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Under contract with University of Nebraska Press!

Between the Wires: The Janowska Camp and the Holocaust in Lviv

I have been researching the Janowska concentration camp in Lviv since 2013 when I first came across it in the records of a German court case against members of a Wehrmacht motorpool unit that had used slave labor from the camp.  Naturally, I had not “discovered” the camp. But I had never heard of it myself which was at least a little strange given that I like to think I am fairly well-versed in the Holocaust and that perhaps as many as 80,000 Jews had been murdered there between 1941 and 1944.  The more I researched into the camp, the more intrigued I became and the more I realized that there was a really exciting opportunity here to not only tell the story of this place to a larger audience but also explore some of the fundamental questions of the Holocaust.

 

 

 

And so a project which I had initially thought might have been a journal article on a German Army unit’s collaboration with the Holocaust became instead a full-blown book project that covered not only the history of the camp but also the history of the Holocaust in Lviv (and Galicia).  There are so many intriguing facets of this history not least that, despite the crushing oppression of the place, the prisoners managed to revolt in two separate locations, killing guards and escaping. I have now completed the book manuscript and am in the process of securing a publisher.  Needless to say, I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to tell this story and to tell the stories of the survivors and victims of the camp. 

 

In many ways, my two previous books have prepared me to write this one which is meticulously researched while also telling an exciting story of survival and resistance in the midst of one of the most brutal of Nazi concentration camps.  This narrative cannot be told without also telling the story of the city in which it was located: Lviv, Ukraine.  It is, ultimately, a history of a place and of the human drama that played out in it.  And it is a history of a place most have never heard of.  Given the current tragedy unfolding in Ukraine and the destruction of Holocaust sites there, it is even more timely to tell the story of the Ukraine’s experience under Nazi occupation. This book, then, the history of one of the deadliest concentration camps in the Holocaust bringing together a wide variety of archival sources and testimonies.  It contains terrifyingly cruel villains alongside incredibly brave rescuers as well as resisters displaying an almost unimaginable will to survive in the face of horrendous suffering.  Though Janowska played home to almost unspeakable horrors, its prisoners also managed to kill their oppressors and escape from its clutches, a story that is sadly all too rare in the context of the Holocaust.

 

It perplexing that this history has not been extensively told outside a few scholarly works, mostly in German.  Between 1941 and 1944, the Nazis murdered perhaps 80,000 Jews there. To put this into context, consider that this death toll exceeds that of Dachau (41,500), Belsen (52,00), and Buchenwald (56,000). The camp also served as an indispensable accomplice in deporting and exterminating the Jewish population in the city as well as hundreds of thousands of Jews from the surrounding countryside.  As such, it played a critical role in the murder of perhaps as many as 500,000 Jews in Eastern Poland (Galicia).  The camp was simultaneously a prison, a slave labor camp, a transit camp to the gas chambers, and an extermination site.  This makes it somewhat unique in the history of the Holocaust.

 

            In addition, as a rare urban camp, Janowska had particularly close connections with the city of Lviv, itself a fascinating enigma of mixed cultures and national tensions.  Lviv had the third largest Jewish population in Poland of around 160,000.  More Jews lived there than in all of the Netherlands.  Of these, less than one half of one percent were found alive in the city in 1944.  The Janowska story is filled with personal stories of violence, oppression, resistance, revolt, and the attempt to bring its perpetrators to justice.  The story of the camp is inseparable from that of this amazing city, the “Paris of the East” and so Lviv itself figures as a central character in this book.  In addition, readers will learn about:

  • The SS commandant and his wife who both liked to shoot Jews from their balcony in the camp in the presence of their toddler.

  • The Jewish architect who secretly mapped and sketched the camp as a form of witnessing and resistance.

  • The Hungarian-German SS man who turned the camp laundry into a scene of repeated rape and sexual violence.

  • The August Aktion in which 50,000 Jews from Lviv were murdered in the gas chambers in the Bełżec extermination center.

  • The Jewish collaborator in the camp who was murdered by an SS man to hide his own corruption.

  • The horrific work of the “Death Brigade” tasked with exhuming and destroying the bodies of the murdered, along with a prisoner forced to dress up like a devil to preside over the burning of the bodies.

  • The mass prisoner revolt which killed several SS men and allowed over 100 Jews to escape.

  • The SS commandant who fled the camp along with 50 Jews which he falsely claimed as a work detail so that the SS could avoid military service.

  • The second largest trial of Nazis in German history…and the commandant who fled to Egypt.

  • The epidemiologists who smuggled an experimental typhus vaccine into the camp while giving weakened versions to the Nazis.

  • The camp survivors who recognized a former Nazi guard on the street in postwar Germany and literally dragged him to justice.

  • The shadowy German defense attorney who specialized in defending Nazi war criminals.

  • The postwar life of the camp which included KGB prison, police dog training center, and pig farm.

  • The former Ukrainian camp guard who was uncovered in Michigan in the 2000s.

 

I am incredibly grateful to the survivors who shared their stories with me and to the families (of both survivors and perpetrators) who helped with this.  And, while I am obviously the one telling the story in this book, I am eternally indebted to the other scholars who have written about this before me, who helped me with my own questions, and who directed me to sources.  I am also thankful for the unsung heroes of historical work: the archivists, librarians, and museum professionals who safeguard and organize the remains of the past and, equally importantly, who are partners with historians in the research process.  

I am also working on a digital reconstruction of the camp. To learn more about that, click here!

Prisoner Zeev Porath, self-portrait
Prisoner Zeev Porath, self-portrait

Ghetto Fighter's House Museum

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Work detail at inner camp gate (by Zeev Porath)
Work detail at inner camp gate (by Zeev Porath)

Ghetto Fighter's House Museum

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Janowska survivor Leon Wells testifying at the trial of Adolf Eichmann
Janowska survivor Leon Wells testifying at the trial of Adolf Eichmann

Ghetto Fighter's House Museum

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Prisoner Zeev Porath, self-portrait
Prisoner Zeev Porath, self-portrait

Ghetto Fighter's House Museum

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Luftwaffe Aerial Photograph of Janowska, 1944
Luftwaffe Aerial Photograph of Janowska, 1944

National Archives and Records Administration

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Himmler visits the Janowska camp
Himmler visits the Janowska camp

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Janowska camp orchestra
Janowska camp orchestra

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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Luftwaffe Aerial Photograph of Janowska, 1944
Luftwaffe Aerial Photograph of Janowska, 1944

National Archives and Records Administration

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Site of the Janowska camp today
Site of the Janowska camp today

Photo by author

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Site of the Janowska camp today
Site of the Janowska camp today

Photo by author

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Remnants of Janowska guard tower
Remnants of Janowska guard tower

Photo by author

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Site of the Janowska camp today
Site of the Janowska camp today

Photo by author

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For some of my presentations and writing on Janowska, click here.

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