Trawniki was a unique dual-purpose camp whose role in the Holocaust was of great significance yet its name is little known beyond academic specialists and war crimes lawyers. It was originally established in July 1941 in the grounds of an abandoned sugar factory as a detention facility for special categories of Soviet POW: those considered either especially dangerous or potential collaborators. It then became a training facility for SS auxiliaries from the territories of the USSR (primarily Ukrainians) in September. They were initially drawn from the captured Soviet conscripts but later included a substantial number of volunteers. The `Trawnikis', known to the Germans as Hiwis (from Hilfswillige, volunteers), became notorious for their role as guards in the Aktion Reinhard camps. They were also deployed in camps such as Poniatowa and Janowska and used in ghetto clearance operations in major cities. Trawniki was thus crucial in supplying the SS with the manpower it required to implement the Holocaust.
Odilo Globocnik, SS and Police Leader in Lublin, Poland. Unable to satisfy his manpower needs out of local resources, Globocnik prevailed upon Himmler to recruit non-Polish auxiliaries from the Soviet border regions. The key person on Globocnik's Operation Reinhard staff for this task was Karl Streibel. He and his men visited the POW camps and recruited Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian "volunteers" (Hilfswillige, or Hiwis) who were screened on the basis of their anti-Communist (and hence almost invariably anti-Semitic) sentiments, offered an escape from probable starvation, and promised that they would not be used in combat against the Soviet army. These "volunteers" were taken to the SS camp at Trawniki for training. Under German SS officers and ethnic German noncommissioned officers, they were formed into units on the basis of nationality.
Over the next two and a half years, 2,000 to 3,000 easterners (mainly Ukrainians) were trained at Trawniki. They formed the bulk of the men running the death camps. On average, only 20 to 35 German SS men were stationed at each camp. Each camp was normally commanded by an SS captain, with perhaps one lieutenant present as a deputy commandant. All of the other SS men were sergeants; there were no SS privates in the camps.
During the Holocaust the Germans were also fighting major military campaigns on which their survival depended. Their manpower was stretched very thin, but they were at first reluctant to recruit large numbers of fighting forces among the "inferior races" of Eastern Europe. They were, however, entirely prepared to make use of volunteers to assist in genocide. In the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) and the Ukraine, right-wing nationalist groups welcomed the Germans as liberators from "Jewish Bolshevism" and launched pogroms against the Jews either independently or under the benevolent gaze of the Wehrmacht. Organized variously as patriotic militias or "self-protection" units, they killed thousands of Jews and so impressed the Germans that the latter formed them into Schutzmannschaften (police) battalions under the command of German officers. These collaborators were encouraged to recruit volunteers from among their countrymen in German prisoner of war camps. The Germans called those who stepped forward Hilfswillige (volunteer helpers), Hiwis for short; eventually they came to number in the hundreds of thousands. After receiving training at SS camps such as Trawniki in eastern Poland, most of them assisted German order police in various actions against Jews, Gypsies, and partisans. The Germans found that they could usually rely on the Hiwis to perform the least pleasant tasks, such as flushing Jews out of ghetto hiding places and shooting on the spot those too frail to walk to deportation vehicles. Other volunteers became guards at camps and ghettos all over Eastern Europe. More than three quarters of the guards at Treblinka, Bekzec, and Sobibor were Hiwis. Eventually, in 1943 and 1944, Hitler authorized combat units made up of Eastern European volunteers, including two Waffen SS divisions made up of Latvians and one each of Ukrainians and Estonians.