Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What's There to Hide? Camouflage and Secrecy of Nazi Extermination Sites

Contemporary German documents referring to the fate of Jews considered unfit for forced labour often do so in a conspicuously vague way. Instead of spelling out actual destinations or camps, general phrases like "eastwards" and "Russian East" were employed.

Elsewhere I've pointed out how the killing of Poles and mentally ill people in 1940 in East-Prussia was disguised by the Nazis. For "camouflaging" the "liquidation" of members of the Polish intelligentsia in the camp of Soldau, "the Poles in question had to sign a declaration of the content that they agreed with their deportation to the Generalgouvernement". The "mentally ill prisoners...liquidated by a special commando" were "evacuated" and "placed somewhere else" in SS correspondence.

The concept to camouflage murder with none or vague destinations was later also implemented for disguising the extermination of the Jews. The deception could work as it had a true core. The Jews had to gather in the towns and villages and were brought away. For the population and authorities parts of the operation could have appeared more or less like a real resettlement. Except that they never heard anything of those "resettled" again, as the "resettlers" were executed, buried and incinerated at the next extermination site.

On the Babi Yar massacre, Einsatzgruppe C reported that "the 'resettlement measure' against the Jews was approved throughout by the population. The fact that in reality the Jews were liquidated was hardly known until now" and that "more than 30,000 Jews showed up, who still believed into their resettlement until shortly before the execution thanks to an extremely clever organization" (see Evidence on the Babi Yar Massacre 29 & 30 September 1941: Contemporary Sources).

The code language not only served to mask the actions in correspondence towards those outside the inner circle, it also worked to relieve the strain by wrapping cold blooded murder with more innocent sounding terms. It was employed also in cases where its euphemistic nature is clear from the context. A commando order of 5 February 1943 by Eduard Strauch described a "resettlement site" as "two pits", with squads of ten men assigned to each pit and two men "handing out the cartridges" (Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945, Band 8 Sowjetunion mit annektierten Gebieten II, p. 581).

The default euphemism to circumscribe government-ordered murder, i.e. executions without juridical decision, used to be the term Sonderbehandlung/special treatment (see also Mattogno's special treatment of evidence). The meaning of the term was widely known and rather easy to see through though, compared to "evacuation", "resettlement", "transportation to the East" etc.. It did not serve to limit the truth only to the most inner circle.

When the SS statistician Richard Korherr compiled a report on the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question", he employed the term "special treatement" to describe the fate of the Jews deported to Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Kulmhof. He was promptly corrected by Himmler's staff that "he wishes that in no place a 'special treatment of the Jews' is referred to" and ordered to use the more inconspicuously phrases "transportation to the Russian East" and "sifted through the camps" (see also Richard "I didn’t know" Korherr). Towards the head of the Security Police and Service Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler considered the report, which masked the systematic extermination of more than 2 Millions Jews as mere transportation to the East, as "quite good as potential material...for camouflage purposes" in the future (Doc. 1).

In his famous Posen speech of 4 October 1943, Himmler disclosed the "Jewish evacuation" towards his SS leaders as the "extermination of the Jewish people". It is borne out by the references to the Röhm Purge killings and 1000 corpses "lying together" that he did not talk about some martial way to describe deportations, but about physical extermination and murder. He reminded the SS leaders to "never speak about it in public" and that the "glory" to have "remained decent" despite the hard task is "never to be mentioned" (Doc. 2). 

These documents by a leading figure of the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish Question reveal two important elements, which are also to be found in contemporary sources on the extermination camps: camouflage and secrecy. Both elements are incompatible with the assertion by Holocaust deniers that these sites were mere transit camps.

Transportation to the East was already the most innocent official claim anyway. According to an internal expert opinion from the RSHA department II A 4 (Reich defense affairs) on revelations of a member of Eichmann's department, mere "evacuation plans" against Jews (without mentioning "committed atrocities") are not to be considered "a state secret", "these measures are by and large not even capable to be kept secret" and that "in part, they are even apparent from the German legislation" (letter Walter Renken to Karl Günther Husmann of 23 December 1942, BArch R 58/10678, unpaginated).

Simple resettlement through transit camps would have not required camouflage nor the highest possible level of secrecy. Apart from that, the hypothesis (not backed up by concrete evidence anyway) that millions of people - useless eaters and dangerous elements in the eyes of the Nazis - were deported from their last known destinations like Auschwitz, Kulmhof, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Minsk and from the occupied Soviet territories even further East in the rear of the fighting army is already an absurdity on its own.


The head of the SS-WVHA Oswald Pohl took the same line as Himmler above during a talk to senior SS personnel in Auschwitz on 23 September 1942 and praised that they have "an ideal attitude towards...the issues and the special tasks, about which we do not have to speak words" (Doc. 3).

Duty notes of May 1944 show that SS personnel was specifically obliged to "unconditional secrecy during the measures to carry out the Jewish evacuation", notable "also vis-à-vis my comrades" (Doc. 4).

The extermination of the Hungarian Jews started in Auschwitz at the time. In order to conceal what was going on the exterminations sites, the erection of thick camouflage fences was planned (Doc. 5). These are well visible on aerial photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex next to the barbed-wire fence (Figure 1).

The screen was at first only erected at crematorium 2 and the Bunker 2 site. The full extension was pushed in mid-June 1944 when Pohl ordered the "camouflage of the crematories,  and  security  measures  by  constructing  a  second  fence  (the camouflage has to be effected by rush-mats...)" (Doc. 6, Figure 2).

On the photograph below of 25 August 1944, the screen is fully developed at all crematoria and the Bunker 2 site.

Figure 1: Aerial Photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau of 25 August 1944 with its extermination sites Bunker 2 (left), Crematoria 4 & 5 (top) and Crematoria 2 & 3 (bottom).

Figure 2: Part of the camouflage fence found after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, from Swiebocka, Auschwitz: A History in Photographs, p. 71

Aktion Reinhardt 

On the extermination camps Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (Aktion Reinhardt camps) operated by Odilo Globocnik in the Lublin area, Himmler remarked towards the organizer of the Euthanasia programme Viktor Brack, who provided "a part of my men" to these camps, that the whole action against the Jews should be carried out "as fast as possible" and "if only for reasons of concealment" according to a letter of Brack of 23 June 1942 (Doc. 7).

Brack agreed with this view according to his "own experience", a reference to the difficulties with hiding the Euthanasia action in Germany (see also letter of Kurt Blome to Arthur Greiser of 18 November 1942 on the intended extermination of tuberculosis sick Poles that "if absolute secrecy could be guaranteed, all scruples, regardless of what nature, could be overcome. But I consider simply maintaining secrecy impossible. Experience has taught that this assumption is true", Doc. 34 here).

The staff of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor had to issue duty notes that obliged them to the highest possible secrecy. It stated "that under no circumstances I am permitted to send any information to the outside of the circle of employees in the 'Einsatz Reinhardt' verbally or in writing about the course, the execution or events of the Jewish settlement", which "persists even after leaving the service". The operation was classified as "Secret State Affair" (Doc. 8).

Also after the end of the operation, Globocnik made sure that the secrecy of the camps was maintained. He reported to Himmler that "the facilities set up for the action...have been completely removed" and that "for supervision reasons, a small farm was created in each camps, which is occupied by an expert" (Doc. 9).


A proposal for decorating a member of "Sonderkommando Lange" with the War Merit Cross 2nd Class was justified with the explanation that the "special tasks require the use of the whole person and the toughest nerves", but that "it is not possible to speak about the details of the tasks carried out for reasons of special secrecy" (Doc. 10).

When the Sonderkommando in Kulmhof approached its quota of exterminating 100,000 Jews in mid 1942, Himmler approved (initially) of "having protectorate people and stateless persons of Polish origin who live within the territory of the Reichsgau Warthegau and are infected with open tuberculosis handed over for special treatment" to Sonderkommando Lange, but ordered "to discuss the individual measures in detail with the Security Police first in order to carry out the task with the least possible attraction of attention" (Doc. 11).

The sorting camp Pabianice operating "in the interest of Sonderkommando Kulmhof", where the looted belongings of the murdered Jews were inspected and sorted (see Sonderkommando Kulmhof in German Documents - Pabianice Sorting Camp, especially Document 96), was likewise declared part of the "Secret State Affair" (Doc. 12).

In March 1943, the extermination camp was about to get closed down and the men of the Sonderkommando were to be sent to anti-partisan warfare on the Balkans (see Sonderkommando Kulmhof in German Documents - Farewell). Rudolf Brandt forwarded Himmler's request to Kaltenbrunner "to urge them to rule off the time of their Sonderkommando and not to speak of it even suggestively" (Doc. 13).


1.) Letter by Heinrich Himmler to Ernst Kaltenbrunner of 9 April 1943:
Secret State Affair!
I have received the statistical report of the Inspector of Statistics about the Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

I consider this report quite good as potential material for later times, namely for camouflage purposes. At the moment it may not be published or forwarded.

The most important thing to me is still that now as much as humanly possible Jews are deported to the East. In the short monthly reports of the Security Police I want only to get notified on the number of deported people and what is left of the Jews at this time.
(BArch NS 19/1570, p. 41, cf. ns-archiv.de [with wrong date in the transcription], my emphasis)

2.) Speech by Heinrich Himmler of 4 October 1943:
I also want to mention a very difficult subject before you here, completely openly.

It should be discussed amongst us, and yet, nevertheless, we will never speak about it in public.

Just as we did not hesitate on June 30 to carry out our duty, as ordered, and stand comrades who had failed against the wall and shoot them. About which we have never spoken, and never will speak.

That was, thank God, a kind of tact natural to us, a foregone conclusion of that tact, that we have never conversed about it amongst ourselves, never spoken about it, everyone shuddered, and everyone was clear that the next time, he would do the same thing again, if it were commanded and necessary.

I am talking about the Jewish evacuation: the extermination of the Jewish people.

It is one of those things that is easily said. "The Jewish people is being exterminated," every Party member will tell you, "perfectly clear, it's part of our plans, we're eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter."

And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say: all the others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew.

And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1000. And to have seen this through, and -- with the exception of human weaknesses -- to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned
(NARA, RG 239, PS-1919; sound recording; English translation from here, my emphasis)

3.) Speech by Oswald Pohl to senior SS personnel on 23 September 1942:
"During today’s observations I have silently noticed that you have an ideal inner relation to the issue at stake and an ideal attitude towards the tasks at hand. This conclusion is especially necessary in relation with the issues and the special tasks, about which we do not have to speak words–issues that belong however to your responsibilities. I observe that you do your duty from an inner obligation and this is the precondition for results."
(The Van Pelt Report, citing Osobyi Moscow, 502/1–17; USHRI Washington, RG 11.001M.03–19; my emphasis)

4.) Duty notes sworn by SS personnel in May 1944:
"1.) I am aware, and I was today reminded of the fact, that I will be punished with death, if I steal for myself Jewish property of any kind.

2.) Most importantly, I will maintain unconditional secrecy during the measures to carry out the Jewish evacuation, and also vis-à-vis my comrades.

3.) I pledge myself to commit my entire person and my capacity for work toward the swift and smooth execution of these measures."
(August Bielisch of 20 May 1944, in Leide, NS-Verbrecher und Staatssicherheit, p. 262; Gottfried Weisse of 24 May 1944 and Gerhard Appel of 25 May 1944, in Faschismus - Getto - Massenmord, p. 373; my emphasis)

 5.) Letter by Karl Bischoff of 17 May 1944:
"For the safety measures (camouflage) of the crematoria at Auschwitz, the necessary documents for the allocation and the application for construction material are to be prepared immediately and to be submitted here."
(Rudolf (ed.), Air-Photo Evidence, 5th edition, p.71-72, citing RGVA, 502-1-313, p. 4; my emphasis)

6.) Memo by Werner Jothann of 17 June 1944 (on a conference with Oswald Pohl the previous day):
"Camouflage of the crematories,  and  security  measures  by  constructing  a  second  fence  (the camouflage   has   to   be   effected   by   rush-mats   which   have   to   be   obtained by  the  SS garrison administration)."
(NO-2359, Pohl Case, p. 165, my emphasis)

7.) Letter by Viktor Brack to Heinrich Himmler of 23 June 1942:
Honorable Mr. Reichsführer!

On instruction from Reichsleiter Bouhler I placed a part of my men at the disposal of Brigadeführer Globocnik some considerable time ago for his special task. Following a further request from him, I have now made available more personnel. On this occasion Brigadeführer Globocnik pressed the view that the whole action against the Jews should be carried out as quickly as it is in any way possible, so that we will not some day be stuck in the middle should any kind of difficulty make it necessary to stop the action. You yourself, Mr. Reichsführer, expressed the view to me at an earlier time that one must work as fast as possible, if only for reasons of concealment. Both views are more than justified according to my own experience, and basically they produce the same results. Nevertheless I beg to be permitted to present the following consideration of my own in this connection:

According to my impression there are at least 2-3 million men and women well fit for work among the approx. 10 million European Jews. In consideration of the exceptional difficulties posed for us by the question of labour, I am of the opinion that these 2-3 million should in any case be taken out and kept alive. Of course this can only be done if they are in the same time rendered incapable of reproduction.

(BArch NS 19/1583, translation from here, my emphasis)

8.) Duty note form dated 18 July 1942:
Through SS-Hauptsturmführer Höfle as head of the main department "Einsatz Reinhardt" at the SS and police leader in the district of Lublin, I have been informed and instructed in detail:

1. that under no circumstances I am permitted to send any information to the outside of the circle of employees in the "Einsatz Reinhardt" verbally or in writing about the course, the execution or events of the Jewish resettlement;

2. that the events of the Jewish resettlement are subject to a "Secret State Affair" in the sense of the classified regulation.


4. about an explicit ban on photographing in the camps of the "Einsatz Reinhardt";


I am aware that the duty of secrecy persists even after leaving the service.
(photostat in BArch B 162/21969, p. 56, see also Verfolgung und Ermordung der Juden 1933−1945, Band 9, p. 336, citing APMM, II/1 as original; my emphasis)

9.) Report by Odilo Globocnik of 5 January 1944:
Secret State Affair

4 copies
First copy

Economic Part of Aktion Reinhardt

The facilities set up for the action from funds which, however, are to be regarded as Reich funds have been completely removed. For supervision reasons, a small farm was created in each camps, which is occupied by an expert. An annuity has to be paid to him in order to maintain the farm.
(NO-057, my emphasis)

10.) Proposal for War Merit Cross 2nd Class of 28 March 1942:
B. is currently working for Sonderkommando Lange. He has proven himself outstanding during the duty. In tireless work he has performed the tasks assigned to the Sonderkommando and has done extremely valuable work. Performing these special tasks requires the use of the whole person and the toughest nerves. Although it is not possible to speak about the details of the tasks carried out for reasons of special secrecy, so much can be said that his activity lies in carrying out important war tasks.
(BArch R 601/1478, my emphasis)

11.) Letter by Heinrich Himmler to Arthur Greiser of 27 June 1942:
Secret State Affair

Reichsführer SS                       Führer Headquarters 27 June 1942
Journal no. 1247/42

Re: Yours of 1 May 1942 P 802/42


Reichs governor SS Obergruppenführer Greiser, Posen

Dear Comrade Greiser:
I am sorry that I was not able until today to give a definite answer to your letter of 1 May 1942.

I have no objection to having protectorate people and stateless persons of Polish origin who live within the territory of the Reichsgau Warthegau and are infected with open tuberculosis handed over for special treatment as you suggest as long as their disease is incurable according to the diagnosis of an official physician. I would like to request, however, to discuss the individual measures in detail with the Security Police first in order to carry out the task with the least possible attraction of attention.
Heil Hitler!

Yours, signed H. Himmler.
(BArch NS 19/1585, p. 10, cf. NARA/T-175/R-103/438 and NO-244, translation based on Nuremberg translation, my emphasis)

12.) Letter by Hans Biebow to Reichsschutzluftbund Ortsgruppe Litzmannstadt West of 15 March 1943:
Among other things, Mr. Seifert is head of a Jewish camp located outside Litzmannstadt operating under "Secret State Affair".
(APL/212/30731, p. 348, my emphasis)

13.) Letter of Rudolf Brandt to Ernst Kaltenbrunner of 29 March 1943:
The Reichsführer SS                          Field Command Post, 29 March 1943
Personal staff
Journal no. 39/110 / 43g.

SS-Gruppenführer Dr. Kaltenbrunner

Dear Gruppenführer!

I would like to send you a copy of a letter written by the Gauleiter and Reichstatthalter Greiser to the Reichsführer-SS on 19 March 1943.

The Reichsführer-SS wishes the use of the 85 men under SS-Hauptsturmführer Bothmann as a unit after their holiday in the SS volunteer division "Prinz Eugen".

The Reichsführer will ask you to gather the men before their engagement and urge them to rule off the time of their Sonderkommando and not to speak of it even suggestively.

The head of the SS Leadership Office, SS-Gruppenführer Jüttner, has merely received from me the notification that in the course of April 85 men with their commander can be assigned as a unit to the SS volunteer division "Prinz Eugen".

Heil Hitler!

yours, signed Brandt
(BArch B 162/601, unpaginated, my emphasis)


  1. Camouflage in shooting documents:


  2. I hope this will not be considered OT.
    "Transport to the East" was also used by Stalin to camouflage the murder of the Polish officers at Katyn etc. Asked by a representative of the Polish government-in exile where these officers are, he answered something like "I don't know exactly where, but they are somewhere in the Far East."
    I found this quote in Jan T. Gross "Neighbors."

  3. He said something to the effect of "some may have escaped to Manchuria". That wasn't a code word, just a lie.

  4. That's correct. In my opinion, using "code words" was lying, too. Hope you'll agree.

  5. No, "special treatment" and "special action" were not lies, just code words.
    Stalin's tall tale was a lie, not a code word, but an NKVD code word for extralegal executions was, for example, "особый порядок", among others.


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