3.2 Plans for ‘resettlement’ of the Jews
The occupation of western Poland after the brief campaign of 1939 gave the Nazis Lebensraum to colonise with ethnic Germans, some of whom were soon to be repatriated to the Reich (and thence, often reluctantly, to the newly annexed provinces of the Warthgau and Danzig) by new conquests. But the preparation of these provinces for the colonists necessitated the expulsion of a million Poles and Jews, who were driven east to the Nazi-controlled satellite of Poland known as the Generalgouvernement (General Government). In the autumn of 1939 plans were prepared for a Jewish reservation in the vicinity of Lublin. It was estimated that some 3 million German, Austrian, Czech and Polish Jews would have to be moved east. As part and parcel of these expulsions Jewish elders were murdered, together with several thousand Polish notables (academics, national and local leaders) who, it was feared, might become the leaders of a Polish resistance. At the same time, linked with the euthanasia programme, about 10,000 patients in psychiatric hospitals, both Jews and Poles, were murdered by shooting and gassing; this was so that accommodation and transit camps could be created for the ethnic German settlers being brought in at this stage from the Baltic states and that part of Poland occupied by the Soviets. However, the policy of genocide does not yet appear to have been on the agenda. The Jews were shut up in ghettos, most notoriously in Warsaw and Lodz, to await resettlement. Himmler himself dismissed extermination in a memorandum of May 1940, preferring the option of shipping Jews off to a colony in Africa or somewhere similarly distant: ‘this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible’ (quoted in Browning, The Path to Genocide, 1992a, p.17). For a few months after the fall of France there were serious discussions about using the island of Madagascar in such a way; the number of Jews to be thus ‘resettled’ grew to about 4 million with the addition of those from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and other conquests. The failure to defeat Britain created a major problem for the implementation of this plan.
While discussions about the Madagascar plan continued, the situation in the ghettos deteriorated. There had been no clear policy from Berlin about confining the Jews in the ghettos; local Nazi authorities were left to improvise on what everyone appears to have regarded as a temporary expedient. Whatever else they were, the ghettos were not the intended resettlement reservations. The Jews rapidly spent their money and sold their valuables so as to purchase food from the Nazi administration and from those outside the ghettos. They began to starve, and epidemics started; possibly as many as 500,000 Polish Jews died as a result of the increasingly appalling conditions in the ghettos. Some Nazi administrators were unconcerned, but the majority sought to facilitate the creation of systems whereby the ghettos could become self-sufficient, with the Jews being put to work but kept separate from ‘Aryans’ and others.
Around the beginning of 1941 the Madagascar plan was finally abandoned; while the Nazis had no qualms about killing Jews and others, they appear still to have been thinking in terms of removal and using the fittest as slave labour. In March 1941 Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security Head Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA), was discussing plans for a new deportation of Jews further to the east of Poland. Much of the precise detail remains unclear, but it appears that the intention was to separate the Jews by gender, possibly even sterilising the women; the fit would then be used as slave labour, to build roads and drain marshes, while the remainder would be put into ‘death reservations’. It was also accepted that many would die while marching east for the resettlement.