ARC Main Page Occupation of the East Aktion Erntefest


Last Update 16 July 2006


Camp Map
Interactive Camp Map with Photos *
The forced labour camp in Poniatowa was located 30 km west of Lublin.

Shortly before 1939 the Polish authorities started to build an equipment factory in Poniatowa for the Polish army signal service. The settlement for the factory staff (21 blocks) and the first industrial buildings were built in the forest close to the village of Poniatowa. A narrow-gauge railway was also built which connected Poniatowa with Opole Lubelskie and the main railway station in Naleczow. The outbreak of the war prevented the factory from being opened. The German Wehrmacht used the buildings as an army base up until 1941.
In September 1941 the Nazis decided to use these buildings as a camp for 25,000 Soviet POWs. The factory was surrounded by barbed wire and 16 watch towers. It became Stalag 359 (Stalag = Stammlager). The transports of Soviet POWs arrived at Naleczow railway station from where the Soviet soldiers had to walk to Poniatowa. They were maltreated on the way to the camp and many died. Between September and December 1941 almost 24,000 Soviet POWs were deported to Poniatowa.

Narrow Gauge Ramp
Narrow Gauge Ramp *
Main Gate
Main Gate
The prisoners lived in the factory buildings which were not suited to accommodate such large numbers. Some prisoners had to live in the open. The conditions were very unhygienic; there was no possibility of washing or changing clothes. Many of the Soviet POWs died from a typhus epidemic and from hunger. They were employed building new barracks and a water supply. At the beginning of 1942 the mortality in the camp was at its highest, almost 1,000 people died daily. In the spring of 1942 only 500 Soviet POWs remained alive in the camp. These survivors (mainly Volksdeutsche) decided to join the SS units which were trained in the SS training camp in Trawniki.
This Soviet POW camp was then liquidated. Those around 22,000 prisoners who had died or been murdered, were buried in 32 mass graves within the environs of the camp.

In October 1942 Amon Göth, (later the commandant of the Plaszow forced labour camp in Krakow came to Poniatowa and started to organize a work camp for Jewish prisoners. The establishment of the Jewish work camp was a part of Aktion Reinhard and in correspondence with Heinrich Himmler's special order about using able bodied Jews for war production. Goeth decided that the Poniatowa camp should be able to absorb around 9,000 Jewish prisoners. See the map of Zentralbauleitung der SS und Polizei of the planned camp layout.

Camp Barracks
Camp Barracks *
The camp was divided into three sections: the factory buildings, the administration and the prisoner barracks. 30 barracks were built within the environs of the camp. The first Jewish prisoners were deported to Poniatowa from the ghetto in Opole Lubelskie (the main transit ghetto in the Pulawy district) in October 1942. They were selected Jews, mainly from Wien and Slovakia. The largest number of Jewish prisoners arrived at the camp during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April - May 1943.
Deportation from Toebbens Factory in Warsaw, Spring 1943
Deportation from Toebbens Factory.
Warsaw, Ul. Prosta. Spring 1943
This group of around 15,000 Jews had worked for the Walter Toebbens Company in the Warsaw Ghetto. Small transports from Toebbens Company were sent to Poniatowa already in February and March 1943 and the German industrialist personally encouraged the Jewish workers to relocate to Poniatowa, arguing that it is only means to survival. Toebbens had good relations with Odilo Globocnik. He agreed with Globocnik that his factories and workshops from the ghetto could be part of Osti Company, established by Globocnik and the SS in January 1943 for the better exploitation of the Jewish workers in the Lublin district and better plunder of Jewish property in the Generalgouvernement.
It is important to know that the Toebbens Company was the biggest one in the Warsaw Ghetto at that time. Smaller groups of Jewish prisoners were brought to Poniatowa from the Belzyce and Staszow Ghettos and in May 1943 a group of 807 Jews were selected at the Treblinka death camp for work in Poniatowa. The Jewish prisoners who were deported to Poniatowa were mainly specialist workers or young people able to work. However often entire Jewish families with their children were at Poniatowa. There were also rich and influential people from the Warsaw Ghetto among them, for example the families of Judenrat members. There was also a large group of doctors, artists, former industrialists and merchants from Warsaw in the Poniatowa camp. The most privileged group were Austrian and Slovakian Jews who occupied the best functions in the camp and who were in many cases accused of being collaborators by the Polish Jews.
The camp elite, around 3,000 prisoners, lived in the "Settlement", together with their families. The living conditions were better here and they had the possibility of trading with Polish farmers from the neighbouring villages. They also had a theatre and a communal kitchen.
The largest group of prisoners lived in a hall and 30 barracks in the environs of the factory. Men, women and children lived together in this totally overcrowded space. There was an average of 300 prisoners to a barrack. The worst conditions were in the factory hall where thousands of prisoners lived. There were only four water taps. The conditions were filthy and the air fetid.
In the camp kitchen the prisoners got their daily food ration: coffee without sugar for breakfast, watery soup for lunch and 250 grams bread and coffee for dinner. The non-working prisoners only received 100 grams bread and coffee. Those people who still had money bought extra food on the black market where the prices for the smuggled food were 50 % higher than the official price.

Sewing Worshop
Sewing Workshop *
SS Building
SS Building * *
Most of the prisoners, around 10,000 people, worked for the Toebbens Company, mainly producing textiles and leather products or sorting the clothes belonging to the victims of Aktion Reinhard. The production of the Toebbens factories in Poniatowa was totally connected with army supplies. The biggest part of the workers at Toebbens sewed uniforms for the German army. They were treated better than the other prisoners. The prisoners who had numbers higher than 10,000 worked for the SS, they built barracks, streets and water channels or cut trees in the forest. Here the work was arduous and the treatment of the prisoners more brutal.

Until August 1943 the conditions in the Poniatowa camp were more liberal. Some prisoners had the possibility of smuggling food into the camp. The SS organized this to demonstrate that not all Jews were killed and that specialist workers had a chance of survival. In August 1943 Poniatowa was visited by Odilo Globocnik and from that time on the prisoners were treated as concentration camp prisoners. Any breach of camp regulations was punished by death. Very often the SS applied collective responsibility, for example when one prisoner escaped, a group of prisoners were executed. Several people were killed daily. The bodies of the murdered prisoners were burned in a primitive crematorium. This was an iron bed under which a fire was lit. The "real" crematorium was still under construction.

The SS staff in the camp had previously served at the Belzec death camp. SS-Obersturmführer Gottlieb Hering, the last commandant of Belzec, became commandant of Poniatowa in spring 1943. His deputy was Wallerang, named "Glove" by the prisoners because he usually wore white gloves. The main executioner in the camp was Heinrich Gley, also an SS man from Belzec. The entire SS staff numbered 40 people. The civil director of the factory was Ernst Jahn, a Volksdeutscher, former Polish citizen who spoke Polish,
Fajnkind *
German, English and Hebrew fluently. He openly resisted the SS men in the camp and was probably killed by the SS in Tomaszow Mazowiecki before the camp was liquidated. His successor was Bauch who participated in the execution of prisoners. Other Aktion Reinhard men who served in Poniatowa: Ernst Zierke, Hans Zänker, and Robert Jührs.
Among the Ukrainian guards who were in Poniatowa, were also Trawniki men from Belzec death camp.

There were many resistance fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto among the prisoners. They organized the Jewish Fighting Organisation inside the camp with Majlech Fajnkind as its commander. The JFO had contact with the Jewish underground in Warsaw and "Zegota", the Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland. Thanks to these contacts money, medicine, instructions and weapons were smuggled into the camp. "Aryan" ID-cards were counterfeited for Jews planning escape. Most escapees went to Warsaw (the escapees who survived the war became the authors of the memoirs about the camp). The Jewish and Polish underground published reports about Poniatowa which remain the best source of the history of the camp. The camp's underground planned several actions against the SS-men but the JFO in Poniatowa was insufficiently equipped for larger actions.

The outer Double Fence
The outer Double Fence
The camp in Poniatowa was liquidated on 4 November 1943, during the Aktion Erntefest ("Action Harvest Festival"). Several days before their mass execution the prisoners had to dig their own mass graves. Some ditches were dug inside the camp, in front of the camp administration building, others outside the camp, three miles from Wronow Street. The prisoners were informed that they had to build air-raid shelters (Splittergräben). At 5 a.m. on 4 November 1943, all prisoners were assembled in a roll call. They were ordered to a large shop. All of them were crammed into that bulding. From time to time the SS got groups of 50 Jews out of the shop. In the open air they had to take off their shoes and put their valuables into baskets. In a nearby barrack they were ordered to undress, then led to the ditches. The victims had to lie down on the bottom of the ditch, faces downwards. Then they were shot. During the executions music was played from loudspeaker vehicles to cover the screams and shots.
In one barrack, where the members of the camp's underground were gathered, they began to shoot at the SS men. The SS set fire to the barrack and the entire group of fighters was burned alive. Polish firemen from Opole Lubelskie witnessed this, having seen the smoke over the camp. Around 14,000 people were shot that day. A group of 150 - 200 selected Jews were ordered to burn the bodies. They refused it and were executed likewise. The members of the Sonderkommando from Majdanek and the Jewish prisoners, selected during the Aktion Erntefest at Majdanek, were therefore transferred to Poniatowa where they sorted the clothes of the victims and burned the bodies over the following several weeks.

There are only two known testimonies of survivors of the Erntefest executions in Poniatowa. After the war two women, Estera Rubinsztajn and Ludwika Fiszer wrote their memoirs about this mass execution. Both survived beneath the bodies of others killed in Poniatowa.

Today in Poniatowa there are six memorials, but without mentioning the Jewish work camp and the Aktion Erntefest executions.

Artur Podgorski *

Testimonies from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Reports by the Jewish and Polish underground, deposited in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
Documentation of the investigations, organized by the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Lublin in 1947 and 1967. Institute for the National Remembrance in Lublin and State Museum Majdanek.
Testimony by Ludwika Fiszer:
Tatiana Berenstein: Obozy pracy przymusowej dla Zydow w dystrykcie lubelskim (The Compulsory Work Camps for the Jews in Lublin District). "Biuletyn ZIH", 1957, nr 54.
Nachman Blumental: Materialy i dokumenty z czasow okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce (The Materials and Documents from the Time of the German Occupation in Poland). Vol. I, Obozy (The Camps). Lodz 1946.
Ryszard Gicewicz: Oboz pracy w Poniatowej 1941-1943 (The Work Camp in Poniatowa 1941-1943). "Zeszyty Majdanka", Vol. X (1980).
Special thanks to Artur Podgorski, Poland, for his great support.

© ARC 2005