Three types of deportation
Roughly, then, three types of deportation sites for Viennese Jews can be distinguished: Ghettos; monofunctional “extermination camps” or killing sites; and multifunctional “concentration camps” or similar camps.
Jewish ghettos in the occupied territories in the East: After the conquest of Poland, the Jewish population of Poland was mainly forced into ghettos in the “Generalgouvernement”, which were only partially physically separated but could only be left under threat of death. The ghettos were cramped, food was scarce, and sanitary conditions were poor; medical care was inadequate, and the arbitrary violence of the occupiers was threateningly close. Governor General Frank issued a decree on Jewish forced labor as early as October 26, 1939. Beginning in 1940, but especially in 1941 and still in 1942, Jews from the “Altreich” and the now “Ostmark” were “resettled” in these ghettos. In the areas of Eastern Europe conquered by Nazi Germany, there were ultimately about 1,150 such ghettos, which contributed significantly to the isolation, dispossession and deprivation and general weakening of the Jewish population. According to rough estimates, between 600,000 and one million Jews perished in them. In Polish, Baltic and Belorussian ghettos, German task forces, with the participation of local auxiliary commandos, murdered thousands of ghetto inhabitants by mass shootings, also to make room for deportations from German Reich territory. But as early as 1942, the first ghettos were dissolved again, sometimes accompanied by the establishment of on-site concentration camps. Depending on their estimated ability to work, the ghetto inmates were either murdered on the spot, deported to extermination camps and murdered, or selected for forced labor in the concentration camps and their outposts.
The first five transports from Vienna to Polish ghettos with a total of 5,031 people took place in February and March 1941. They went to the small towns of Kielce, Łagów/Opatów, Modliborzyce and Opole in the “Generalgouvernement”. Food and lodging had to be provided by the local Jewish communities, which were in no way equipped for this. The deportees were still able to communicate by letter with relatives and friends back home for about a year: They described the miserable conditions and asked for relief supplies, some of which still arrived at the deportees’ homes. These letters fueled fears in Vienna of further deportations. These were then stopped for a few months because of the wars being prepared against Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union. The resumption of deportations from Vienna starting in October 1941 caused fear and despair among Vienna’s Jews and led to numerous suicides and suicide attempts. In fact, most of the deportations from Vienna between October 1941 and October 1942 already took place in the context of the decided “Final Solution”: A part continued to go to ghettos, a part went immediately to extermination camps. The ghettos were intermediate stations, but increasingly were also the site of murder actions. Most of the ghetto transports went to Lódz/Litzmannsstadt (“Gau Wartheland”), Riga and Minsk (both “Reichskommissariat Ostland”). Five transports with 4,995 persons went to Lodz (a large part of the deportees were later murdered in gas vans in the Chelmno concentration camp); four transports with 4,188 persons went to Riga (murdered in part on site) and one transport with 999 persons went to Minsk (murdered in large part on site). The other transports to Minsk were taken to the nearby former agricultural estate of Maly Trostinec, where murder squads killed almost all the deportees immediately after their arrival (see below). A transport of 995 persons destined for the Riga ghetto ended in Kowno/Kaunas, where all deportees were shot on the spot. Between April and June 1942, transports to small towns in the “General Government” also resumed: Destinations were the ghettos of Izbica (4 transports, 4,006 persons) and Wlodawa (1 transport, about 1,000 persons). The ghettos served only as stopovers. In many cases the traces of these deportees are lost; most of them were probably murdered in the extermination camps Belzec and Sobibor (see below). Letters with drastic descriptions of the living conditions and requests to send relief supplies still reached the Viennese Jewish community from time to time. In Vienna, the reports about the murder of the local Jewish population caused great concern.
In June 1942, deportations to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” began; by October 1942, a total of 13 large transports from Vienna had been sent there, and between January 1943 and March 1945 several smaller ones; a total of 15,122 people were deported from Vienna to Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt was a special case among the ghettos: it served as a “showcase ghetto” for propaganda purposes and was intended primarily for “prominent” or “deserving” Jews. Nevertheless, the hygienic conditions, nutrition and medical care were very poor, exacerbated by the general obligation to work, so that by the end of the war about 40% of the Jews imprisoned in Theresienstadt had perished there; about half were sent on to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Maly Trostinec between August 1942 and October 1944 and were largely murdered. Nevertheless, Theresienstadt was the deportation site with the greatest chance of survival: as many as 1,318 deportees (about 9%) survived there until liberation in 1945.
“Extermination camps”: When the extermination of European Jewry was a done deal, the Nazi regime had three “extermination camps” built in the “Generalgouvernement” as part of the so-called “Aktion Reinhardt” (named after Reinhard (sic!) Heydrich, who died as a result of an assassination attempt in Prague in May 1942) in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. They did not provide for accommodation and care for the vast majority of the victims destined for murder in the first place, but were rather pure killing sites and functioned according to the same organizational principles (which were first tested in Belzec): Built in sparsely populated areas near railroad lines, they were rather small in scale. A new, depersonalized method of mass killing was applied: poisoning in gas chambers, which had previously been used in the “euthanasia program” (murder of terminally ill and handicapped persons) in the German Reich with gas vans and in gas chambers – initially not by poisonous gas (Zyklon B) but by carbon monoxide (exhaust fumes from combustion engines), which led to asphyxiation. Only about 20 to 30 German personnel were assigned to each camp for organization and supervision. About 100 to 120 men each, mostly Ukrainian “volunteers,” first herded the people staggering out of the trains into undressing cabins, where money and valuables were also taken from them and the women were shaved, and then herded them naked, with beatings and insults, through narrow corridors toward the gas chambers. The victims’ death throes lasted 20 to 30 minutes. Haste, terror, and deception allowed the murder operations to proceed relatively “smoothly.” Those who were unable to walk had already been segregated and shot in advance. Younger (still) strong Jewish men were also selected as work slaves: They had to clean the trains and gas chambers, sort and pack the luggage, clothing and valuables of the murdered, take the corpses out of the gas chambers, place them in large pits and cover them with earth. Before that, the gold teeth of the murdered were broken out and rings were pulled from their fingers. The members of these “Sonderkommandos,” averaging about 1,000 people, were in turn periodically murdered and replaced. When the smell of decomposing corpses became a problem far beyond the camps, they switched to burning the bodies. Later, when Russian troops advanced westward, “labor Jews” had to exhume and burn the half-decomposed corpses again. The killing sites at Chelmno/Kulmhof, Maly Trostinec and Majdanek/Lublin operated in a similar manner.
From Vienna, only one direct transport led to one of the three extermination camps of “Aktion Reinhardt”, namely to Sobibor with 996 persons. The main direct killing site for Viennese Jews was Maly Trostinec near Minsk (9 transports, 8,472 persons), where most of the victims were immediately shot or, if not, later suffocated in gas vans. Via intermediate stations, Viennese Jews also reached the extermination camps Belzec and Treblinka as well as Chelmno and Majdanek.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in the “Gau Oberschlesien” (Upper Silesia region) occupies a special position because, in addition to the immediate selection of those deemed “unproductive” and their murder in the gas chambers, the exploitation of the labor power of those (still) capable of work, i.e. “extermination through labor,” also played a major role there. The camp did not reach full capacity until after the end of the large transports from Vienna. Therefore, only one large transport with 995 persons went there directly from Vienna; including other small transports, there were finally 1,567 persons. The fact that Auschwitz was nevertheless a place where a particularly large number of Jewish people from Austria were murdered has to do with the fact that more than 4,000 people were deported there from Theresienstadt (see above).
Concentration camps: Contrary to popular belief, the equation of concentration camps and the persecution of Jews is highly simplified. Concentration camps were part of Nazi rule from the very beginning: they were under the regime of the SS and served for pseudo- and extrajudicial deprivation of liberty, mistreatment, torture, forced labor and murder. There were releases only in the first period, after that a concentration camp incarceration sooner or later equaled a death sentence in most cases. While initially it was primarily political opponents who were to be permanently eliminated and destroyed by concentration camp imprisonment, “protective custody” was soon extended to various “pests of the people” (beggars, vagrants, “gypsies,” “work-shy” people, etc.), then generally to criminals and “asocials.” The “reasons for imprisonment” were indicated by different colored “signs” on the prisoners’ clothing, and the prisoners were grouped informally according to racist principles and national affiliation. At the top of this hierarchy were the so-called “functional prisoners,” who were given power over their fellow prisoners as well as privileges by the SS within the framework of a limited “prisoner self-administration” (mostly criminal prisoners; in individual concentration camps, political prisoners had this role). Membership in the Jewish ethnic group per se was not initially a reason for concentration camp imprisonment – individual Jews got into the concentration camp system by committing criminal offenses specific to them (“racial defilement”) or in connection with other reasons for assignment (e.g. homosexuality). Jews were first deported in large numbers to concentration camps, or almost exclusively to the Dachau concentration camp, in the wake of the “Reichskristallnacht” (November pogroms of 1938). More than 10,000 Jewish prisoners came to Dachau in the process, almost 4,000 of them from Vienna alone. This was to demonstrate emphatically to the Jews that they no longer had a right to exist in National Socialist Germany. Jewish concentration camp prisoners were consistently at the bottom of the prisoner hierarchy; together with Sinti and Roma prisoners, they were a preferred target of torture and mistreatment. For the Jews remaining in the Reich at the beginning of the war, there were no plans to imprison them en masse in concentration camps; rather, they were to be deported to the occupied territories in the “East” (see above). In the wake of the war against the Soviet Union, the National Socialist rulers finally elevated the extermination of the Jewish race in Europe to a goal that was immediately realized in mass murder in specially constructed “extermination camps.” As the Nazi war of conquest faltered, the regime found itself increasingly compelled to resort to forced labor for armaments supplies and to clean up the bombed-out cities. Even Jews, if they were fit for work, were not to be murdered immediately, but were to be exterminated through the hardest labor. The upgrading of prisoner labor due to the war economy was accompanied here and there by a gradual decline in arbitrary terror. The double function of immediate extermination and extermination through labor is exemplified in particular by the Auschwitz concentration camp, where both strategies were implemented side by side. If they reached Auschwitz, the majority of the deported Viennese Jews were those destined for immediate murder in the gas chambers, if only for demographic reasons. However, the Auschwitz concentration camp was also the final destination for those Viennese Jews who fell into the clutches of the Nazi regime while fleeing or having fled, especially when they were caught up by the German war machine in their countries of refuge and deported to Auschwitz from collection camps in the now occupied countries. It can be assumed that among them a larger part belonged to those who were or were to be exterminated by forced labor. Separate forced labor camps for Jews (700 to 800 in total) were increasingly established in the occupied Polish and Soviet territories in connection with the dissolution of ghettos; while the “unproductive” ghetto inhabitants were taken to the extermination camps or even murdered on the spot, the forced labor camps were intended for labor exploitation and extermination through labor of the still able-bodied local Jewish population.
Another murderous chapter of the National Socialist racial theories should be mentioned in conclusion: With the euphemistically named “euthanasia” (Greek for “beautiful death”) actions for the murder of “psychopaths,” “imbeciles,” handicapped people, and “asocial” children and youths, race-hygienic considerations for the “Aufartung” of the people and for the “Ausmerzung von Minderwertigen” were radicalized and implemented by the Nazi regime with unprecedented consistency. The extermination campaign began parallel to the unleashing of the war by the invasion of Poland, in order to counteract the “negative” selection caused by the war, to create hospital space for wounded soldiers and to save treatment and care costs for “unproductive” people. Within the framework of “Aktion T4” (named after the address of the Führer’s Chancellery at Tiergartenstr. 4 in Berlin, from where the first phase of the murders of the sick was organized), mass murders were carried out in a total of 6 institutions in the territory of the Reich. In the “eastern” euthanasia institution in Hartheim in Alkoven near Linz alone, 18,269 patients met their death in the gas chambers – selected on the basis of medical reports and murdered under medical supervision. Between 3,000 and 4,000 patients from Vienna were transferred to Hartheim from the sanatorium and nursing home Am Steinhof, 2,282 from the institution in Ybbs, which belonged to the city of Vienna, and approx. 500-600 patients from the institution in Gugging, which was located in the Gau Vienna, as well as an unknown number of inmates from Viennese nursing and old people’s homes. Jewish inmates had a higher probability of being selected for euthanasia: Without exception, they had to be transferred to public institutions, and in their case the “diagnosis of Jew” was sufficient to send them to euthanasia. When Aktion T4 had to be stopped in August 1940 after protests by relatives and high church representatives, the murder programs shifted to the asylums themselves: Within the framework of “wild euthanasia”, thousands of patients were murdered by doctors and nursing staff, mainly by deprivation of food and overdosed medication. How many Jewish patients died in the process is unknown. To a large extent, they were simply connected to the transports to the extermination camps despite their illness. At the beginning of the actions for the extermination of “life unworthy of life” was the “euthanasia of children”, which had already begun in the spring of 1939: Children with various disabilities or illnesses had to be reported, were taken from their parents and transferred to one of the 30 newly established specialized children’s wards, where they were killed by deprivation of food or overdose. In Vienna, such a department was established on the grounds of the psychiatric institution called “Jugendfürsorgeanstalt Am Spiegelgrund.” Later, neglected and “difficult to educate” children and adolescents were also admitted there, for whom the threat of death was constantly present. Approximately 700 children and adolescents were murdered at Spiegelgrund. Again, it can be assumed that sick, handicapped, maladjusted children and adolescents of Jewish origin were more likely to become victims of these killing programmes. – The total number of Jewish fosterlings killed within the framework of the organized “invalid murders” is estimated to be at least 500.
It should be noted that Nazi euthanasia was a preliminary stage of the Holocaust: It was the first systematically planned mass murder of a population group carried out by state organs. In terms of organization (deportation to a small number of extermination sites) and technology (gas chambers; Zyklon B), this was groundbreaking. The continuity of personnel is striking: large parts of the management personnel of the extermination sites Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka had previously been involved in the euthanasia programs.
In some “euthanasia institutions” (including Hartheim), the gas chambers were not empty for long: in them, sick and worn-out prisoners from concentration camps were gassed (“invalid euthanasia”) from April 1941 onwards, after Aktion T4 had ended, as part of the so-called Aktion 14f13 (an internal SS code). Jewish and Roma prisoners were also included in this “special treatment” regardless of their state of health.
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Hecht, D.J., Lappin-Eppel, E. and Raggan-Blesch, M.: Topography of the Shoah. Vienna: Mandelbaum Verlag, 3rd edition, 2017.
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