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The planned Death Camp in Mogilev

Last Update 12 July 2006

The autumn of 1941 was a critical period in the evolution of the “Final Solution”. Although much evidence about the development of the Nazi policy regarding the annihilation of the Jews of Europe has emerged in recent years, the actual decision-making process is less clear. Conjecture still surrounds the precise chronology and personnel involved, but it is possible to piece together a probable course of events from existing documentation and the extensive scholarly research which this has produced.

In the German-occupied Soviet Union, the initial policy of shooting only Jewish males had been expanded from the late summer of 1941 to encompass all Jews, irrespective of age or gender. As this programme of annihilation gathered momentum in the autumn of 1941, the German Army had commenced the murder of Serbian Jews, and, significantly, Hitler had finally given authorisation for the deportation of German Jews.

In Byelorussia, Einsatzgruppe B had embarked upon an escalating policy of slaughter from the earliest days of the invasion of the Soviet Union. The city of Mogilev is situated on the River Dnieper, about 200 km east of Minsk and close to the border with Russia. The headquarters of the HSSPF Russia Centre, SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, were in Mogilev; Einsatzkommando 8, commanded by SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Bradfisch, were the principal perpetrators of murder in the city. On 25 September 1941, the remaining Jews of Mogilev were ordered to move into a ghetto at the Dubrovenka Bridge within 5 days. On the instructions of Bach-Zelewski, the liquidation of the ghetto soon followed; 2,273 people were murdered on 2 and 3 October 1941, followed by a further 3,726 on 19 October 1941. Within two months, 6,500 Jews had been killed in Mogilev. The remaining Jews, numbering less than 1,000, were resettled in a new labour camp inside the Dimitrov factory.

Between 23-25 October 1941, Heinrich Himmler visited Mogilev and inspected the new labour camp, accompanied by a party of “eight other gentlemen”, one of whom was the HSSPF Nordsee, SS-Gruppenführer Rudolf Querner. In 1946, Bach-Zelewski testified that “a commission” from Hamburg had arrived in Mogilev in 1943 with an SS order to construct “a gas plant” there for the murder of people. The gas chamber was to be erected within a well-preserved factory under Bach-Zelewski’s command, identical to the Dimitrov factory. As with other perpetrators, Bach-Zelewski’s testimony was largely self-serving; the date he mentioned is not credible and was designed to indicate how late in the day he found out about the mass gassings. However, Bach-Zelewski’s evidence is entirely consistent with the visit of Himmler and his entourage in October 1941. The connection between the commission from Hamburg and the proposed gas chamber in Mogilev is yet to be determined. But that something occurred around this time is not in doubt, for in mid-November 1941, the Topf & Söhne Company of Erfurt received an order to construct a huge crematorium at Mogilev from Amt II of the SS Main Office for Budget and Building. On 30 December 1941, an oven with four cremation chambers was delivered and assembled.

There is other evidence to suggest that during those months, Nazi minds were turning towards large-scale exterminations in the Minsk and Mogilev regions. On 15 August 1941, Himmler visited the psychiatric asylum of Novinki, 6.5 km north of Minsk. The asylum was situated at a collective farm which had been assigned to the SS. Himmler instructed SS-Brigadeführer Arthur Nebe, commandant of Einsatzgruppe B, to kill the patients, but to use a “more humane” method than shooting.
On 18 September 1941, 200 patients from Novinki were brought to a small bath house and murdered by using vehicle exhaust gas. A further unsuccessful experiment was conducted using high explosives; 25 patients were locked into two bunkers and the explosives detonated. The gruesome results can be imagined.

A few days earlier another experimental killing involving more than 500 mental patients, and also supervised by Nebe, had occurred in Mogilev. A room in the local mental asylum was hermetically sealed and two pipes were driven into the wall. A car (Adler 1939 limousine or convertible, 2 litres, registration number "Pol 28545") was parked outside and one of the pipes connected to the car’s exhaust. The car’s engine was turned on and the exhaust fumes flooded into the sealed room. When after eight minutes the people in the room were still alive, a second car (possibly a police van Opel Blitz, registration number "Pol 51628") was connected to the other pipe in the wall and both vehicles were operated simultaneously. A few minutes later all of those in the room were dead. Dr Albert Widmann, a chemist from the Criminal Technology Institute (Kriminaltechnisches Institut – KTI) who monitored the operation, described the events:
During the afternoon Nebe had the window bricked in, leaving two openings for the gas hose… When we arrived, one of the hoses that I had brought was connected. It was fixed onto the exhaust of a touring car… Pieces of piping stuck out of holes made in the wall, onto which the hose could easily be fitted… After five minutes Nebe came out and said that nothing appeared to have happened. After eight minutes he had been unable to detect any result and asked what should be done next. Nebe and I came to the conclusion that the car was not powerful enough. So Nebe had the second hose fitted onto a transport vehicle which belonged to the regular police. It then took only another few minutes before the people were unconscious. Both vehicles were left running for about another ten minutes.
The gassing at either the mental home or collective farm was filmed; the film was found at the end of the war in Nebe's flat in Berlin.

The extent to which Himmler was implicated in these experimental killings is revealed in another deposition by Widmann:
"Nebe wanted to discuss the matter with me, as he said that he had to report it to Himmler."

These experiments in Byelorussia have been linked to the development of gassing vans, and indeed Widmann brought drawings of gassing vans with him to Mogilev in September 1941. The Einsatzgruppen, dependant on mobility for maximum effectiveness, sought a portable method of killing. But given that these improvised tests were conducted in stationary gas chambers, it is conceivable that they may also have been part of the search for an immovable killing system. The evaluations of alternative methods – carbon monoxide versus “Zyklon B”, gas vans versus gas chambers – were not mutually exclusive. In fact, all of the options were being assessed during this period. The first use of “Zyklon B” at Auschwitz occurred at the beginning of September 1941; in September 1941, SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Rauff, head of department IID of the RSHA, informed Friedrich Pradel, head of the transportation service of his idea to use heavy trucks as gassing vans; a survey of the camp site must have been underway at Belzec by October 1941 at the latest for construction to have begun on 1 November 1941, as it did; and as has already been indicated, the experimental gassings in improvised gas chambers had been conducted in Novinki and Mogilev in September 1941. It is reasonable to propose that this flurry of activity, all occurring within a few weeks, was not coincidental.

It also suggests that, at least within the higher echelons of the SS and the Führer’s Chancellery (Kanzlei des Führers), some were already contemplating genocide in the autumn of 1941. This was a classic example of what Ian Kershaw described in his memorable phrase as “working towards the Führer”; that is to say anticipating Hitler’s actions and fulfilling his perceived intentions. The description of this mindset by Werner Willikens, State Secretary in the Prussian Agriculture Ministry, describes what the thinking of those responsible for the ensuing slaughter may have been at that time:
Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals…have waited for commands and orders… Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Führer, to work towards him… The one who works correctly toward the Führer along his lines and towards his aim will in future as previously have the finest reward of one day suddenly obtaining legal confirmation of his work.

A probable scenario, therefore, is that in different places, and by different methods, the components were being pieced together in the autumn of 1941 for the annihilation of the Jews. All that was required was the green light from Hitler – and that green light was effectively provided by Hitler’s approval for the deportation of the Reichsjuden. It was not necessary for Hitler, notoriously indolent, to be aware of the minutiae concerning the implementation of the "Final Solution"; in the poisonous atmosphere he had created that could safely be left to others, working towards the Führer. Exactly when the decision was taken for the murder of all European Jews is as yet uncertain; but that the decision could have been taken by anybody other than Hitler is beyond belief.

On 15 October 1941, the first transport of Jews left Wien (Vienna) for Lodz. Between that date and 21 February 1942, a further 58 trains followed, carrying in total more than 58,000 deportees (including 5,000 Sinti and Roma). These transports were destined for four cities in occupied eastern Europe: Lodz, Kovno (Kaunas), Riga, and Minsk. Subsequently other transports were directed to the Lublin district. Other than in Kovno, where 5 transports were killed immediately, relatively few of these deportees were murdered on arrival. Instead they were placed in ghettos, replacing local Jews who had been liquidated in order to make room for them.

One of the many Nazi euphemisms for mass murder was “evacuation to the east.” When Regierungsrat Karl Friedrich Trampedach of the Reichskommissariat Ostland complained about the resettlement of the Reich Jews in Riga and Minsk, he was told on 13 November 1941 not to worry, since the Jews would be sent “further east” (another euphemism for murder). Could it be that these words had a literal as well as a coded meaning – that the final destination of the Reich Jews was then intended to be the new gassing facility to be established at Mogilev, considerably further to the east of both Riga and Minsk? A clue may lie in the words of Reinhardt Heydrich at a conference on “Jewish questions” held in Praha (Prague) on 10 October 1941, at which he stated that the heads of Einsatzgruppen B and C, Nebe and Rasch, “could take Jews into the camps for communist prisoners in the operational area. According to a statement from SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann this is already in progress.

Since 29 September 1941 a labour camp for “suspicious vagabond civilians” had existed in Mogilev – the Dimitrov factory. Similar camps were planned for Vitebsk and Smolensk. Presumably it was to these camps that Heydrich referred.

During the course of his visit to Mogilev in October 1941, Himmler discussed with Bach-Zelewski and the commander of Polizeiregiment Mitte, Max Montua, “solutions” to the “Jewish problem” other than shooting. Himmler promised that those “other solutions” would soon come. The reference could only have been to gassing. Viewed overall, it seems highly probable that Himmler’s visit to Mogilev was connected with plans to deport the Jews.

In the event, the plans for an extermination camp at Mogilev were never realized. The logistical problems of transporting Jews so far East could not be overcome. Transports to Minsk had to be stopped about 20 November 1941 because of the supply crisis of Army Group Centre. So far as can be ascertained, no train containing Polish or Reich Jews appears to have arrived in Mogilev. The shortage of railway engines and rolling-stock led to consideration of transportation of Jews by ship via the rivers Pripet and Dnieper, but this proved impractical. However, the SS did not apparently finally abandon the idea of a death camp in Mogilev until August 1942, when the balance of the order for cremation furnaces placed with Topf & Söhne Company in November 1941 was instead delivered to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The furnaces were installed there in Crematoria IV and V. By that time a death camp in Mogilev was no longer necessary. The Aktion Reinhard camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were fully operational, murdering the Jews of the Generalgouvernement; Chelmno performed the same function for the Jews of the Warthegau. At Auschwitz-Birkenau Bunkers 1 and 2 were already functioning, and plans for the larger crematoria were well advanced; near Minsk, thousands were being killed at Maly Trostinec. At other locations throughout eastern Europe,  the Einsatzgruppen carried out their part in the planned mass-murder. There was no need for a permanent execution site in Mogilev of the kind originally envisaged; instead, gas vans were at various times located in the city.

The labour camp at Mogilev was liquidated in September 1943. It is difficult to arrive at the number of murdered victims of the camp since the corpses were exhumed and cremated in the autumn of 1943. Most had been killed at the nearby villages of Novopashkovo and Polykovitshi. Estimates of the number killed have ranged as high as 25-30,000, although this figure may be overstated. However, it is certain that about 7,500 of the victims were Jews and 1,200 others were mentally ill patients of the region.

Although many details are as yet unclear, it seems apparent that in autumn 1941 the SS intended to send at least some European Jews to Mogilev with a view to killing them there. Mogilev was only one of several options; Lodz, Minsk, and Riga (where there is evidence of a similar intention to establish an extermination camp) were among the others. It would appear that the plans for a death camp in Mogilev ultimately became superfluous as other killing sites became operational.

Gerlach, Christian. Failure of Plans for an SS Extermination Camp in Mogilev, Belorussia, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 7/1, 1997.
Gerlach, Christian. German Economic Interests, Occupation Policy, and the Murder of the Jews in Belorussia, 1941/43, (in Ulrich Herbert, ed. National Socialist Extermination Policies), Berghahn Books, New York, 2000.
Browning, Christopher R. The Origins of the Final Solution, William Heinemann, London, 2004.
Reitlinger, Gerald. The Final Solution – The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, Jason Aronson Inc, Northvale, New Jersey and London, 1987.
Kogon, Eugen; Langbein, Hermann; Rückerl, Adalbert; eds. Nazi Mass Murder – A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993.
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka - The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987.
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 1998.
Gutman, Yisrael & Berenbaum, Michael. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1998.

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