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Nazis. Belzec extermination camp.

Roma people arrivals in the Belzec death camp
Roma people arrivals in the Belzec death camp awaiting instructions.

Belzec (approximate Polish pronunciation bew-zhets) was the first of the Nazi German extermination camps created for implementing Operation Reinhard during the Holocaust. Operating in 1942, the camp was situated in occupied Poland about half a mile south of the local railroad station Belzec in the Lublin district of the General Government.

At least 434,500 Jews were killed at Belzec, and an unknown number of other Poles and members of the Roma people, and only two Jews are known to have survived Belzec: Rudolf Reder and Chaim Herszman. The lack of survivors may be the reason why this camp is so little known despite its number of victims.

Operation of the camp

Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland (marked with black and white skulls)
Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland (marked with black and white skulls)

On 13 October 1941, Heinrich Himmler gave SS and Police Leader Lublin, SS Brigadefuehrer Odilo Globocnik, two orders in a conference, which were closely connected with each other: to start Germanizing the area around Zamosc and to start work on the first extermination camp in the General Government near Belzec. The site was chosen for three reasons: it was situated at the border between the districts Lublin and Galicia, thus indicating its purpose to serve as a killing site for the Jews of both districts; for reasons of transport it lay next to the railroad and the main road between Lublin and Lvov; the northern boundary of the planned death camp was the anti-tank ditch dug a year before by Jewish slave workers of the former forced labor camp. The ditch was originally excavated for of military reasons, now it was likely to serve as the first huge mass grave. Globocnik's construction expert SS Obersturmfuehrer Richard Thomalla commenced work in early November 1941, using Polish villagers, Globocnik's Trawniki men and, later, Jewish slave workers. The installation was finished by early March 1942.

Richard Thomalla; he supervised the construction of Belzec and other death camps in Poland. Taken prisoner by the Soviet Union in 1945, he was executed in 1957 by the NKVD.
Richard Thomalla; he supervised the construction of Belzec and other death camps in Poland. Taken prisoner by the Soviet Union in 1945, he was executed in 1957 by the NKVD.

The two commanders of the camp, Kriminalpolizei officers Christian Wirth and Gottlieb Hering, had - in common with almost all of their staff - been involved in the Nazi euthanasia Action T-4 program since 1940. Wirth had the leading position as a supervisor of all six euthanasia institutions in the Reich; Hering as the non-medical chief of Sonnenstein (Pirna, Saxony) and Hadamar. As a participant of the first T-4 test gassing of handicapped people at Brandenburg, Wirth had been a killing expert from the beginning. He was, therefore, an obvious choice to be the first commandant of the first extermination camp in the General Government. It might have been his proposal to transfer the T-4 technology of killing by carbon monoxide gas in stationary gas chambers to Belzec, because the comparable technology of mobile gas vans used before since December 1941 in the extermination camp Chelmno (Kulmhof) had proven insufficient as to the planned number of victims. For economic and transport reasons, Wirth did not make use here of industrial bottled carbon monoxide as in T-4, but had the same gas supplied a big engine (although witnesses differ as to its type, most probably it was a petrol engine), whose exhaust fumes, poisonous in an enclosed space, were led by a system of pipes into the gas chambers. For very small transports of Jews and Gypsies over a short distance, a minimized version of the gas van technology was used in Belzec: T-4 man and first operator of the gas chambers, [Lorenz Hackenholt], rebuilt an Opel-Blitz post office vehicle with the help of a local craftsman into a small gas van. A member of the staff testified that the Jewish office girls were murdered in this car on the very last day of Belzec.

The wooden gas chambers were disguised as the barracks and showers of a labor camp, so that the victims would not realize the true purpose of the site, and the process was conducted as quickly as possible: people were forced to run from the trains to the gas chambers, leaving them no time to absorb where they were or to plan a revolt. Finally, a handful of Jews were selected to perform all the manual work involved with extermination (removing the bodies from the gas chambers, burying them, sorting and repairing the victims' clothing, etc.). The extermination process itself was conducted by Hackenholt, Ukrainian guards, and a Jewish aide. The Jewish Sonderkommandos were killed periodically and replaced by new arrivals, so that they would not organize in a revolt either.

Eventually, the extermination camp consisted of two subcamps: Camp I, which included the barracks of the Ukrainians, the workshops and barracks of the Jews, the reception area with two undressing barracks, and Camp II, which contained the gas chambers and the mass graves. The two camps were connected by a narrow corridor called the Schlauch, or "Tube". The German guards and the administration were housed in two cottages outside the camp across the road.

Belzec's three gas chambers began operating officially on March 17, 1942, the date given for the start of Operation Reinhard. Its first victims were Jews deported from Lublin and Lvov.

This document, the so-called Höfle Telegram, confirms 434,508 Jews were killed at Belzec in 1942
This document, the so-called Höfle Telegram, confirms 434,508 Jews were killed at Belzec in 1942

There were many technical difficulties in this first attempt at mass extermination. The gas chamber mechanisms were problematic, and usually only one or two were working at any given time, causing a backlog. Furthermore, the corpses were buried in pits covered with only a narrow layer of earth. The bodies often swelled in the heat as a result of putrefaction and the escape of gases, and the covering of earth split. This latter problem was corrected in other death camps with the introduction of crematoria.

It was soon realized that the original three gas chambers were insufficient for completing the task at hand, especially with the growing number of arrivals from Kraków and Lvov. A new complex with six gas chambers made of concrete, each 4 × 4 or 5 meters, was erected, and the wooden gas chambers were dismantled. The new facility, which could handle over 1,000 victims at a time, was imitated by the other two Operation Reinhard extermination camps: Sobibór and Treblinka. In December 1942, the last shipment of Jews arrived in Belzec. By that time, the Jews in the area served by Belzec had been almost entirely exterminated, and it was felt that the new facilities under construction at Auschwitz-Birkenau could handle the rest.

The camp's first commander, Christian Wirth, was killed in Italy by partisans near Trieste in the end of May, 1944. His successor Gottlieb Hering served after the war for a short time as the chief of Criminal Police of Heilbronn and died in Fall 1945 in a hospital. Lorenz Hackenholt survived the war, but has never been found again. Seven former members of the SS-Sonderkommando Belzec were indicted in Munich (Germany), but only one, Josef Oberhauser, was brought to trial in 1965 and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

Kurt Gerstein's testimony

SS Lt. Kurt Gerstein, who worked in the SS medical service, was ordered to deliver a shipment of Zyklon B to Belzec. He was so shocked by what he saw that he immediately buried the canisters of poison gas, and confessed his experiences to a Swedish diplomat. He describes how he arrived at Belzec on August 19 where he witnessed the unloading of 45 train cars stuffed with 6,700 Jews, many of whom were already dead, but the rest were marched naked to the gas chambers, where:

Unterscharführer Hackenholt was making great efforts to get the engine running. But it doesn't go. Captain Wirth comes up. I can see he is afraid because I am present at a disaster. Yes, I see it all and I wait. My stopwatch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the diesel did not start. The people wait inside the gas chambers. In vain. They can be heard weeping, "like in the synagogue," says Professor Pfannenstiel, his eyes glued to a window in the wooden door. Furious, Captain Wirth lashes the Ukrainian assisting Hackenholt twelve, thirteen times, in the face. After 2 hours and 49 minutes - the stopwatch recorded it all - the diesel started. Up to that moment, the people shut up in those four crowded chambers were still alive, four times 750 persons in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes elapsed. Many were already dead, that could be seen through the small window because an electric lamp inside lit up the chamber for a few moments. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead...Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. He was in his element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: "See for yourself the weight of that gold! It's only from yesterday and the day before. You can't imagine what we find every day - dollars, diamonds, gold. You'll see for yourself!"

Scrawled with a Pencil in the Sealed Cattle Car, a poem by Dan Pagis, forms part of the modern memorial
Scrawled with a Pencil in the Sealed Cattle Car, a poem by Dan Pagis, forms part of the modern memorial.

km Eugeniusz Strojt in an article in the Bulletin of the Main Commission for Investigation of the German Crimes in Poland, estimated the people murdered in Belzec as 600,000. This number became widely accepted in literature. Raul Hilberg gave a figure of 550,000. Y. Arad accepted 600,000 as minimum, and the sum in his table of Belzec deportations exceeded 500,000. J. Marszalek calculated 500,000. British historian Robin O'Neil once gave an estimate of about 800,000 (based on his investigations at the site). Dieter Pohl and Peter Witte gave estimate of 480,000 to 540,000. Michael Tregenza wrote of possible 1,000,000 victims.

The crucial piece of evidence in the debate was published in 2001 by Stephen Tyas and Peter Witte. It was a telegram sent by Hermann Hoefle, Operation Reinhard's Chief of Staff, which indicates that 434,508 Jews were killed in Belzec through December 31, 1942.

The difference between this "low-end" figure and other estimates can be explained by the lack of exact and detailed sources on the deportations statistics. Thus, Y. Arad writes, that he had to rely, in part, on Yizkor books, which were not guaranteed to give the exact estimates of the numbers of deportees. He also had to rely on partial German railway documentation, from the numbers of trains could be gleaned. But here also assumptions had to be made about the number of persons per train. Considering the vagueness of primary sources, many old scholarly estimates are not far off the mark.

It should also be noted that it is not completely clear whether the Jews who died in transit are included in the final sum. Considering the aim of compiling such a statistic (which was to know the overall number of the victims of the "Final Solution" - Hoefle's numbers were used in Korherr Report) they probably were included. Also, the sources like Westermann's report contain the exact data about the number of deported persons, but only estimates of the numbers of those who died in transit, the fact which also hints that they were included in the final sum, because it would be hard for the authorities in Belzec to learn the exact number of those murdered, excluding the dead in transport. Nevertheless, there is no final clarity in this question.

Remains of the camp

As was the case in all of the extermination camps, the Nazis tried to hide or destroy evidence at the end of the war. Bodies were dug up and then crushed and cremated, and the camp was systematically dismantled. The decommissioning of Belzec commenced in Spring 1943. The elaborate system of fences and barriers, the barracks and gas chambers were all dismantled. The entire area was then landscaped with firs and wild lupines. Wirth's house and the neighbouring SS building, which had been the property of the Polish Railway before the war, were not demolished.

From late 1997 until early 1998, a thorough archaeological survey of the site was conducted as there was no memorial yet at the site. The survey was headed by Andrzej Kola, director of the Underwater Archaeological Department at the University of Torun, and Mieczyslaw Gora, senior curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Lodz. The team identified the railway sidings and remains of a number of buildings. They also found 33 mass graves, the largest of which were 210 by 60 feet. The team estimated that they had found 15,000 unburned bodies, and "The largest mass graves ... contained unburned human remains (parts and pieces of skulls with hair and skin attached). The bottom layer of the graves consisted of several inches thick of black human fat. One grave contained uncrushed human bones so closely packed that the drill could not penetrate."

Postwar commemoration

Scrawled with a Pencil in the Sealed Cattle Car, a poem by Dan Pagis, forms part of the modern memorial.Due to Nazi efforts to erase evidence of the camp's existence near the war's end, almost all traces of the camp disappeared from the surface of the site. The mass graves of the camp's victims remained, however, and in the postwar years some of the local inhabitants disturbed them to look for any valuables buried with the victims. These desecrations became relatively well known all over Poland and were widely condemned in the Polish press of the time. Nevertheless, the practice continued for a number of years, and the Polish authorities were unable to put an effective stop to it. Pursuit of the perpetrators continued into the second half of the 1950s.

In the 1960s the area of the former camp was fenced off, and a few small monuments were placed on the site. The fenced area did not correspond to the actual area of the camp during its operation, and so some commercial development took place on areas formerly belonging to it. Due to the isolated location on Poland's eastern border, only a very small number of people visited the former camp before 1988. The site was largerly forgotten and poorly maintained.

Following the collapse of communism in 1989, the situation slowly changed. As the number of visitors to Poland interested in Holocaust sites increased, more of them came to Belzec. Many reacted negatively to the unkempt state of the grounds. In the late 1990s extensive investigations were carried out on the camp grounds to determine precisely the camp's extent and provide greater understanding of its operation. Buildings constructed after the war on the camp grounds were removed. In 2004, a large new monument commemorating the camp's victims was unveiled.

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