Belzec extermination camp

Belzec extermination camp

Belzec (Bełżec, 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 of Bełżec in the Lublin district of the General Government.

At least 434,500 Jews were killed at Bełżec, along with an unknown number of other Poles and members of the Roma people; [ [ "Belzec"] , "USHMM". Accessed February 5 2008.] only two Jews are known to have survived Bełżec: Rudolf Reder and Chaim Hirszman. The lack of survivors may be the reason why this camp is so little known despite its number of victims.


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 Zamość and to start work on the first extermination camp in the General Government near Bełżec. 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 labour camp. The ditch, originally excavated for military reasons, was likely to serve as the first 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.Fact|date=January 2008

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 Bełżec, 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.Fact|date=January 2008 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 by a large 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 Bełżec: 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 Bełżec.Fact|date=January 2008

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, 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. Belzec extermination camp, the model for two others in the 'Aktion Reinhard' murder program, started as a labor camp in April 1940. Belzec was situated in the Lublin district forty-seven miles north of the major city of Lvov, conveniently between the large Jewish populations of south east Poland and eastern Galicia.

The first commandant of Belzec was SS Colonel General Christian Wirth, a former police officer who had played a leading role in implementing the T4 "euthanasiaprogram". Wirth developed his own ideas on the basis of the experience he had gained in the "Euthanasia" program and decided to supply the fixed gas chamber with gas produced by the internal-combustion engine of a motorcar.

Wirth rejected Cyanide B which was later used at Auschwitz. This gas was produced by private firms and its extensive use in Belzec might have aroused suspicion and led to problems of supply. He therefore preferred a system of extermination based on ordinary, universally available gasoline and diesel fuel.

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.

Bełżec'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.

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 × 5 or 8 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. There was a sign on the new building that read "Stiftung Hackenholt" or Hackenholt Foundation named after the SS-NCO who designed it. In December 1942, the last shipment of Jews arrived in Bełżec. By that time, the Jews in the area served by Bełżec 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, lived very close to the camp in a house which also served as a kitchen for the SS as well as an armoury. [ [ YouTube - Belzec - the house of Christian Wirth ] ] He later moved to the Lublin airfield site to oversee Operation Reinhard. He was transferred to San Sabba, a former rice mill in Trieste, Italy. He received the Iron Cross in April 1944. He was killed the following month by partisans whilst travelling in an open topped car in what is today western Croatia. His successor Gottlieb Hering served after the war for a short time as the chief of Criminal Police of Heilbronn and died in autumn 1945 in a hospital. Lorenz Hackenholt survived the war, but has never been found again although British historian Michael Tregenza may have come close to finding him in 1990 and his colleague Alan Heath suggested that he had located where Hackenholt may have been hiding in the 1960s.

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.

Camp guards

Bełżec camp guards were representatives of different ethnic groups and nationalities (Germans (Volksdeutscher), Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Moldovans, representatives of Soviet Central Asia nationalities, Poles, Slovaks etc.) including but not limited by the former Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) and representatives of different ethnic groups of USSR: [Belzec, Sobibor , Treblinka by Yitzhak Arad – Bloomington Indiana University Press 1987.] , [Belzec by Rudolf Reder – Panstwowe Muzeum Oswiecim – Brezezinka.]

Peter Aleksejev, Iwan Bartels, Ivan Bender, Wasil Bialakow, Wasyl Bulji, Heinrich Dalke, Wasyl Gruzin, Michal Huber, Vasyl Huleyt, Wasyl Hutyt, Iwan Huzij, Stefan Jadziol, Diner Jakovevits, Adolf Jeschke, Boris Kolisyn, Adolf Kolenko, Kyril Kostenko, Boris Kotychin, Mikolay Kozende, Ivan Kozlowski, Iwan Kuczercha, Wasyl Kulychin, Samuel Kunz, Peto Litus, Nikolay Petrovich Malagon, Nikolay Matwijenko, Ivan Nikoforov, Vasilij Orlovski, Peter Oster, Franz Pamin, Nikolai Pavli, Gygori Peczenyt, Alexey Pietka, Genrikh Pitnowij, Michal Pocholenko, Wasyl Podienko, Wasyl Podionak, Michal Polenko, Gregorz Preczony, Wasyl Prochenko, Dimitri Prochin, Alexander Prus, Heinrich Rohle, Boris Rogoza, Rosenholz, Arnold Rosenko, Viktor Sabat, Samuel, Heinz Schmidt, Aleksander Schultz, Jakub Systola, Wasyl Szacholij, Dimitri Szpak, Porfiry Szpak, Alexander Szwab, Iwan Tichonowski, Wilhelm Trautwein, Wasyl Tribenko, Alexander Twerdochlib, Fiodor Wedryhan, Ivan Werdenik, Edward Wlasiuk, Michal Wonk, Jakub Wysota, Iwan Zajczew, Ivan Zuk.

Most of the Soviet POWs before they were sent as guards to the concentration camps have undergone a special training in Trawniki which originally was a holding center for refugees and Soviet POWs, whom the Security Police and SD had designated either potential collaborators or dangerous persons. [ [ Trawniki ] ]

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 Bełżec. 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 Bełżec 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! "
cite book |title= Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps |last= Arad | first= Yitzhak |year= 1987 |publisher= Indiana University Press|isbn= 978-0253342935 |pages= 102

Death toll

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 Bełżec as 600,000Fact|date=February 2007. This number became widely accepted in literature. Raul Hilberg gave a figure of 550,000. [Raul Hilberg, "The Destruction of the European Jews", Yale University Press, 2003, revised hardcover edition, ISBN 0-300-09557-0] Y. Arad accepted 600,000Yitzhak Arad, "Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps", Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987, NCR 0-253-34293-7] as minimum, and the sum in his table of Bełżec deportations exceeded 500,000. J. Marszalek calculated 500,000Fact|date=February 2007. British historian Robin O'Neil once gave an estimate of about 800,000 (based on his investigations at the site). Fact|date=February 2007 Dieter Pohl and Peter WittePeter Witte and Stephen Tyas, "A New Document on the Deportation and Murder of Jews during "Einsatz Reinhardt" 1942", Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter 2001, ISBN 0-19-922506-0] 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 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 Bełżec through December 31, 1942. As the camp had ceased to operate for mass killings by then, this figure needs to be treated as almost absolute. After this period a sonderkommando of up to 500 people worked in the camp, disinterring the bodies and burning them. The sonderkommando was transported to Sobibor in 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.Fact|date=February 2007

It should also be noted that it is not completely clear whether the Jews who died in transit are included in the final sum.Fact|date=February 2007 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.Fact|date=February 2007 Also, the sources like Westermann's report [The Westermann 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. 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 Bełżec commenced in Spring 1943. The elaborate system of fences and barriers, the barracks and gas chambers were all dismantled. Any items of use were taken to the concentration camp Majdanek. The entire area was then landscaped with firs and wild lupines. Wirth's house and the neighboring SS building, which had been the property of the Polish Railway before the war, were not demolished. The remaining 300 Jewish prisoners were transported to Sobibor.

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." ["Archeologists reveal new secrets of Holocaust", Reuters News, 21 July 1998]

Postwar commemoration

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 largely 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 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, a large new monument commemorating the camp's victims was unveiled.

See also

List of Nazi-German concentration camps



* Yitzhak Arad, "Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps", Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987, NCR 0-253-34293-7
* Raul Hilberg, "The Destruction of the European Jews", Yale University Press, 2003, revised hardcover edition, ISBN 0-300-09557-0
* Peter Witte and Stephen Tyas, "A New Document on the Deportation and Murder of Jews during "Einsatz Reinhardt" 1942", Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, Winter 2001, ISBN 0-19-922506-0
* Adalbert Rückerl (Ed.), " Nationalsozialistische-Vernichtungslager im Spiegel deutscher Strafprozesse. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno", dtv dokumente, München 1977, ISBN 978-3423029049
* Rudolf Reder, "Belzec", Kraków, 1946
* Jan H. Fahlbusch, "Im Zentrum des Massenmordes. Ernst Zierke im Vernichtungslager Belzec", In: Andreas Mix (Ed.), KZ-Verbrechen. Beiträge zur Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. Metropol-Verlag, Berlin 2007.
* Bogdan Musial, "The Origins of ‘Operation Reinhard’: The Decision-Making Process for the Mass Murder of the Jews in the Generalgouvernment", "Yad Vashem Studies" 28 (2000): 113-153.

External links

* [ The Belzec Death Camp]
*United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - [ Belzec] and [ Timeline]
* [ Bonnie M. Harris, The Belzec Memorial Site]

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