The Nazi Holocaust killed almost 1.5 million Jews in just three months in 1942, according to a study of archival German railroad records. That’s an even higher death rate than previously suspected for the largest murder campaign of World War II.
Some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during the war. Operation Reinhard, the deadliest murder campaign in the racist genocide of these people, killed roughly 1.7 million Jews from 1942 to 1943, largely in three large death camps in western Poland.
Retreating Germans destroyed many of the records of these murders at the end of World War II as Soviet armies closed in on Berlin, and scholars have struggled to estimate death tolls. In the new report, published in Science Advances, biomathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University and RMIT University looked at the rate at which people were murdered in Operation Reinhard, not just the number of total deaths. The German National Railway moved millions of Jews to killing centers in “special trains” on strict timetables. Stone analyzed railway records of 480 of these deportations from 393 Polish towns and ghettos to calculate for the first time the month-to-month rate at which the Nazis killed Jews during Operation Reinhard.
“When I plotted the data for the first time, I was completely shocked to see the three month peak,” Stone told BuzzFeed News by email. Some 500,000 people a month were gassed or shot dead from August to September 1942, the peak of Nazi Germany’s expansion into the Soviet Union. “The Nazis went out of the way to make the whole slaughter work with minimal resistance,” Stone added, noting the gas chambers famously disguised as showers.
Cumulative murders in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka camps
Historians have long known that Operation Reinhard, which had the goal of exterminating every Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, was the deadliest campaign of the Holocaust. But the pace of its murders was remarkably faster than previously estimated, Stone’s analysis concludes. The Nazis killed almost one-quarter of Holocaust victims from the towns and ghettos of western Poland with military precision and at a speed that forestalled any resistance, spurred by an August 1942 directive recorded as “Fuhrer ordered all action speeded up!” in German records.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, told BuzzFeed News that the estimate is like many of the grim facts of the Holocaust in being surprising to the general public, for whom memories of the Holocaust have started to fade. (In a recent survey, just 45% of Americans could recall the name of a single camp from the genocide.) The death estimate in the study is not too surprising, Snyder said, given the range of older numbers published by historians in recent decades.
But historian Christian Gerlach of the University of Bern, Switzerland, told BuzzFeed News that the study’s death estimate was too high, pointing to an Operation Reinhard telegram sent by German officers deciphered only in 2001 that suggested Operation Reinhard killed about 1.32 million people. “The organizers of the murders had no reason to understate their numbers,” Gerlach said. And he suggested the railroad record archive that Stone based his analysis on relied too heavily on oral testimony from war survivors.
Measured against other atrocities, Gerlach said, the pace of killing during the Operation Reinhard was roughly equal to the death rate of the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis in two months as well as the extermination of nearly 2 million Soviet prisoners of war by the Nazis in four months from 1941 to 1942. “I think the numbers matter,” he added. “Each single-digit figure symbolizes a human life.”
In addition to the train archives, Stone said, his analysis rests on ghetto records kept by Jewish officials, trial testimony, and research such as an ongoing effort at Israel’s Yad Vashem remembrance center to collect a database of World War II train deportations.
The death rate analysis figures into a wider debate about war, genocide, and the deadliness of the modern era, Stone said, that pits scholars such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker, who see violence as declining worldwide, against those such as Aaron Clauset of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who see peace as far more fragile and war as more deadly now.
While the three death camps of Operation Reinhard — Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec — are not as well known as the Auschwitz complex of concentration and extermination camps that the Nazis erected in western Poland, Stone said they were even more deadly and equally deserve to be remembered and investigated.
After October 1942, Stone’s analysis found that the increased rate of murders ended not due to German reverses in the war, but because the death camps had simply run out of people to kill in German-occupied Poland.