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Purpose for Construction

Prior to 1941, no death camps existed or operated in Nazi Germany or. any occupied countries. Therefore, the leaders of Operation Reinhard whose main goal was the extermination of the Jews, had no model on which base their plans.

"However, some guidelines did exist for selecting the sites on which to build the death camps. The camp would have to near the main concentration of Jews in the General Government and near the railways, to facilitate transportation and deportations. The location of the camps had to be in desolate places, as far as possible from inhabited areas, to maintain secrecy and to keep the knowledge of what was transpiring within them from the local population. And third, the camps had to be in vicinity of the occupied territories of the Soviet Union so as to encourage the belief that the Jews who had disappeared had eventually reached labor camps in the vast areas of the East" (Arad 23). Belzec was to be the camp where these experiments would be initiated, and additional camps would be planned and constructed according to the results obtained there.

Furthermore, there was no previous information that could be used to determine the optimal extermination technique to be employed or to estimate the annihilation capacity of a gas chamber or a death camp. Such information could be obtained only through experimentation. Based on the results, decisions regarding the size and structure of the camp could be made.

Belzec's Organizational and Structural Goals

Belzec was a small town in the southeast of Lublin district, located on the Lublin-Zamossc-Rava Russkaya-Lvov railway line. In the early part of the 1940s, the Germans established Belzec as a labor camp for Jews. Thousands of Jews from Lublin were sent to build fortifications on the Soviet-German line of demarcation, which was close to Belzec.

The exact location for the construction of the experimental camp was half a kilometer from a the Belzec railway station, along a railway spur. Fortunately for the Nazis, within the area were trenches which had been dug as a border fortification in 1940 which they would eventually use as burial pits.

On November l, 1941, the SS Central Building Administration (SS Zentralbauverwaltung) in the Lublin district placed former euthanasia man, SS Oberschafuhrer Josef Oberhauser, in charge of the construction and order of the camp (Arad 24). By December 1941, Hauptstrumfuhrer Christian Wirth (Pop-up item #1) was named commander of Belzec with Oberhauser as his assistant.

Prior to his role as commander at Belzec, Wirth had become familiar of the advantages and disadvantages of the euthanasia project that established permanent gas (carbon monoxide bottles) chambers, in operation in Chelmo and in other occupied territories of the Soviet Union . Wirth, therefore, decided that the best answer to the question of how they would exterminate the Jews was to construct a permanent gas chambers with" combustion car engines the gas supplier instead of carbon monoxide bottles. The reasons for using combustion engines instead of carbon monoxide were that the factories were the bottles were produced were located at a considerable distance from the camp, and that large quantities ordered by the privately owned factories might arouse suspicion. "With preferred to set up a self-contained extermination system, based on an ordinary car engine and easily available gasoline and not dependent on supply by outside factors" (Arad 25).

"In October 1941, three SS men came to Belzec and requested from the municipality twenty men for work. The municipality allotted twenty workers, residents of Belzec. .." (25) After the Polish had finished their work and left, a group of Jews, mainly from the Lubycse-Krolewska and Male-Mosty ghettos, were taken to complete the construction of the camp.

By February 1942, the camp was ready to begin experimentation. The first two or three transports of Jews were used to record the efficiency and capacity of the gas chambers and the organization of the extermination process. These first transports of Jews were brought in four to six freight cars with 100 to 250 Jews in each of them. The execution of the experimentation lasted a few days. Due to lack of preparation, the first experimental killings were conducted using carbon monoxide bottles, which shortly afterwards, was replaced with a 250 horsepower car engine that was concealed inside a shed and from where gas was channeled from the engine to the inside of the gas chamber via a pipe (26).

Wirth also wished to determine the most efficient method of handling the Jews from the second they arrived until the second when they were buried. Within the few days of experimentation, Wirth created three main principles of extermination.

1 . To make the Jews believe that they had been brought to a labor camp or a transit camp from where they would be sent to a labor camp.
2. To carry out the process as expediently as possible. Speed served a dual process: first, to rush and shock the victims so that they would not have time to reflect or react to what was actually occurring, and second, to increase the killing capacity of the camp so that more Jews could be killed in a day.
3. To select two groups of Jews. The first consisting of a few hundred strong Jews to do all the physical labor. This included: collecting the personal belongings of those Jews that had been murdered, removing the corpses from the gas chambers and burying them. After a few days, these men were executed and replaced by another hundred that came in the next transport. The second group was composed of a dozen skilled workers, such as carpenters, tailors, to service the German and Ukrainian staff.

Description of the Death Camp in Belzec

"The entire camp occupied a relatively small, almost square area; the north, west and east sides each measured 275 meters, and the south side 265 meters" (27). It was enclosed by high, barbed wire fencing, prevented outside observation by young trees planted around it and a pine forest on the southern and eastern side, and kept under strict surveillance with watchtowers in the corners of the camp, two on the east side, one on the southwest corner, and one in the center near the gas chamber. A railway spur of 500 meters ran from the Belzec station through the north gate. Eventually, the Belzec was divided into two sub-camps, each with a different purpose. Camp I, in the northwestern part, was the reception area, which included the railway spur, which accommodated twenty railway cars, the assembly square for the arriving deportees, and two barracks, one for undressing and the second to store personal belongings. The administration area consisted of two dwelling barracks for the Jewish prisoners, and the roll-call square (Appellplatz). Camp II, on the northeastern part, was the extermination area that was fenced off from the other parts of the camp with a specially guarded entrance gate. Within this section were the gas chambers and the burial ditches. The undressing barracks in Camp I was connected to the gas chambers in Camp II by a 2 meter wide and about 20 meter long barbed wire fence path, called "the tube" (der Schlauch).

The living quarters of the SS men consisted of three fenced off and guarded houses -one containing the headquarters and kitchen- located about 500 meters outside of the camp, relatively close to the Belzec railway station.

Mass Execution

March 17, 1942 marked the official start of Operation Reinhard and the commencement of the full-scale operation of Jewish annihilation at Belzec. The extermination process was to be carried out according to Wirth's orders which reflected his observations of the experimental operation.

The trains that arrived at the Belzec station consisted of forty to sixty cars that had to divided into two to three parts and driven in separately since the one ramp leading into the camp could only hold twenty cars. In order to reduce suspicion, the trains were driven in only by selected and trusted German railroad workers.

The first principle, tricking the Jews into believing that they had arrived at a labor or transit camp, was to be implemented at this stage of the process. "The camp looked 'peaceful'; no graves, pits, or gas chambers could be seen by the victims" (69).

Announcements by SS men to undress and make way to the baths for disinfestations further strengthened their belief that they had arrived at a transit camp. The separation of the sexes, and the haircuts given to the women convinced them that they were indeed going to baths. To prevent escape or resistance, they were rushed and beaten to the gas chambers. "For reasons of security, and also to prevent escape and resistance, the men were taken to the gas chambers first, before they grasped what was happening" (69). Obviously, the next to go were the women and children.

The gas chambers, which resembled baths, were well built structures based on the fact that even if the victims did come to the realization that they were being executed, the walls were strong enough to resist any pressure from the inside.

Certain obstacles were encountered during the second and third stages of the extermination process (otherwise known as Wirth's second and third principles). Due to technical difficulties, "only one or two of the three gas chambers were in operation at any given time" (71). In addition, the Wirth did not foresee the affects that nature could impose on the burial pits. "After the pit was full of corpses, it was covered with a thin layer of earth. From heat, putrefaction, and in some cases water that had penetrated into the pits, the corpses swelled, and the thin layer of earth split" (71). (insert Pop Up #2) There were also cases of victim who were too weak to be moved quickly from the train to the dressing room and finally to the gas chambers. These people were shot directly into the pits.

"The first large Jewish community that was deported for extermination was Lublin. From March 17, 1942 to April 14, 1942, close to 30,000 Jews, out of 37,000 who lived in the Lublin ghetto, were sent to Belzec" (72). Other large-scale transports arrived from other areas, such as: the Lvov district, Zolkiew, Zamosc, Piaski, and Izbica.

For unknown reasons, Wirth left the camp and as a result, the operation was stopped. " After about four weeks of intensive activity, during which time approximately 75,000 Jews has been killed, the transports stopped. Towards the end of April and the beginning of May 1942, Wirth, along with the SS men stationed there, left the camp" (72). However, after strict orders by his superiors, Wirth, along with his SS men and additional euthanasia people, returned to Belzec by mid May 1942.

For the first few weeks after Wirth's return, transports were brought in small numbers and at a less rapid pace. By June 1942, transports were increasing dramatically and Wirth realized that the current gas chamber would not be sufficient to hold the new arrivals. Therefore, larger gas chamber would have to built. With the approval of the Operation Reinhard headquarters in Lublin, deportations to Belzec were temporarily suspended. During this first stage, which lasted from March 17 until the middle of June 1942, 93,000 Jews had been murdered (73).

By the end of July 1942, the three old wooden gas chambers had been dismantled and in its place, a new, bigger, stronger structure was built and ready for operation. The new structure measured 24 meters long and 10 meters wide, and was divided into six gas chambers each measuring 4 X 8 meters. (Pop up item #3) "These new chambers could absorb over 2,000 people at a time, the capacity of a transport of about twenty freight cars" (74). During the period after the renovations -the second stage- from July until November 1942 (a matter of only four months), 507,000 Jews were killed.

Erasing Evidence and Dismantling Belzec

In the spring of 1942, Himmler ordered the cremation of those Jews that had been killed and buried so as to erase all traces of the killings. The cremation of the corpses in Belzec began in the autumn of 1942 (170).

This order would prove to be an arduous task that would last four to six months due to the fact that 600,000 Jews had already been buried and would now have to be exhumed in order to be cremated. "This is the sole reason for the continued existence of the (Belzec) camp...until the spring of 1943, in spite of the fact that the last transports with Jews had arrived and were liquidated there at the end of November 1942" (177).

Once the cremation was completed, the next and final step was the dismantling of the camp. "After the camps buildings were dismantled ...people from the neighboring villages and townships started digging in the area of the camp, searching for gold and valuables" (371). Therefore, "Germans and Ukrainians were sent back to Belzec to prevent more people from digging and to restore the 'peaceful-looking' character of the place" (371 ). Therefore, Operation Reinhard authorities decided to carry out forestation work and build a farm where a Ukrainian guard and his family were to live. Those orders marked the official end of the death camp in Belzec.

Works Cited

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec Sobibor Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Works Consulted

Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec Sobibor Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Reitlinger, Gerald. The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews in Europe. 1939-1945. New York: 1961.

The Nizkor Project