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) deep, where they were shot.[29][30] According to a witness, many of the victims were not killed by the shot and lay wounded in the trench as more bodies piled on top of them, cursing the SS.[31] Prisoners at labor detachments in nearby Nałęczów and Kazimierz were also killed, after attempting to fight back.[28] Some prisoners in Poniatowa had formed a resistance group and had managed to acquire a few weapons. About a hundred resisted the Germans, setting fire to some barracks full of clothing and barricading themselves in another barracks. The Germans set this on fire, killing all of the resistance members. Polish fire fighters were brought in to put out the fires and observed the Germans throwing wounded Jews into the flames.[25] After the execution, German soldiers checked the trenches, executing prisoners who had managed to survive.[24] Three women were missed during this process, climbed out of the mass grave that night, and survived the war with the help of Żegota.[32] Overall, 14,500 people were killed within the span of a few hours.[28]


ID issued to a Jewish prisoner at Trawniki, who was murdered during the operation.
ID issued to a Jewish prisoner at Trawniki, who was murdered during the operation.

Cleanup and coverup of the operation was a priority of the Nazi leadership because of Soviet military victories on the Eastern Front. At Majdanek, the clean-up took two months and was done under the supervision of Erich Muhsfeldt, previously an executioner at Auschwitz.[33] The six hundred men and women from the airfield camp[20] had to sort the clothing of the Jews murdered at Majdanek.[22] Upon the completion of this task the women were deported to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers.[22][18] The men had to cremate the bodies, after which they were either killed[22] or recruited into Sonderkommando  1005.[18] Witnesses recalled that for months, the stench of burning flesh hung around the vicinity.[34][35] The ditches were filled in with soil and leveled.[34]

The Jews at Milejowo concentration camp were sent to Trawniki on 5 November to clean up the massacre. Six women had to work in the kitchen while the men were ordered to extract gold teeth and hidden valuables from the corpses. After eight days (or two to three weeks), the men were executed, except for Yehezkel Hering, who disguised himself as a woman and hid with then. The women remained at the camp and sorted the belongings of the murdered Jews until May 1944, at which point they were deported via Majdanek to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.[36][13]

About 50 Jews managed to hide from the shootings at Poniatowa, while 150 were left alive after the shooting to clean up and cremate the corpses. Upon refusing to do so, they were shot on 6 November.[25] From Majdanek, 120 Jews were brought in to do the work, only to be executed themselves when it was done.[37] During this process the decomposing corpses smelled very bad and reportedly caused hardened SS men to vomit.[35]

Aftermath and significance

Memorial plaque at Majdanek
Memorial plaque at Majdanek

3 November was dubbed "Bloody Wednesday" by Majdanek prisoners.[38] Following the operation, there were ten labor camps for Jews in the Lublin District (including Dęblin–Irena and Budzyń) with about 10,000 Jews still alive.[39] The Jews at Budzyń were not executed, despite the camp's status as a subcamp of Majdanek. According to survivors, a handful of Jews were taken from Budzyń to Majdanek, returning with bloody clothing and tales of the massacre. Israeli historian David Silberklang attributes the survival of the camp to the desire of local German functionaries to continue benefiting financially from slave labor and avoid a transfer to the front, but states it is unclear why the camp escaped Himmler's notice.[40]

The Harvest Festival operation coincided with other massacres of surviving Jews in Kraków District and Galicia District, including the Wehrmacht camps in Galicia, but spared the forced-labor camps in Radom District that had not been placed under SS command.[41][42] In the Lublin District, Jews were killed separately at Annopol-Rachów, Puławy, and other smaller sites.[43] The SS enterprise Ostindustrie, which employed many of the murdered prisoners, was not informed in advance; the company was liquidated later in the month.[44]

According to Christopher Browning, the minimum estimate of the death toll was 30,500 at Majdanek and Poniatowa,[45] while estimates of those killed at Trawniki start at 6,000,[20][25] but as many as eight or ten thousand may have died there.[25] Overall, the operation is estimated to have killed 39,000 to 43,000,[22] at least 40,000,[3] 42,000,[42] or 42,000 to 43,000 victims.[41] Measured by death count, Harvest Festival was the single largest massacre of Jews by German forces during the Holocaust. It surpassed the killing of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev and was exceeded only by the 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by Romanian troops.[46]

After the war, Sporrenberg was tried, convicted, and executed by a Polish court for his role in organizing the operation, while Pütz committed suicide.[28] In 1999, Alfons Gotzfrid was sentenced to time served for his participation in the killings at Majdanek.[47] The Majdanek State Museum has hosted ceremonies to commemorate the victims.[48][49]



  1. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 325–326.
  2. ^ Arad 2018, p. 440.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Silberklang 2013, p. 404.
  4. ^ Mędykowski 2018, p. 273.
  5. ^ a b c d Arad 2018, p. 422.
  6. ^ Mędykowski 2018, p. 276.
  7. ^ a b c Browning 2017, p. 232.
  8. ^ Arad 2018, pp. 421–422.
  9. ^ Mędykowski 2018, p. 285.
  10. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 403–404.
  11. ^ Mędykowski 2018, pp. 285–286.
  12. ^ Browning 2017, p. 233.
  13. ^ a b c d Arad 2018, p. 424.
  14. ^ a b c Mędykowski 2018, p. 286.
  15. ^ a b c Browning 2017, p. 234.
  16. ^ Mędykowski 2018, pp. 286–287.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Silberklang 2013, p. 406.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h Mędykowski 2018, p. 287.
  19. ^ Arad 2018, pp. 424–425.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Silberklang 2013, p. 405.
  21. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 405–406.
  22. ^ a b c d e f Arad 2018, p. 425.
  23. ^ a b c Browning 2017, p. 236.
  24. ^ a b c d e Mędykowski 2018, p. 288.
  25. ^ a b c d e f Arad 2018, p. 423.
  26. ^ Browning 2017, p. 237.
  27. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 404–405.
  28. ^ a b c d Zegenhagen 2009, p. 890.
  29. ^ Arad 2018, pp. 422–423.
  30. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 406–407.
  31. ^ Browning 2017, p. 238.
  32. ^ Silberklang 2013, p. 407.
  33. ^ Mailänder 2014, pp. 54–55.
  34. ^ a b Mailänder 2014, p. 55.
  35. ^ a b Browning 2017, p. 239.
  36. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 408–409.
  37. ^ Silberklang 2013, p. 408.
  38. ^ Gryń 1966, p. 45.
  39. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 365, 409.
  40. ^ Silberklang 2013, pp. 412–413.
  41. ^ a b Gruner 2006, p. 271.
  42. ^ a b Mędykowski 2018, p. 289.
  43. ^ Mędykowski 2018, pp. 288–289.
  44. ^ Gruner 2006, pp. 271–272.
  45. ^ Browning 2017, p. 240.
  46. ^ Browning 2017, p. 230.
  47. ^ Traynor, Ian (21 May 1999). "Nazi sentenced to 10 years in Germany's 'last war crimes trial'". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 February 2020.
  48. ^ "Commemoration of the victims of Bloody Wednesday". Majdanek State Museum. 4 November 2015. Retrieved 13 February 2020.
  49. ^ "Commemoration of the victims of "Bloody Wednesday" and a meeting devoted to perpetrators". Majdanek State Museum. 4 November 2016. Retrieved 13 February 2020.


Further reading

Coordinates: 51°15′11″N 22°34′18″E / 51.25304°N 22.57155°E / 51.25304; 22.57155

This page was last edited on 14 February 2020, at 17:53
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