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.
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,
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.
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec Sobibor Treblinka. The Operation
Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec Sobibor Treblinka. The Operation
Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
Reitlinger, Gerald. The Final Solution: The Attempt
to Exterminate the Jews in Europe. 1939-1945. New York: 1961.
The Nizkor Project