BELZEC (Pol. Bełżec ), one of the six Nazi death *camps in German-occupied Poland, situated in the southwest corner of the country on the Lublin–Lvov railway line. Between February and December 1942, close to half a million Jews were killed in its gas chambers by the German SS and their collaborators.
During the ten months of its operation, Belzec was the most lethal of all Nazi camps established in occupied Poland. The overwhelming number of those murdered there came from *Lublin and surrounding areas as well as from the provinces of *Cracow, *Lvov, *Stanislav (Stanislawow), and *Tarnopol – the heart of Galician Jewry. Victims also included Jews from Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Once the Nazis concluded that all the Jewish communities of *Galicia had been destroyed, they dismantled the death camp and tried to remove all traces of their crime.
Virtually no one brought to Belzec survived, and only two of its victims bore witness to the horrors that took place there. Rudolph Reder of Lublin was the lone survivor to give extended testimony; a second survivor, Chaim Hirszman, was murdered after his first day of testimony.
Unlike some other death camps, the Nazis situated Belzec in a relatively populated area, close to the heavily traveled railway line. Poles and Ukrainians in the area witnessed the systematic murder of Jews; they saw ghetto liquidations and trains arriving at the killing center. Poles lived in terror that the fate of the Jews could soon be theirs. With the scarcity of Jewish eyewitnesses local Poles became a valuable source for learning what occurred.
Belzec was first established as a forced labor camp for the Jewish and gypsy prisoners who worked on antitank ditches along the German-Soviet border in 1940. This was more than a year before Belzec assumed any role in the killing process. Later, when the killing center at Belzec became operational, these antitank ditches were used as mass graves.
During a conference held in Lublin on October 17, 1941, ss-Brigadefuehrer (Brigadier-General) Obidio Globocnik, who was assigned by Heinrich *Himmler to organize Aktion Reinhard, informed gathered Nazi officials about the decision to murder the Jews of the General Gouvernement. Within two weeks the first three ss men of the future camp crew arrived to Belzec and requested 20 workers from the local mayor. By November 1, 1941, construction had begun on the Belzec killing center. The timing of the creation of Belzec coincided with the creation of *Chelmno, one of the six Nazi killing centers where murder by gassing became operational on December 8, 1941. Gassing was by mobile gas canisters of the same type that were built by ss men stationed at Belzec, which were used to kill mental patients in *Zamosc county in December–January 1941–42.
By the end of February 1942 about 120 Jews from Lubycza Krolewska had become the first victims of gassing at Belzec. Between March 17, 1942, and April 14, 1942, "the great action" of killing Jews began as some 70,000–75,000 Jews, most of them from Lublin and Lvov, were murdered. The first gassing installations consisted of three gas chambers located inside a small 26 × 13 foot barrack. The floor of the gas chamber and the walls were covered with tin and the door was made of hard wood to prevent it from being broken open from the inside. The pace of killing overwhelmed the camp's facilities, so on April 17 the gassing ceased, resuming only in the middle of May 1942 when transports from the Cracow district start arriving again to a functioning camp. Once again the speed of deportation outpaced the camp's facilities. So deportations were halted again and murder by gassing ceased in mid-June to permit the old gas chambers to be torn down and replaced with much larger and more efficient ones. They were made of brick and concrete with one door for entering the gas chambers and another for clearing out the bodies. The size of each gas chamber was 13 × 16 feet. At the entrance to the building was a sign: "Shower and Disinfection Room." Their capacity was 1,000–1,200 bodies at a time, or those incarcerated in ten freight cars of arriving prisoners.
By the second week of July deportations and the gassing that followed resumed, continuing uninterrupted until December when the gassing operations were halted. Work detachments of Jewish forced laborers excavated mass graves and burned the bodies to remove all evidence of the crime. When the work was completed, the Germans murdered virtually all surviving forced laborers at *Sobibor. Chaim Hirszman jumped from the train to Sobibor and survived until liberation. He was killed in Lublin, in 1945. A third escapee, Sylko Herc returned to Belzec, where he remained for 2–3 days before going to Cracow. His fate is not known.
In spring 1943–summer 1944, German officials and *Trawniki-trained auxiliaries plowed under the site of the Belzec camp, planted trees, and built a manor house nearby in order to conceal any traces of the killing center. At the end of July 1944, the Soviet Army overran Belzec
The staff of Belzec consisted of between 14 and 30 SS officials, many of whom were veterans of the t-4 operations: the murder of mentally retarded, physically infirm, and emotionally disturbed Germans, where the Nazis pioneered murder by gassing. Some 90–120 Trawniki-trained guards joined them. Trawniki was the camp where 2,500 captured Soviet soldiers and 2,200 civilians became police auxiliaries for the Aktion Reinhard killing centers. These troops worked throughout the camps and supported deportations throughout German-occupied Poland.
Christian Wirth, the commandant of Belzec, first developed the killing center. In 1942 Globocnik appointed him inspector of the SS Special Detachments with overall responsibility for the Aktion Reinhard camps. Nicknamed the "Wild Christian" by his fellow SS men, his "ideas" for Belzec were also used in Sobibor and Treblinka. He was suceeded as Belzec's commandant by Gottleib Hering in August 1942.
The design of the gas chambers is credited to ss-Haupscharfuehrer (Master Sergeant) Lorenz Hackenholt, who first served as a mechanic in the t-4 program operating the mobile gas vans. After his experience at Belzec he constructed the gas chambers at Sobibor and Treblinka. The gas chambers were euphemistically called Stiftung Hackenholt (Hackenholt Foundation).
Only one Belzec official faced charges after the war, Wirth's deputy, Josef Oberhauer, a veteran of t-4, who supervised the construction of Belzec. In 1965 he was sentenced to four years and six months in prison.
Number of Victims
Until recently, historians cited 600,000 as the number of Jews killed at Belzec. First established in 1946, the figure was based on the prewar population of Jewish communities presumably deported to Belzec. Because this estimate does not account for Jews murdered in the ghetto deportation operations, or shot in other locations, it is too high.
To date, only one known document, a report dated January 11, 1943, from the coordinator of Aktion Reinhard, Hermann Hoefle, to ss-ObersturmbannfuehrerAdolf *Eichmann in Berlin, gives a specific figure for Jews killed in Belzec: 434,508. The report, intercepted by the British during World War ii, and recently discovered as a declassified document, purports to be a statistical summary of the actual number of Jews arriving at Belzec up to December 31, 1942. It had been radioed on January 11, 1943, by Hoefle for the attention of ss-Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Franz Heim, commander of Security Police in Cracow, and to Eichmann, in Berlin.
As Rudolph Reder reported, there was no detailed count of Belzec's victims and some transports may even not have been included in Hoefle's figures. The Belzec Memorial estimates that the actual death toll for Jews at Belzec may have been as high as 500,000. Groups of non-Jewish Poles and Roma and Sinti were murdered at the Belzec death camp as well. Their number, according to testimonies, could range from dozens to several hundred, but a specific number could not be determined. Poles have argued that several of the Poles were killed for the "crime of saving Jews," but to date no evidence has been found to substantiate this claim.
Rudolph Reder, the only known survivor of Bełzec who lived to tell his story, escaped his captors in November 1942 when he was taken outside the camp by them.
Reder described the killing process as follows: Receiving of the train began. Dozens of ss men would open the wagons yelling "Los!" ("Get out!"). With whips and their rifle butts, they pushed people out. The doors of the wagon were a meter or more above the ground. Driven out by whips the people had to jump down: everybody, old and young; many broke their arms and legs falling down. They had to jump down to the ground. The children were mangled in the bedlam. Everybody pouring out – dirty, exhausted, terrified.…
With each transport it was the same as with the one that I arrived on. People were told to undress, leave their things in the courtyard.… People always showed a spark of hope in their eyes that they are going to work. But seconds later, babies were torn away from their mothers, the old and the sick were thrown on stretchers, and the men, little boys and girls were pushed with rifle butts further and further down the path.
While the women were rounded up naked and shaved, whipped like cattle into a slaughterhouse, the men were already dying in the gas chambers. It took two hours to shave the women and two hours to murder them. Many ss men using whips and sharp bayonets pushed the women toward the building with the chambers.
Then the askars [Trawniki-trained guards] counted out 750 persons per chamber.…
I heard the noise of sliding doors, moaning and screaming, desperate calls in Polish, Yiddish – blood-curdling screams. All that lasted 15 minutes.
After the doors were closed, the Jews in the gas chambers realized what was about to happen with them and started to cry and scream. But after a few minutes everything went quiet. After 20 minutes the outer doors of the gas chambers were opened again and the corpses of the Jews were disposed of in the mass graves.
The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners who were selected to live in order to facilitate the camp's function as a killing center. They escorted the victims from the trains to the gas chambers and disposed of the bodies after the victims were murdered. The crucial tasks of the camp were restricted to the Germans. They alone decided "who shall live and who shall die." They started the diesel engines.
How did the Sonderkommando personnel, whom the Germans periodically murdered and replaced with new deportees, cope? Reder reported:
We moved like automated figures, just one large mass of them. We just mechanically worked through our horrible existence … Every day we died a little bit together with the transports of people.
When I heard children calling [in the gas chamber]: "Mommy, haven't I been good? It's dark," my heart would break. Later we stopped having feelings.
Another valuable source of historical information was Kurt Gerstein, who was both a perpetrator and informant. An anti-Nazi by conviction, he nevertheless served as an ss-Untersturmfuehrer in the Technical Disinfections Department in the Hygienic Institute of the Waffen SS, working directly with Zyklon b. Yet he was so appalled by what he saw in the Aktion Reinhard camps of Belzec and Treblinka in August 1942 that he passed on information to a neutral Swedish diplomat, to the Vatican, and to a bishop in the anti-Nazi German Confessing Church. His depiction of the dead is as follows:
Inside [the gas chamber] the people were still standing erect, like pillars of basalt, since there had not been an inch of space for them to fall in. … Families could still be seen holding hands, even in death. It was a tough job to separate them as the chambers were emptied to make way for the next batch. A couple of dozen workers checked the mouths of the dead, which they tore open with iron hooks.… Other workers inspected anuses and genital organs in search of money, diamonds, gold, etc. Dentists moved around hammering out gold teeth, bridges, and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth, in his element.
There were a few outside sources who made information available to the Polish underground. Among them was Janusz Peter, M.D., a Tomaszow physician who obtained information from local members of the underground as well as ss and Trawniki-trained camp guards who were his patients. This information made its way to London and Washington. Peter alone reports on an instance of resistance on June 13, 1942, that resulted in the killing of several ss guards. No other source for resistance has been found.
For many years Jan Karski, the Polish underground courier, maintained that he had visited Belzec. His description of the camp he visited comports with the contours and function of Izbicia, which was a way station to Belzec. Szlamek Bajler, an escapee from Chelmno shortly after it opened, obtained information regarding the camp that was transmitted to the Oneg Shabbat group in Warsaw. A document sent to the West, based on local eyewitness testimony, notes that killing was by electrocution for local Poles.
Postwar History of the Camp
In 1945–1946, the District Commission on the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland in Lublin investigated the crimes committed in Belzec and concluded that the Nazis murdered about 600,000 Jews at Belzec between March and December of 1942. In 1946, the eyewitness account of Rudolph Reder was published by the District Jewish Historical Commission of Cracow. This is the lone account by a victim of Belzec.
In 1963, a monument was unveiled at the Belzec site, the first commemoration of Belzec's victims.
In 1965, the trial of the former SS man of the Belzec crew Josef Oberhauser took place. He was the only SS guard convicted for the crimes committed in Belzec. His sentence was 4½ years in prison. The other seven SS men tried together with Oberhauser were acquitted by the Munich court. The Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland conducted the second investigation of Belzec crimes but did not find any new information about the camp.
In 1967–1968, at the request of the kgb, the Polish secret police investigated Trawniki-trained Ukrainian guards in Belzec. The documentation was only recently declassified after 30 years.
In 1995, the *United States Holocaust Memorial Museum entered into an agreement with the Council for the Protection of Monuments of Combat and Martyrdom in Poland to erect a new monument at the Belzec site. In May 1997 an international jury chose a design by Andrzej Solyga and his team. Over the next two years archeological surveys were conducted at the Belzec site marking down 33 graves as well as remnants of the building structures and in 2002 construction began on a new monument constructed as a joint effort by the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee.
On January 1, 2004, the Belzec memorial became a division of the State Museum of Majdanek in Lublin in anticipation of the opening on June 2 of a new monument consisting of an evocative environment sculpture together with an adjacent museum explaining how the camp functioned.
Y. Arad, Operation Reinhard Death Camps: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (1987); A. Donat (ed.), The Death Camp Treblinka (1979); R. Reder, Bełżec (Pol., 1946).
[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]