Conference Report: Aktion Reinhardt: Historical Contexts, Research Perspectives, and Memory

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Conference Report
Title of the Conference:
Aktion Reinhardt: Historical Contexts, Research Perspectives, and Memory
Organizers: Jerzy Kłoczowski Laboratory of the Institute of East-Central Europe in Lublin; the German Historical Institute in Warsaw; Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies of Yale University
Location: Lublin
Dates: 9-11 June 2022
Author: Winson Chu, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,

It has been 80 years since Nazi Germany implemented Operation Reinhard – the systematic destruction of Polish Jewry in the General Government. Yet the sites of annihilation associated with Operation Reinhard have long stood in the shadow of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which has become a metonym for the Holocaust. Nonetheless, historians and scholars are still finding new sources and interpretations that reveal the origins and contexts of the operation. These new avenues of research expand the geographical reach of the killings, revise commonly assumed periodizations, and give new insight into the motivations of the perpetrators as well as the agency of the victims.

The conference gathered many of these researchers at the “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre, a local civic organization that has been devoted to public historical projects on Jewish life in Lublin. Opening remarks on 9 June were made by the mayor of the city, KRZYSZTOF ŻUK, as well as the representatives of the sponsoring institutions: TOMASZ PIETRASIEWICZ from the NN Theatre, RUTH LEISEROWITZ from the GHI, and STEPHEN NARON from Fortunoff. The division of panels on the first day saw a traditional division of themes according to historian Raul Hilberg: Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders. Nonetheless, the different papers throughout the conference showed how fluid and blurred these categories can be. 

On the Perpetrators panel, EDWARD WESTERMANN (San Antonio) explored how hegemonic notions of camaraderie and masculinity enhanced the verbal, physical, and sexual aggression of German occupation forces. Markus Roth argued that ad hoc solutions of German county chiefs in the General Government led to an incremental radicalization of the Holocaust. ANDRZEJ ŻBIKOWSKI (Warsaw) focused on Waffen-SS officer Jürgen Stroop and his role in crushing the Warsaw ghetto rising in 1943, and ROBERT PARZER (Weimar) challenged common assumption in the causal relationship between the T-4 Euthanasia program and the Holocaust. 

In the Victims panel, CHRISTHARDT HENSCHEL established how Jewish residents of Regierungsbezirk Zichenau, although annexed to the Reich and officially not within the reach of Aktion Reinhardt, nonetheless fell victim to the operation taking place in the neighboring General Government. KATARZYNA PERSON (Warsaw) examined Jewish self-help in the Warsaw ghetto and the apparent solidarity of Polish Jews with the several thousand Western European Jews who arrived in 1942. NATALIA ALEKSIUN (New York) revealed how the scarcity of medical staff in eastern Galicia allowed Jewish physicians to gain documentation and supplies, often from locally stationed Germans, that helped other Jews survive the Holocaust.

In the abbreviated panel on Bystanders, MICHAŁ KOWALSKI (Wrocław) argued that Poles often knew the deadliness of the German killing operations yet watched the Holocaust from afar. ADAM PUŁAWSKI showed how the Polish government in exile used reports of the unfolding Holocaust to improve Poland’s international standing in the war rather than to help the Jews themselves.

The concluding roundtable for the first day centered on discussions and controversies over Holocaust research and invoked a lively discussion between the audience and the panelists Natalia Aleksiun, JAN GRABOWSKI (Toronto), JAN TOMASZ GROSS (Princeton), and ANDREAS LAWATY (Lüneburg). The topics included how the Holocaust fits into national history-writing and Jewish studies as well as how the traditional categories of Perpetrators, Victims, and Bystanders may no longer be useful.

The next day, 10 June, saw three more thematic panels. In the first panel, Collaborators, TOMASZ FRYDEL (Toronto) examined how various forces (including the local population, the Polish underground state, and the German authorities) influenced the behavior of the Polish “Blue Police” toward the Jews. PETER BLACK (Washington) followed the postwar fates of the Ukrainian collaborators knowns as the Trawniki. JOHN-PAUL HIMKA (Edmonton) looked closely at how Ukrainian militias worked with the Germans to implement the Holocaust in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. GRZEGORZ ROSSOLIŃSKI-LIEBE (Berlin) drew a collective biography of Polish village heads in the General Government, where they carried out the “aryanization” of professions and property.

In the panel on Methodology, ANNIKA WIENERT (Bonn) illustrated how several new interdisciplinary studies have pursued an innovative spatial examination of Holocaust sites that goes beyond traditional borders. Using the examples of new museums in Chełmno and Sobibór, ZOFIA WÓYCICKA (Warsaw) investigated how sensually immersive exhibitions have become the “modern” norm in Poland. MARCIN URBANEK (Warsaw) presented a proposed but unimplemented redesign that sought to make the Sobibór memorial site into a space that would preserve the dignity of the Jewish victims.

In the shortened panel on Holocaust education, JOLANTA LASKOWSKA (Lublin) looked at the history of Konzentrationslager Lublin and current public outreach efforts, including the use of comic books, at Majdanek today. Using clips from the Fortunoff Video Archive at Yale University, Stephen Naron demonstrated how postwar testimonies can be analyzed to understand prewar and wartime Polish-Jewish relations and ultimately how Aktion Reinhardt unfolded in occupied Poland.

The concluding Lelewel Debate used the thirtieth anniversary of CHRISTOPHER BROWNING’s Ordinary Men to launch a discussion on how the study of the Holocaust has changed since the book’s publication in 1992. On a video conference call, Browning gave his own reflections on the reception of his book and other works focusing on Nazi Germany’s police battalions. His statement was followed by questions and comments from an interdisciplinary panel composed of MICHAŁ BILEWICZ (Warsaw, psychology), MARK ROSEMAN (Bloomington, history), ROMA SENDYKA (Cracow, literary studies), and ŁUKASZ KRZYŻANOWSKI as moderator. Topics included the interest in widening the circle of perpetrators, the increasing reliance on survivor testimonies, the turn to visual culture that can be seen in the most recent edition of Ordinary Men, and the pitfalls of extrapolating from the experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960s and Philip Zimbardo at Stanford in 1971.

As part of the conference program on 11 June, many of the participants took part in an excursion to Holocaust sites in the Lublin area, including the building where Operation Reinhard was coordinated by Odilo Globocnik and the memorial site and museum at the former extermination camp in Bełżec.

This conference was one of several events devoted to Operation Reinhard in 2022 in light of its eightieth anniversary. The conference highlighted the growing interest in a range of perspectives, but has the scholarship on Operation Reinhard already reached its peak? The deep archival work necessary for further exploration is threatened by the lack of knowledge in the necessary languages, the general reduction of research and travel funding, and especially the pressure of current historical politics to sanitize the role of non-Jewish Poles during the war. Whether a conference in twenty years will still be able to provide substantial and innovative reinterpretations of Operation Reinhard from new sources remains to be seen.

Conference program
“Aktion Reinhardt: Historical Contexts, Research Perspectives, and Memory”. International Academic Conference

Opening remarks
Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, Krzysztof Żuk, Ruth Leiserowitz, Stephen Naron

Perpetrators (chair: Łukasz Krzyżanowski)
Edward Westermann, The Intoxication of Violence: Performative Masculinity, Social Camaraderie, and Aggression
Markus Roth, The German County Chiefs in the Generalgouvernement and their Role in the Holocaust
Andrzej Żbikowski, Jürgen Stroop and the Final Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto
Robert Parzer, A New Perspective on the Entangled History of the Shoa and Nazi-“Euthanasia”: Transfers of Perpetratorship between Occupied Poland and the Altreich

Victims (chair: Marek Radziwon)
Christhardt Henschel, Persecution of Jews in the Regierungsbezirk Zichenau and the “Aktion Reinhardt”
Katarzyna Person, Jews Helping Other Jews in General Government: The Case of Warsaw Ghetto
Natalia Aleksiun, Underground Lives: Jews in Hiding in Eastern Galicia

Bystanders (chair: Christhardt Henschel)
Michał Kowalski, Attitudes of Polish Witnesses towards Liquidation Actions during the Reinhardt Operation: The Case of the Sokołów District
Martyna Grądzka-Rejak, Persecution for Providing Help to Jews during and after Operation Reinhardt
Adam Puławski, Polish Government-in-Exile and the Polish Underground State Facing the Holocaust

Historiography: Discussions & Controversies (chair: Gieorgij Kasjanow)
Jan Grabowski, Jan Tomasz Gross, Andreas Lawaty, Natalia Aleksiun

Collaborators (chair: Mirosław Filipowicz)
Tomasz Frydel, The Polish Blue Police and the Holocaust: Ordinary Men, Extraordinary State Violence
Peter Black, What Happened to the Trawniki Men?: Patterns of Existence After Trawniki
John-Paul Himka, Local Police in Distrikt Galizien and in Volhynia within the Reichskommissariat Ukraine: Their Role in the Holocaust
Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, Polish Mayors and the Holocaust in the General Government

Methodology (chair: Winson Chu)
Annika Wienert, Towards Transdisciplinary Holocaust Research: Spatial Thinking as Recherche Croisée
Zofia Wóycicka, Between Documentation and Staging: Presenting the Holocaust in Contemporary Polish Museums
Marcin Urbanek, New Museum and Memorial Site in the Former Extermination Camp in Sobibór as a Protective Space

Education (chair: Roman Romantsov)
Piotr Trojański, Education about the Holocaust in Poland in a Historical Perspective
Jolanta Laskowska, Holocaust in Educational Activities at the State Museum at Majdanek
Stephen Naron, Reflections of Aktion Reinhardt in the Testimonies at the Fortunoff Video Archive
Monika Tarajko, Last/Lost traces. Symbols and Stories in Memory Work

XXII Lelewel Debate: 30 Years after “Ordinary Men”: Groundbreaking and New Perspectives in Holocaust Research
Mark Roseman (Indiana University, Bloomington), Roma Sendyka (Jagiellonian University, Krakow), Michał Bilewicz (University of Warsaw), Łukasz Krzyżanowski (German Historical Institute Warsaw, chair)