Shapiro Scholar Peter Hayes lectures about the Holocaust at its peak

Wed, 04/01/2020 - 7:00pm


“Makeshift Murder: The Holocaust at Its Peak”

Peter Hayes (Northwestern University)

2019-2020 Shapiro Scholar in Residence

March 5, 2020

On March 5, 2020, Professor Peter Hayes, the 2019-2020 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, gave the annual Shapiro Scholar public lecture entitled “Makeshift Murder: The Holocaust at Its Peak.” Professor Hayes’ lecture detailed the reality of the way the majority of Jewish victims were killed in the Holocaust, challenging the prevalent and well-ingrained understandings about how they were killed. Common metaphors, such as “factories of death,” and common imagery, such as gas chambers at Auschwitz, shape much of popular understanding about how killing during the Holocaust took place. However, Professor Hayes argued, these metaphors and images are deceiving.

In the introductory part of his lecture, Professor Hayes noted that gas chambers were not large structures until 1943, but rather small farmhouses. No crematoria existed at all before 1943, with bodies being burned in open fields instead. Even more so, Professor Hayes argued that murder by gas is highly unrepresentative of the Holocaust, because it reflects a very late stage in the killings and does not resemble the bloodshed of the period before 1943. In addition, Professor Hayes pointed out that even well-known photographs of camp selections of Jews at Auschwitz are highly misleading, as they were staged and thus represent a sanitized view of what happened. Today, when many people think about the Holocaust, they think of Auschwitz. Professor Hayes emphasized that by the time Auschwitz gas chambers as we know them today were constructed in the spring of 1943, over three quarters of Jewish victims of the Holocaust had already been killed. They were slaughtered in villages, forests, in pits for storing fuel, in forts surrounding Kovno in Lithuania, and at Babi Yar in Ukraine, among many other sites.

Professor Hayes focused his analysis on four extermination camps that existed before Auschwitz: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. According to Professor Hayes, these camps were neither industrial nor high-tech, and a closer look into the manner they operated suggests that the Holocaust at its peak was marked by poorly planned massacres, chaos, and brutality. These camps had little resources available, very limited infrastructure and inexpensive installations. Chelmno, for example, was a run-down manor house that the Nazis confiscated from the Polish state. There were no gas chambers at this camp. People were killed in vans and/or trucks and were buried in mass graves until burning pits were created. Like Chelmno, Belzec was also a very small site with only a few barracks. Structures were made out of wood, and only one structure contained three gas chambers. However, approximately 600,000 people were killed at Belzec, an average of 2,500 people per day. Initially, bodies were put in burial pits, but soon the pits were overflowing so the Nazis turned to burning the bodies instead. Even then, the space ran out for ashes so the camp was eventually dismantled. Belzec served as a model for Sobibor, which opened in May of 1942. Unlike Belzec, Sobibor looked like a pleasant village from the outside, which deceived the prisoners. At Sobibor, initial gas chambers proved too small and were replaced by larger ones in September of 1942. Finally, of the four camps, Treblinka was the deadliest one, where around 800,000 people were killed over the period of six months. At Treblinka, like in other camps, the actual space for arrival, processing, and killing of people was very small. Still, 9,000 people were killed per day at this camp, making burial pits overflow like at Belzec. Treblinka was, according to Professor Hayes, the most lethal place on Earth.

In the final part of the lecture, Professor Hayes laid out his concluding arguments. First, he pointed out that these four camps focus our attention on the period between March 1942 and January 1943, when one half of all Jewish victims was killed, two thirds of them at or on their way to these camps (so-called Operation Reinhard). To illustrate his point, Professor Hayes showed a graph developed by an Israeli historian Elijah Stone that maps deportations to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka in the fall of 1942, showing the rise in death toll. The graph powerfully illustrates the intensity of killings before the crematoria at Auschwitz II-Birkenau were even established. Professor Hayes highlighted that these deaths were not the output of well-planned oversight. Second, Professor Hayes returned to his initial point about common metaphors and imagery that dominate our understanding of the Holocaust, particularly to the “factories of death” metaphor. To call these camps “factories of death,” Professor Hayes argued, almost means to dignify them, as in actuality, these camps functioned as slaughterhouses. In addition, calling them “factories of death” also dehumanizes the victims. On the other hand, the metaphor of a factory matches Auschwitz, which exaggerates not only the role of this camp in the totality of the Holocaust, but it also has come to represent the Holocaust as a well-planned, factory-like operation when it was far from that. Professor Hayes pointed out that, while tens of thousands of people survived the camp complex at Auschwitz, not more than one hundred in total survived Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. He concluded by arguing that metaphors are seductive, and many historians are unsuccessful in refuting these well-established images of the past.

Professor Hayes’ thought-provoking lecture was followed by a long and lively discussion, which included questions about the manpower at those four camps, which was minimal; reasons why so few resources were allocated to those camps considering the importance and centrality of their mission; whether there were those who advocated for getting more resources for the camps; whether the Operation Reinhardt would have happened if Reinhard Heydrich had not been killed; whether current detention camps might be inspired by some of the designs of Nazi camps; and whether historians themselves contribute to the prevalence of metaphors that shape our understanding of the Holocaust.

Summary by Badema Pitic

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"Makeshift Murder: The Holocaust at its Peak" - Public lecture by Peter Hayes (Northwestern University), 2019-2020 Sara and Asa Shapiro Scholar in Residence

In this lecture, Professor Peter Hayes detailed how and why the Nazi regime managed to kill an unprecedented number of people with ferocious speed, yet without applying significant quantities of German personnel or resources.

Badema Pitic