Aktion “Erntefest” translates as Operation “Harvest Festival.” This was the code name for the largest German-perpetrated mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust and took place primarily at Majdanek, near Lublin in occupied Poland.
Operation “Harvest Festival” was a series of mass executions of Jewish prisoners engaged in forced labor in the Lublin district in response to several uprisings and revolts by Jews in the spring and summer of 1943 – from armed resistance in the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos to the rebellions at the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. On November 3, 1943, the Germans initiated the murder of all remaining Jews in the Lublin District of German-occupied Poland on the orders of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who feared similar uprisings. Most of the Jewish slave labor force was deployed at the Trawniki, Poniatowa, and Majdanek camps.
Operation “Harvest Festival” was supervised by Jakob Sporrenberg who had recently taken command as SS and Police Leader in Lublin. Additional SS and police units were transferred to Lublin for the purpose of carrying out Operation “Harvest Festival.”
The preparations for the operation took place at the end of October 1943. Prisoners from Majdanek, Trawniki, Poniatowa, and smaller camps were ordered to dig ditches.
At dawn on November 3, 1943, thousands of SS and police surrounded Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki. The Germans organized the entire process like a combat operation, with hourly reports and Sporrenberg monitoring events from the air.
After a brief roll call at around 5 a.m. on a dark Wednesday morning at Majdanek, non-Jewish prisoners were ordered back to their barracks and the Jewish prisoners of Majdanek, and those from the camps on Lipowa Street and in Flugplatz – 18,000 victims in total – were transferred to Field No. 5 and locked into barracks there. Forced to undress, groups of one hundred were driven to the prepared trenches. The victims were then forced into the ditches and ordered to lie face down on the ground to be killed by a single shot in the back of the head or neck by the members of the execution commando who were standing on the edge of the ditch. Men and women were shot separately. Marches and waltzes by Johann Strauss played through loudspeakers at both Majdanek and Trawniki camps to drown out the noise of the mass shootings and to mask the screams of the victims, however non-Jewish prisoners at Majdanek and the local population of the surrounding eastern suburb of Lublin, heard it all. Known as “Black Wednesday” by non-Jewish eyewitnesses, the shooting lasted from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are four known testimonies written by Jewish survivors from the Majdanek shootings.
At Majdanek and Trawniki, the killing operation was completed in a single day, whereas at Poniatowa the shootings concluded on November 4, having lasted two days. Some Jews attempted to fight back in Poniatowa but were defeated, and those who tried to hide were found and shot. Only two women are known to have survived the shootings at Poniatowa.
In all, approximately 42,000 Jews were murdered. Depending on the location, groups of Jewish prisoners were ordered to sort through the belongings of those murdered, examine the bodies for gold teeth and then cremate the bodies.
As 1943 drew to a close, the Germans were in retreat from eastern Ukraine, evacuating from the Donbas region, and withdrawing across the Dnieper River, with Zaporizhzhia one of the major cities liberated by the Red army.
As the Germans were no longer on the offensive across the Eastern front by November 1943, Operation “Harvest Festival” highlights the tension in the German leadership between the political policy of mass murder under Himmler and the demands of the armed forces’ procurement strategy directed by Albert Speer. The German army required constant resupply of arms and munitions and the only way to maintain a high level of standardized production was to secure a reliable source of war material from factories with skilled labor forces. The destruction of the Jewish skilled labor force in the armament factories in occupied Poland could create a logistical crisis in the supply chain. This meant Jews used as forced labor in factories across Radom and Krakow districts remained alive into 1944, most likely as a result of their importance to the German war effort, particularly in the armaments factories.
Operation “Harvest Festival” marked the end of Operation Reinhard – the code name for the German plan to murder the Jews living in German-occupied Poland. In all, Operation Reinhard personnel murdered approximately 1.7 million Jews in the Operation Reinhard killing centers of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka and related mass shootings. The victims of Operation Reinhard also included an unknown number of Poles, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war.
When discussing this topic with your students, consider how this example of mass murder demonstrates the complexity of the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews yet undermined their war effort in the process.