The Nazis killed almost one-quarter of all Holocaust victims in less than three months in 1942, a new analysis has found.
Under Adolf Hitler, the Nazis murdered more than 6 million Jewish people during World War II. Because many records were destroyed by the defeated German army, it has been difficult for historians to pinpoint an exact death toll and rate.
But a new study has uncovered some shocking statistics. Published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, the analysis by biomathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University found that between August and September of 1942, almost 500,000 people a month were killed in the Nazis’ racist campaign — nearly 15,000 people a day. That would make it the deadliest three months in human history.
It was part of Operation Reinhard, the deadliest initiative of the Holocaust, which aimed to exterminate every Jewish citizen in Nazi-occupied Poland and ultimately took 1.7 million lives between 1942 and 1943. The Nazis moved Jewish citizens to three large death camps in Poland on the German National Railway, via special trains that ran on rigidly regimented schedules.
Stone arrived at his estimate by studying records of those trips. He looked at railway records of 480 deportations from 393 Polish towns and ghettos, along with Jewish ghetto records kept by officials, trial testimony, and research by Israel’s Yad Vashem remembrance center, which is compiling a database of train deportations.
“Apart from very few exceptions, victims who were transported to the death camps were rapidly murdered upon arrival in the gas chambers, thus giving the system perfected by the Nazis all the characteristics of an automated assembly line,” Stone told Newsweek.
Stone found that the pace of death slowed after October 1942, not because of advances made by Allied forces, but because the Nazis had run out of people to kill in Poland.
In his paper, Stone said he wanted to focus on the rate of killings so the scale of Nazi genocide could be better understood. Historical accounts usually focus on an overall death count, “a single aggregate number that is bewilderingly large and difficult for the human mind to relate to,” he wrote.
The analysis is not without controversy. Historian Christian Gerlach of the University of Bern told BuzzFeed News that Stone’s death estimate was too high. He said a telegram sent by German officers suggested Operation Reinhard killed about 1.32 million people overall. “The organizers of the murders had no reason to understate their numbers,” said Gerlach. “I think the numbers matter. Each single-digit figure symbolizes a human life.”