Bełżec extermination camp
|Known for||Genocide during the Holocaust|
|Location||Near Bełżec, General Government (German-occupied Poland)|
|Original use||Extermination camp|
|First built||1 November 1941 – March 1942|
|Operational||17 March 1942 – end of June 1943|
|Number of gas chambers||3 (later 6)|
|Inmates||mainly Jews and Roma|
|Liberated by||closed before end of war|
|Notable inmates||Rudolf Reder, Chaim Hirszman, Mina Astman, Sara Beer, Salomea Beer, Jozef Sand|
Bełżec (pronounced [ˈbɛu̯ʐɛt͡s], in German: Belzec), was the first of the Nazi German extermination camps created for the purpose of implementing the secretive Operation Reinhard, a key part of the "Final Solution" which entailed the murder of some 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The camp operated from 17 March 1942 to the end of December 1942. It was situated about 0.5 km (0.31 mi) south of the local railroad station of Bełżec in German-occupied Poland, in the new Distrikt Lublin of the semi-colonial General Government territory. The burning of exhumed corpses on five open-air grids and bone crushing continued until March 1943.
Between 430,000 and 500,000 Jews are believed to have been murdered by the German SS at Bełżec, along with an unknown number of Christian Poles and Romani people. Only seven Jews performing slave labour with the camp's Sonderkommando survived World War II; and only two of them, became known from their own postwar testimonies submitted officially. The lack of viable witnesses who could testify about the camp's operation is the primary reason why Bełżec is so little known despite the enormous number of victims.
- 1 Background
- 2 Camp operation
- 3 Command structure
- 4 The gas chambers
- 5 Closure and dismantlement
- 6 Death toll
- 7 Postwar commemoration
- 8 Archeological studies
- 9 Survivors
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
The village of Bełżec, in the interwar period, was situated between the two major Polish cities in southeastern Poland with the largest Jewish population locally, including Lublin 76 kilometres (47 mi) northwest of Bełżec, and the city of Lwów southeast (German: Lemberg, now Lviv, Ukraine). Bełżec fell within the German zone of occupation following the Soviet invasion of 1939 in accordance with the German-Soviet Pact against Poland. Originally, in April 1940 the Jewish forced labor was brought into the area for the construction of military defense facilities of the German strategic plan codenamed Operation Otto against the Soviet advance beyond the common frontier.
In the territory of the so-called Lublin reservation earmarked for the new Jewish settlement, the city of Lublin became the hub of Nazi expulsions of about 95,000 Polish Jews from the General Government area. The prisoners were put to work by the Schutzstaffel (SS) in the construction of anti-tank ditches along the transitory Nazi-Soviet border. The Burggraben project was abandoned with the onset of Operation Barbarossa. On 13 October 1941, Heinrich Himmler gave the SS-and-Police Leader of Lublin, SS Brigadeführer Odilo Globocnik an order to start Germanizing the area around Zamość.
The decision to begin work on the first stationary gas chambers in the General Government preceded the actual Wannsee Conference by three months. The site near Bełżec was chosen for several reasons: it was situated on the border between the Lublin District and the German Distrikt Galizien formed after Operation Barbarossa. It could "process" the Jews of both regions. The ease of transportation was secured by the railroad junction at nearby Rawa Ruska and the highway between Lublin-Stadt and Lemberg. The northern boundary of the planned killing centre consisted of an anti-tank trench constructed a year earlier. The ditch, excavated originally for military purposes was likely to serve as the first mass grave. Globocnik brought in Obersturmführer Richard Thomalla who was a civil engineer by profession, and the camp construction expert in the SS. Work has commenced in early November 1941, using local builders overseen by a squad of Trawniki guards. The installation, resembling a railway transit point for the purpose of forced labour, featuring insulated barracks for showering, was finished before Christmas. Some local men were released. The SS completed the work in February 1942 by fitting in the tank engine and exhaust gas piping systems. The trial killings were performed in early March.
The "Final Solution" was formulated at Wannsee in late January 1942 by the leading proponents of gassing unaware of the Bełżec existence, including Wilhelm Dolpheid, Ludwig Losacker, Helmut Tanzmann and Governor Otto Wächter. Dolpheid negotiated with the SS-Oberführer Viktor Brack in Berlin for the use of the Action T4 personnel in the process. Only two months later, on 17 March 1942 the daily gassing operations at Bełżec extermination camp began with the T4 leadership brought in from Germany under the guise of Organisation Todt (OT).
Experience in the Action T4 euthanasia program
The three commandants of the camp including Kriminalpolizei officers SS-Sturmbannführer Christian Wirth and SS-Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering, had been involved in the forced euthanasia program since 1940 in common with almost all of their German staff thereafter. Wirth had the leading position as the supervisor of six extermination hospitals in the Reich; Hering was the non-medical chief of the Sonnenstein gassing facility in Saxony as well as at the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre. Christian Wirth had been a killing expert from the beginning as participant of the first T-4 gassing of handicapped people at the Brandenburg Euthanasia Centre. He was, therefore, an obvious choice to be the first commandant of the first stationary extermination camp of Operation Reinhard in the General Government. It was his proposal to utilize the exhaust gas emitted by the internal-combustion engine of a motorcar as the killing agent instead of the bottled carbon monoxide, because no delivery from outside the camp would be required as in the case of the T-4 method. Wirth decided that the comparable technology of mobile gas vans used at Chełmno extermination camp before December 1941 (and by the Einsatzgruppen in the East), had proven insufficient for the projected number of victims from the Holocaust trains arriving at the new railway approach ramp.
Wirth developed his method on the basis of experience he had gained in the fixed gas chambers of Action T4. Even though Zyklon B became broadly available later on, Wirth decided against it. Zyklon B was produced by a private firm for both Birkenau, and Majdanek nearby, but their infrastructure differed. Bełżec was a Reinhard camp meant to circumvent the problems of supply, and instead, rely on a system of extermination based on ordinary and universally available killing agents. For economic and practical reasons, Wirth had almost the same carbon monoxide gas used in T-4, generated with the torque of a large engine. Although Holocaust witnesses' testimonies differ as to the type of fuel, Erich Fuchs' postwar affidavit indicates that most probably it was a petrol engine with a system of pipes delivering exhaust fumes 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 also used in Bełżec. The T-4 man and first operator of the gas chambers, SS-Hauptscharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, rebuilt an Opel-Blitz post-office vehicle with the help of a local craftsman into a small gas van.
Concealment of camp's purpose
Bełżec "processing" zone consisted of two sections surrounded by a high barbed wire fence camouflaged with the cut fir branches: Camp 1, which included the victims' unloading area with two undressing barracks further up; as well as Camp 2, which contained the gas chambers and the mass graves dug by the crawler excavator. The two zones were completely screened from each other and connected only by a narrow corridor called der Schlauch, or "the Tube". All arriving Jews disembarked from the trains at a platform in the reception zone. They were met by SS-Scharführer Fritz Jirmann (Irmann) standing at the podium with a loudspeaker, and explained by the Sonderkommando men that they had arrived at a transit camp. Men were separated from women and children to ready themselves for the communal shower. The disrobed new arrivals were forced to run along a fenced-off path to the gas chambers, leaving them no time to absorb where they were. The process was conducted as quickly as possible amid constant screaming of the Germans. At times, a handful of Jews were selected at the ramp to perform all the manual work involved with extermination.
The wooden gas chambers, built with double walls insulated by earth packed down in between, were disguised as the shower barracks, so that the victims would not realize the true purpose of the facility. The gassing itself, which took about 30 minutes, was conducted by Hackenholt with the Ukrainian guards and a Jewish aide. Removing the bodies from the gas chambers, burying them, sorting and repairing the victims' clothing for shipping was performed by Sonderkommando work-details. The workshops for the Jewish prisoners, and the barracks for the Ukrainian guards, were separated from the "processing" zone behind an embankment of the old Otto Line with the barb-wire on top. Most Jews from the corpse-unit (the Totenjuden) were killed periodically and replaced by new arrivals, so that they would neither organize a revolt nor survive to tell about the camp's purpose. The German SS and the administration were housed in two cottages outside the camp.
The Bełżec history can be divided into two (or three) periods of operation. The first one, from 17 March to the end of June 1942 was marked by the existence of smaller gas chambers housed in barracks made of planks and insulated with sand and rubber. Bełżec was the first killing centre of Operation Reinhard. There were many technical difficulties with the early attempts at mass extermination. The gassing installation was imperfect and usually only one or two rooms were working, causing a backlog. The victims were Jews deported from the Lublin Ghetto and its vicinity. In the first three months 80,000 people were killed and buried in pits covered with a shallow layer of earth. The original three gas chambers were insufficient for completing the task at hand.
The second phase of extermination began in July 1942, when the new gas chambers were built of brick and mortar on a lightweight foundation, thus enabling the facility to "process" Jews of the two largest agglomerations nearby including the Kraków and the Lwów Ghettos. The wooden gas chambers were dismantled. The new building 24 m long and 10 m wide had six gas chambers, insulated with the cement walls. It could handle over 1,000 victims at a time. The design was soon imitated by the other two Operation Reinhard extermination camps: Sobibor and Treblinka.
There was a hand-painted sign on the new building that read Stiftung Hackenholt or Hackenholt Foundation named after the SS man who designed it. Until December 1942 some 350,000 to 400,000 Jews were murdered there. The last shipment of Jews arrived at Bełżec on 11 December 1942. The buried remains often swelled in the heat as a result of putrefaction and the escape of gases. The surface layer of soil split. In October 1942 the exhumation and burning of all corpses was ordered to cover up the crime, on direct orders from SS-Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik, the deputy of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in Berlin. The bodies were placed on pyres made from rail tracks, splashed with petrol and burned. The bones were collected and crushed. The last period of camp's operation continued until June 1943 when the area was ploughed over, and disguised as a farm.
The camp's first commandant, Christian Wirth, lived very close to the camp in a house which also served as a kitchen for the SS as well as an armoury. He later moved to the Lublin airfield site, to oversee Operation Reinhard. He was transferred by Globocnik to serve along with him in his hometown of Trieste after the German takeover of Italy. They set up the San Sabba concentration and transit camp there, killing up to 5,000 prisoners and sending 69 Holocaust trains to Auschwitz. Wirth received the Iron Cross in April 1944. The following month he was killed by partisans whilst traveling in an open-top car in what is today western Slovenia. After the Bełżec closure, his successor there SS-Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering was transferred to Poniatowa concentration camp temporarily until the massacres of the Aktion Erntefest, and later followed Wirth and Globocnik to Trieste. After the war ended, he served for a short time as the chief of Criminal Police of Heilbronn in the American zone, and died in autumn 1945 in a hospital. Lorenz Hackenholt survived the defeat of Germany, but disappeared in 1945 without a trace.
Only seven former members of the SS-Sonderkommando Belzec were indicted in Munich. Of these, just one, Josef Oberhauser (leader of the SS guard platoon), was brought to trial in 1964, and sentenced to four years and six months in prison, of which he served half before being released a free man.
Bełżec camp guards included German Volksdeutsche and up to 120 former Soviet prisoners of war (mostly Ukrainian) organised into four platoons. Following Operation Barbarossa, all of them underwent special training at the Trawniki SS camp division before they were posted as "Hiwis" (German letterword for Hilfswilligen, lit. "those willing to help") in the concentration camps as guards and gas chamber operators. They provided the bulk of Wachmänner collaborators in all major killing sites of the "Final Solution".
The gas chambers
The more detailed description of how the gas chambers at Bełżec were managed came in 1945 from SS-Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein, Head of the Technical Disinfection Services who used to deliver Zyklon B to Auschwitz from the company called Degesch during the Holocaust. In his postwar Report written at the Rottweil hotel while in the French custody, he described his visit to Bełżec on August 19 or 18, 1942. He witnessed there the unloading of 45 cattle cars crowded with 6,700 Jews deported from the Lwów Ghetto less than a hundred kilometers away, of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival from suffocation and thirst. The remaining new arrivals were marched naked in batches to the gas chambers; beaten with whips to squeeze tighter inside.
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 [locked] 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! "
Closure and dismantlement
In the last phase of the camp operations, all prior mass graves were unearthed by a mechanical digger. It was the result of direct orders from the Nazi leadership (possibly from Himmler), soon after the Soviet Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish soldiers were discovered in Russia. The German-led exhumations by the Katyn Commission revealed details of the mass murder by examining preserved bodies. The Germans attempted to use the commission's results to drive a wedge between the Allies. Therefore, all corpses buried at Bełżec were secretly dug out from the graves and then gradually cremated on long open-air pyres, part of the country-wide plan known as the Sonderaktion 1005. Bone fragments were pulverized and mixed with the ashes to hide the evidence of mass murder. The site was planted with small firs and wild lupines and all camp structures were dismantled.
The last train with 300 Jewish Sonderkommando prisoners who performed the cleanup operation departed to Sobibor extermination camp for gassing in late June 1943. They were told that they were being evacuated to Germany instead. Any equipment that could be reused was taken by the German and Ukrainian personnel to the concentration camp Majdanek. Wirth's house and the neighboring SS building, which had been the property of the Polish Railway before the war, were not demolished. In an effort to disguise the site the SS personnel with work commandos turned the camp into a fake farm with one Ukrainian SS guard assigned to settle there permanently with his family. This model for guarding and disguising murder sites was also adopted in Treblinka and Sobibor death camps.
Historian Eugeniusz Szrojt in his 1947 study published by the Bulletin of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes against the Polish Nation (Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce, 1947) following investigation by GKBZNwP which began in 1945, estimated the number of people murdered in Bełżec at 600,000. This number became widely accepted in literature. Raul Hilberg gave a figure of 550,000. Yitzhak Arad accepted 600,000 as minimum, and the sum in his table of Bełżec deportations exceeded 500,000. Józef Marszałek calculated 500,000. British historian Robin O'Neil once gave an estimate of about 800,000 based on his investigations at the site. German historians Dieter Pohl and Peter Witte, gave estimate of 480,000 to 540,000. Michael Tregenza stated that it would have been possible to have buried up to one million victims on the site although the true death toll is probably around half of that amount.
The crucial piece of evidence in the debate came from newly declassified Höfle Telegram sent to Berlin on 11 January 1943 by Operation Reinhard's Chief of Staff Hermann Höfle. It was published in 2001 by Stephen Tyas and Peter Witte. The radio telegram indicated that 434,508 Jews were killed in Bełżec through December 31, 1942 based on numbers forwarded to SS by the Deutsche Reichsbahn. The camp had ceased to operate for mass killings by then, nevertheless the Holocaust train-records were notoriously incomplete as revealed by postwar analysis by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes against the Polish Nation. "In our view," wrote Pohl & Witte in 2001, "there is no evidence to justify a figure higher than that of 600,000 victims." After this period the cleanup commando of up to 500 prisoners worked in the camp, disinterring the bodies and burning them. The Sonderkommando was transported to Sobibor extermination camp around August 1943 and murdered on arrival.
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 Bełżec to learn the exact number of those murdered, excluding the dead in transport.
The physical evidence of the camp's existence was almost entirely erased at Bełżec before the war's end as a result of the Nazi German prolonged cleanup efforts. There were no survivors to alert the Stalinist officials to the true significance of the site in the postwar years, even though the leveled-out mass graves of the victims remained. Therefore the scene was not legally protected until the late 1940s. Some local inhabitants dug in the ground to look for valuables buried with the ashes. In the second half of the 1950s the pursuit of the Nazi German perpetrators of the Holocaust in Germany drew first serious attention to the site. Furthermore, Soviet trials of Russian camp personnel held in Kiev and Krasnodar in the early 1960s soon followed suit.
In the 1960s the grounds of the former camp were fenced off. The first monuments were erected, although the area did not correspond to the actual size of the camp during its operation due to lack of proper evidence and modern forensic research. Some commercial development took place in areas formerly belonging to it. On top of that, due to remote location on Poland-Soviet border, only a very small number of people visited the former camp before the Revolutions of 1989. The site was largely forgotten and poorly maintained.
Following the collapse of the Communist dictatorship in 1989, the situation began to change. As the number of visitors to Poland interested in Holocaust sites increased, more of them came to Bełżec. Many reacted negatively to the unkept 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, Bełżec became a new branch of the Majdanek State Museum. New official monuments commemorating the camp's victims were unveiled.
One of the prime benefactors behind the new memorial at Bełżec was Miles Lerman, an American Holocaust survivor whose own parents were murdered in Belzec, raising approximately 5 million dollars with the help of the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee. Another prominent Holocaust survivor with a connection to Belzec is philanthropist Anita Ekstein, former national chair of March of the Living Canada. Anita Ekstein was born in the Lviv area and was hidden as a child by Righteous Poles during the Holocaust. Her mother, Ethel Helfgott, was among the victims in Belzec. Anita Ekstein has led many groups of students on educational trips to Poland where she shares her Holocaust story. She first visited Belzec in 2005, a year after the new memorial opened, and discovered her mother's name inscribed on the memorial wall on Mother's Day.
From late 1997 until early 1998, a thorough archaeological survey of the site was conducted by a team led by two Polish scientists including Andrzej Kola, director of the Underwater Archaeological Department at the University of Toruń, and Mieczysław Góra, senior curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Łódź (pl). 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 in diameter; and unearthed some 15,000 unburned bodies.
The largest mass graves at the archaeological dig contained unburned human remains including parts and pieces of skulls with hair and skin attached, as well as entire bodies preserved in wax-fat transformation. The bottom layer of the graves consisted of human fat resembling black soap. It was up to one meter thick. One grave contained uncrushed human bones compressed into a rock formation.
There were only two Jewish escapees of the Belzec Death Camp who survived the war and shared their testimony after the war's end. They were Rudolf Reder and Chaim Hirszman. However, it is only the testimony of Reder that is of significance, since Hirszman was murdered after the war in Poland, before he was able to give a full account of his experience. Reder testified before the Central Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Kraków, Poland in January 1946 and he wrote an account of the Belzec camp in the book Belzec.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Belzec extermination camp.|
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Also in: Archeologists reveal new secrets of Holocaust, Reuters News, 21 July 1998.
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