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A View from the River Bug PDF Printable Version E-mail

Pastewnik Skansen
Southeast Poland

29 September 2015

Dear Friends

A View from the River Bug

Barry and Margaret Williamson

After a summer in northern Scandinavia and a reflective journey south through the Baltic Republics, we have now followed the River Bug down through Eastern Poland. This View from the River Bug supplements the earlier View from the Baltic Republics. The overall aim of both pieces is to contrast the overwhelming importance of the European Union, and the peace and security it gives in Eastern Europe, with the shallowness of the self-serving debate on Britain's continuing EU membership. What a difference in history between east and west; what a difference in perspective.


There are many facets to the River Bug: its name derives from the old German word Baug, meaning bent or winding, which it certainly is. Traditionally it divided the Roman Catholic west from the Orthodox east. Following the joint German-Russian invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, it formed the dividing line between the two armies (until 22 June 1941). Today the Bug separates Poland from southern Belarus and northern Ukraine.


The river is also the location of three extermination camps operated by the Germans in 1942 and 1943: Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, all of which we have just visited for the second time. Most of the 70 camps established by the Germans in Poland and 15 other countries were designed to provide slave labour through hundreds of satellite camps operated by German industry. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, many prisoners did forced work outside in one of the many factories, construction projects, farms, quarries or coalmines set up around the camp and owned by German companies. For example, Bayer Chemicals (proud inventors of Aspirin) bought female prisoners in batches of 150 from Auschwitz for experiments with drugs. None survived the medical trials.

In these work camps, severe punishment or death was a consequential detail; people deemed unsuitable for work on arrival, or who later became unfit for work, were killed without mercy. In the extermination camps, the only work available for a few chosen inmates was to help with the killing, with the sorting of clothing and possessions of the dead and with the disposal of the bodies.

The three extermination camps along the River Bug were a major part of the 'final solution', masterminded by Reinhardt Heydrich: indeed it was known as 'Aktion Reinhardt'. Using national railway networks, people were herded directly from cattle wagons into the gas chambers without ceremony. They were told they were taking a shower; instead in most cases diesel engine exhaust took 20 minutes to deliver a slow and painful death. In other cases petrol engines were used, or the more expensive but quicker-acting Zyklon B which released hydrogen cyanide gas. 

France was spared from becoming his next posting when Reinhardt Heydrich was assassinated in Prague in May 1942, by British-trained Czech agents parachuted in for the purpose.

Treblinka and Sobibor are located in remote forests, the trees standing in silent witness to scenes of atrocity beyond imagination. Belzec is on the edge of a small town on a still-busy railway line and a main road into nearby Ukraine.

The Polish government has made a very successful effort to preserve what little was left of these extermination camps, following their destruction by the Germans in retreat before the advancing Russians in 1944. Today they are presented as 'museums' full of memorials, artefacts and information in Polish, English and Hebrew. Most chilling are the photographs showing the humiliation of the Jews concentrated in ghettoes, their degrading transportation and their final annihilation in the death camp itself. Personal written accounts by some of the very few survivors often accompany the images.

A fourth camp revisited on our journey, Majdanek, lies in a suburb of Lublin, a major city and regional capital in southeast Poland. Trolley buses run along the dual carriageway past its gates. It had several functions: providing forced labour for local German industries, storing and sorting belongings taken from its own victims and those of the River Bug extermination camps (including shoes, clothing, jewellery, hair, spectacles and gold teeth) and imprisoning Russian POW's. It also took part in Aktion Reinhardt.

Covering some 90 hectares (220 acres) Majdanek is among the best preserved concentration camps in occupied Europe. Extant are rows of grim barrack huts, double electric fences, watchtowers, gas chambers and crematoria ovens. A mountain of ashes under a concrete roof speaks to the scale of the operation: 80,000 people were killed at this site.

Scenes from Extermination Camps along the River Bug:




And the Concentration Camp in Lublin:


Deaths in the Four Camps Visited in Poland:

Belzec                             430,000
Majdanek                         80,000
Sobibor                           170,000
Treblinka                        870,000  

Total                           1,550,000

Deaths in Other Camps in Poland:

Auschwitz-Birkenau    1,100,000
Chelmo                           150,000
Gross Rosen                     40,000
Plaszow                              9,000
Soldau                              13,000
Stutthof                            65,000
Warsaw                          200,000

Total                           1,577,000

Overall Total              3,127,000

These numbers do not always include deaths and arbitrary murder in ghettoes, during transportation and in industry-run slave labour units.

Other Countries in which German Concentration and Slave Labour Camps were Operated

Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Channel Islands, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Ukraine.

From Final Solution to Final Irony

It was in the southern German town of Augsburg in 1893 that Rudolf Diesel demonstrated the first working prototype of his eponymous engine. He had developed the earlier patented work of the English inventor Herbert Stuart, whose first crude engine ran for 6 hours in 1892. Stuart took the work no further and Diesel is credited with bringing the invention into practical use by 1897. To think, we might have been filling up with 'stuart'.

Thanks to Krupp, Benz and MAN, Germany was among the first countries to use the newly developed diesel engine to pump oil and to power tractors, ships, submarines, trucks, tanks, cars and even airships.

Today it seems that every German town has a Rudolf Diesel Strasse in its industrial zone.

In 1940 the Germans developed a van which was equipped as a mobile gas chamber. The vehicle had an airtight compartment for victims, into which diesel exhaust fumes were transmitted while the engine was running. This was later developed into the much larger-scale use of gas in concentration and extermination camps.

For example, between July 1942 and October 1943 a diesel engine taken from a captured Russian tank was used at the Treblinka extermination camp to kill about 870,000 people, mainly Jews. The deadly agent was the carbon monoxide present in the exhaust.

Burning diesel produces much less global-warming carbon dioxide than petrol, but a lot more of the potentially fatal gases nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. This has caused up to 60,000 premature deaths a year in America alone. The current scandal about diesel emission test rigging by German manufacturers VW and Audi (with subsidiaries Seat and Skoda) can only have added to this figure.

German Reunification

The following article in the Guardian of 3 October 2015 explored the attempts at German reunification, celebrating its 25th anniversary. In summary, the article continues the theme that east is east and west is west, and there are still large gaps in development in several sectors.


We are now travelling in our seventh country this summer that was formerly in the Soviet Union or occupied by it for 45 years Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and now Romania. The contrasts with Scandinavia and Western Europe are sharp, wide-ranging and clearly defined. Why can't the UK join wholeheartedly in the project to create what Gorbachev (the architect of the fall of the Soviet Union) called 'Our European Home'. Some rooms in that home still need renovation. People in Britain talk of 'Europe' as if it were different place. The questions isn't 'shall we join Europe'; the fact is that we are a constituent part of Europe and we should act accordingly.