On November 3, 1943, German forces in the Lublin district of Poland carried out the Holocaust's largest massacre of Jews over a 24-hour period. Dubbed Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), the Nazis oversaw the execution of some 43,000 people at Majdanek and two of its sub-camps, Trawniki and Poniatowa.
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Operation Harvest Festival came toward the end of Operation Reinhard, the two-year effort by the Germans to murder all the Jews of what was called the General Government (namely, occupied Poland). Between October 1941 and November 1943, some two million Jews were killed in the context of Operation Reinhard.
By that November, however, the Germans were concerned by the expressions of resistance they were facing from Jews in areas near the Russian front. These had included, from August-October, uprisings in both the Vilna and Bialystok ghettos, and armed actions in both the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. The decision was made to eliminate those Jews who remained alive - for the most part as slave laborers - in the Lublin district, in eastern Poland.
Stripped of illusions
In his 1992 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, historian Christopher R. Browning stated that, up through the spring of 1943, Jews continued to hold on to the hope of salvation through labor, but that in the months that followed, they were gradually being stripped of their illusions. From the point of view of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, their murder – which had always been part of the plan – would have to be carried out in one swift action, otherwise his men would face the possibility of further resistance from Jews who realized they had nothing left to lose.
In preparations for the massacre, prisoners were ordered to dig - in a zigzag pattern - what were purported to be antiaircraft trenches, but what would in fact become their own graves. At dawn on November 3, Majdanek and its two sub-camps were surrounded by SS troops and members of Reserve Police Unit 101. During the course of the day, prisoners were brought from the camps to the trenches and shot, one by one. At Majdanek, the number of murdered reached 18,400, while at Trawniki the casualty numbers reached between 6,000 and 10,000. Because of a lack of manpower, the killing at Poniatowa extended through to November 4.
At all three camps, prisoners were ordered to strip naked and clasp their hands behind their necks before they were led to the trenches, where they had to lie down on top of the bodies of the victims who had preceded them to their deaths. Their shootings were accompanied by a soundtrack of dance music played over loudspeakers, presumably to make it harder for neighbors of the camps to know what was happening. When prisoners in one of the barracks at Poniatowa demonstrated resistance, their building was set on fire. The total killed at that camp is estimated at 14,000.
Aktion Erntefest succeeded in its goal of ridding the Lublin district of its final surviving Jews.