Growing up, Esther and Sam lived very close to each other – no more than an hour by car. They did not, however, meet until that fateful day of August 3, 1943. In those days, when transportation was a horse and buggy, this is not surprising.
Even though they did not know each other, both of their families fled when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. At first, there was shock and horror – Esther’s home in Stoczek was burnt down along with many of her neighbors. Sam’s family was “asked” to leave their farm so a Gentile family could move in. So they fled across the imaginary line cutting Poland in half – to the safety of the Soviet side.
The imaginary line was the result of negotiations between the Foreign Ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union – Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. They signed a non-aggression pact, agreeing to invade Poland and split the country, like a rich dessert at a fine restaurant. After Warsaw was bombed into submission and surrendered on September 28, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a treaty on borders. Each controlled half the country. The imaginary line they drew on the map became very real for the people of Poland. It was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop line.
This German-Soviet treaty worked fine for these two countries until June of 1941. Attacking their ally, the German army crossed over the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, unleashing massive ground and air power.
The killing of the Jews, however, did not go in order of German conquest. The Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line (i.e. in the Soviet controlled areas) were killed before the Jews west of the line (i.e. in the original German controlled areas of Poland). What exactly happened to create this strange order of killing?
In 1939, the German strategy was to move quickly by land and air and take absolute control of its half of Polish territory and to subdue the Polish people. In 1939, the Germans did not worry so much about killing the Jews, but rather focused on killing and deporting the Polish elite. Timothy Snyder explains in Bloodlands: “As Hitler put it, ‘only a nation whose upper levels are destroyed can be pushed into the ranks of slavery.’ The ultimate goal of this decapitation project was to ‘destroy Poland’ as a functioning society.’ (Bloodlands at 126)
It was at this point in 1939 that Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s right hand man, created the Einsatzgruppen. You may recall this lovely group of Nazi murderers that followed the German army into the areas controlled by the Soviet Union. In 1941, they shot one million Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. (See Blogpost Jan. 7, 2016) But in these early days, Heydrich created the Einsatzgruppen as a special task force whose job was to kill the educated class in Poland. (Bloodlands at 126) The elite Poles that were not killed, were sent to concentration camps. (kl at 201)
Originally, there was no plan of mass extermination of the Jews. Certainly, there was a Final Solution, but it’s form was not yet fully articulated. At first, Hitler thought that the Jews could just be moved and resettled somewhere – like Madagascar. As late as July 31, 1941 there was no master plan of genocide. Goring sent the following order to Heydrich:
“Complementing the task that was assigned to you on January 21, 1939, which was to solve the Jewish problem by emigration and evacuation in the most effective manner in accordance with the conditions of that time, I hereby charge you with making all necessary organization, practical and financial preparations for bringing about the final solution of the Jewish problem in the territories within the German sphere of influence in Europe” (Donat – The Scroll of Treblinka at 11).
No mention of killing. Evacuation and resettlement still meant just that.
However, by the end of the summer/early fall of 1941, the mood shifted. Now the Germans were on their way to Moscow and victory over the Soviet Union. It was at this point that they realized that evacuation of millions of Jews was not feasible. There was nowhere to send them (Bloodlands at 209). By the time this realization hit, the German army was way past Stoczek and Warsaw. They were headed to Kiev, Minsk and Moscow. Because of the timing of the genocidal decision, the Jews who lived in the Polish lands initially conquered by Germany were spared the first round of killing.
The first round came as one of Himmler’s great ideas. Wanting to show Hitler that shooting the Jews was easier than starvation, deportation, and slavery, he suggested using the killing machine – the Einsatzgruppen. So that is what happened – the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army as it crossed the Molotov-Ribbentrop line in the summer of 1941. As the army conquered city after city, town after town, the Jews were rounded up and shot into huge pits.
Esther’s family got caught up in this wave of killing. They had been living east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line since 1939. In August of 1941 when the Einsatzgruppen reached Slonim where they were living, the Jews were marched to the outskirts of the nearby town of Baranovich and shot into a pit. Esther escaped death because she was in the hospital recovering from Typhus (and the goodness of the doctor in that hospital). (See blog post Jan. 7, 2016)
After this tragedy, Esther and her then boyfriend Moishe Kwiatek, decided to cross back over the Molotov-Ribbentrop line – back to Stoczek. What they found there was some destruction, but an open ghetto (no walls) and relative quiet. Moishe’s family and others who had stayed were still alive. (See Blog Post May 13, 2016)
The Einsatzgruppen shooting program continued east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line. But in October of 1941, Himmler decided they needed yet another, better way to “take care” of the Jewish problem. In the areas occupied by the Soviet Union, shooting Jews into pits was a good solution, as they could engage the assistance of local policemen. It took a lot of manpower to shoot one million people. In the areas of Poland originally controlled by Germany, however, they could not rely on local manpower. They began to experiment with more “efficient” methods of killing – gas.
On December 12, 1941, Hitler stated, “the world war is here. The annihilation of world Jewry must be the necessary consequence.” After this statement, a full out effort to build the machinery for mass extermination began. (Bloodlands at 215). In very short order, the Germans built and operated the following death camps in Poland:
Chelmo (gas vans): operations – December 1941 – July 14, 1944; 150,000 killed.
Belzec: operations – March 17, 1942 – May 1943; 400,000 killed.
Sobibor: operations – April 1942 -October 14, 1943 (uprising); 165,000 killed.
Treblinka: operations – July 23, 1942 – November 7, 1943 (4 months after uprising); 870,00 killed.
Majdanek: October 1, 1941 [transformed to annihilation camp in 1942] – July 22, 1944; 50,000 killed.
Auschwitz/Birkenau: operations – Feb. 1943 -Jan. 27, 1945 (the Red Army reached Auschwitz) (Auschwitz had been built back in the summer of 1940 as part of the concentration camp system, but Birkenau – with gas chambers – was not operational until the spring of 1943. (Bloodlands at 383.); 1,000,000 killed.
By the time the gassing got up to full speed, one million Jews living east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line were buried in huge pits. After this killing project was successfully completed, the Nazis could turn their attention west to the huge remaining populations of Jews living in Poland and other areas of Europe. They quickly finished off 1.4 million in the Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Belzec Sobibor and Treblinka). This was astonishingly done by November 1943. After that, while Majdanek was still operational, the bulk of the killing in 1943 and 1944 took place at Auschwitz/Birkenau. So the death factory closest to the German border was the last main one to be operational.
At the end of the day, the order of the killing may not matter. Sam and Esther survived, but the rest of their family– along with six million children, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, gand randparents – did not
Interviews with Sam Goldberg
Interview with Esther Goldberg
Donat, Alexander, ed. The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary. New York, NY. Holocaust Library. 1979.
Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
Wachsmann, Nikolaus. Kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York, NY. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015.