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The Belzec Extermination Camp
The town of Belzec is located at the southeastern part of Lublin district in Poland. Near this town on the Lublin - Lvov railway line the Germans set up a Jewish labor camp in early 1940. The inmates carried out fortification and dug anti-tank ditches along the separation line between the Soviet and German forces in occupied Poland. The Belzec labor camp ceased to exist after about a year. In November 1941 the Germans started to erect the extermination camp of Belzec. The camp was located 500 meters from the railway siding near the Belzec railway station (in the same spot where the previous labor camp used to exist). Many of the anti-tank ditches were located within the camp area for a reason we will explain later. The construction work was carried out at first by Poles from Belzec and then by Jews from ghettos in neighboring towns.
The death camp in Belzec is the very first extermination camp that was built as part of Aktion Reinhard1 and was constructed almost simultaneously with the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps. The camp staff included thirty German SS men in command and administration positions, almost all with previous experience in the Euthanasia Program2 . There were also one hundred twenty Ukrainian men (soviet prisoners of war) who had volunteered to serve the Germans. The Ukrainians executed all extermination and camp guarding duties. They handled any resistance by the Jews who were unloaded from an incoming transport and prevented any escape attempt. The camp was using the services of some Jewish prisoners as well. Belzec camp was square in shape (270 meters each side) enclosed by a barbed - wire fence. Watchtowers were located in the corners of the camp and one was located in the camp center near the gas chambers. Trees were planted around the camp perimeters to block the view of the camps' interiors. There were special railway tracks leading into the Belzec camp through the main gate at the north side.
Belzec was divided into two sections. The bigger section (camp I) contained the administration buildings and the railway platform. The length of the railway tracks enclosed within camp - I perimeters could accommodate twenty freight cars. The smaller section, camp II, contained the gas chambers and the antitank ditches. Camp II, the extermination section, was enclosed with a fence. To move from camp I to camp II a person had to go through a narrow path (2 meters wide and 35 meters long) known as the "tube" fenced in on both sides. A powerful diesel engine was used both in generating the carbon monoxide gas and in pumping it inside the gas chambers. The capacity of the gas chambers was about 700 people.
A Jewish deportation train of 40 to 60 freight cars used to come to the
Belzec railway station. Each car was packed with more than 100 Jews. The
train travel duration varied from hours to days with no water or toilet
facilities. Upon arrival at their destination many passengers were already
dead due to the horrible travel conditions
2 "Mercy killing" program initiated in 1940 by Adolf Hitler, putting to death handicapped German children "imperfect Aryans".
|they were subjected to. Once the train reached Belzec, 20 of
its freight cars were pulled into the extermination camp while the rest of
the victims were waiting guarded at the Belzec railway station for their
turn. The Jews in the camp were forced out of the cars by the Ukrainian guards.
The men were separated from the women and children and both groups were ordered
to strip. At this point the victims were rushed all naked through the "tube"
to the "showers" (gas chambers). As the air tight door was locked the engine
was started. Carbon monoxide gas was pumped into the gas chambers killing
all of its inhabitants within 20 to 30 minutes.
Close to a thousand Jewish prisoners were kept alive in the Belzec extermination camp. In the few month life extension they were given, they had to perform several duties aiding the extermination process. For efficiency sake the group was divided into teams and each team was concentrating on a specific task. The team that was assigned to the railway platform had to clean the freight cars, help the sick Jews off the train and remove the corpses of those who died en route. The team that worked in the undressing area was sorting clothes and other items, removing the yellow tags from clothes articles3 , searching for money hidden in clothes and other items and packing all articles for shipment to an outside destination. This prisoner group was in charge also of sheering all women's hair4 prior to their dispatch to the gas chambers. One team in camp II was in charge of removing the corpses from the gas chambers and piling them in the anti-tank ditches which were used as burial pits. Another group (named "the dentists") was assigned the task of extracting gold teeth from the mouths of dead Jews. The group of Jewish prisoners in the Belzec camp was subjected constantly to cruel treatment by the Germans and the Ukrainians and the life expectancy of its members was no more than a few months.
From May 1942 the transports to Belzec included Jews from the city
of Krakow and the Krakow district. From mid - June the transports to the
camp were halted for a month. During that time the old gas chambers were
demolished and a new larger, gas chamber complex was built. The new complex
contained six chambers instead of the previous 4 and had the capacity of
1,200 people at a time. On the second week of July 1942 new transports of
Jews to Belzec had been resumed. During the rest of that year the Belzec
camp consumed the life of 130,000 Jews from Krakow district, 225,000 Jews
from Lvov area and thousands more from the Lublin and Radom districts. Many
Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who had earlier been deported
to Poland found their death in Belzec as well. The total number of people
murdered in Belzec is estimated at 600,000 with more then 99% of the victims
from Jewish descent. This figure was confirmed by the Main Commission for
Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland and was accepted by the judicial
authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany. From August the 1st 1942
the Belzec camp commander Christian Wirth was promoted to an inspector over
all the extermination camps affiliated with Aktion Reinhard. SS -
Hauptsturmfuhrer Gottlied Hering took over the command of the Belzec death
camp at the same time.
4 Women's hair was used in manufacturing of felt footwear.
|Belzec ceased its operation at the end of 1942. By that time most
of the Jews in the Gouvernement-General had been exterminated. According
to the calculation of the Aktion Reinhard authorities, the Sobibor, Treblinka
and Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps were more than sufficient to handle the
load of the remaining Jews in Europe. From December 1942 to April 1943 the
Jewish prisoners of Belzec were occupied in the elimination of all signs
indicating toward the existence of a death camp in the area. The mass graves
of Belzec were opened and all the bodies in them were exhumed and cremated.
Bones remaining after cremation were crushed and re-buried in the anti -
tank ditches. At this point the camp was dismantled. Upon completion of their
task in Belzec the 600 Jewish prisoners were sent to Sobibor and were murdered
there. The Belzec camp grounds was converted into a farm. The area was plowed
under and trees were planted on it.
go to BELZEC MAP
When the Belzec camp was dismantled in December 1942 a lot of effort was applied to destroy any evidence of the real activities that took place in it. The camp was totally demolished including all the gas chambers and the barracks. The mass graves were opened and all human remains were cremated. The area was plowed under and camouflaged with trees and grass. Given the fact that Belzec was a trend setter for the whole Nazi mass extermination process, it is quite clear to me that the same process was planned for the rest of the "Aktion Reinhard" centers in Europe. If the Germans could have controlled Europe for another year or two they would have completed the elimination of the Jewish race there and would have dismantled their other extermination centers in the same fashion. Later they could have denied the whole thing the way that their followers are attempting to deny it in North America today.
The Belzec death camp was dismantled but not forgotten. All the victims
of this camp were murdered but very few. Only one documented testimony of
an escaped Jewish prisoner is recorded. Due to the fact that nothing was
left of its structure the Belzec camp is one of the least known
death camps from the Nazi era.
|To conclude I would like to say that the tiny size of Belzec
(in comparison to the huge Auschwitz complex for example) dose not reflect
the horrible toll it inflicted on the Jews of Europe. In a documented Nuremberg
trials testimony I found a short description of the extermination process
in the initial stage of Belzec (or possibly Treblinka), which I would like
to quote. I feel that this testimony might shed some light on the agony our
family in Europe had to face during their last days among the
"The following morning, a little before seven, there was an
announcement: The first train will arrive in ten minutes!" A few minutes
later a train arrived from Lemberg: 45 cars with more than 6,000 people.
Two hundred Ukrainians .. flung open the doors and drove the Jews out of
the cars with leather whips. A loudspeaker gave instructions: "Strip, even
artificial limbs and glasses. Hand all money and valuables in at the 'valuables
window'". Then the march began. Barbed wire on both sides, in the rear two
dozen Ukrainians with rifles....A tall SS man in the corner called to the
unfortunates (saying) "Nothing is going to hurt you! Just breathe deep and
it will strengthen your lungs..."They climbed little wooden stairs and entered
the death chambers without resistance.... The door closed...(They) tried
to start the motor. It wouldn't start!...70 minutes, and the Diesel still
not start! The people were waiting in the gas chambers. You could hear them
weeping....The Diesel started after 2 hours and 49 minutes....All were dead
after thirty-two minutes! Jewish workers on the other side opened the wooden
doors. They had been promised their lives in return for doing this horrible
work......The people were still standing, like columns of stone, with no
room to fall or lean. Even in death you could tell the families, all holding