Belzec extermination camp
Overview
 
Belzec, Polish spelling Bełżec ', was the first of the Nazi
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 German
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 extermination camps created for implementing Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government, and marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, the use of extermination camps...

 during the Holocaust
The Holocaust
The Holocaust , also known as the Shoah , was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi...

. Operating from to the end of , the camp was situated in occupied Poland about 1 km south of the local railroad station of Bełżec in the Lublin
Lublin
Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland. It is the capital of Lublin Voivodeship with a population of 350,392 . Lublin is also the largest Polish city east of the Vistula river...

 district of the General Government
General Government
The General Government was an area of Second Republic of Poland under Nazi German rule during World War II; designated as a separate region of the Third Reich between 1939–1945...

.

Between 430,000 and 500,000 Jews
Jews
The Jews , also known as the Jewish people, are a nation and ethnoreligious group originating in the Israelites or Hebrews of the Ancient Near East. The Jewish ethnicity, nationality, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the traditional faith of the Jewish nation...

 are believed to have been killed at Bełżec, along with an unknown number of Poles
Poles
thumb|right|180px|The state flag of [[Poland]] as used by Polish government and diplomatic authoritiesThe Polish people, or Poles , are a nation indigenous to Poland. They are united by the Polish language, which belongs to the historical Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages of Central Europe...

 and Roma; only one or two Jews are known to have survived Bełżec and the war: Rudolf Reder and Chaim Hirszman.
Encyclopedia
Belzec, Polish spelling Bełżec ', was the first of the Nazi
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 German
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 extermination camps created for implementing Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government, and marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, the use of extermination camps...

 during the Holocaust
The Holocaust
The Holocaust , also known as the Shoah , was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi...

. Operating from to the end of , the camp was situated in occupied Poland about 1 km south of the local railroad station of Bełżec in the Lublin
Lublin
Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland. It is the capital of Lublin Voivodeship with a population of 350,392 . Lublin is also the largest Polish city east of the Vistula river...

 district of the General Government
General Government
The General Government was an area of Second Republic of Poland under Nazi German rule during World War II; designated as a separate region of the Third Reich between 1939–1945...

.

Between 430,000 and 500,000 Jews
Jews
The Jews , also known as the Jewish people, are a nation and ethnoreligious group originating in the Israelites or Hebrews of the Ancient Near East. The Jewish ethnicity, nationality, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the traditional faith of the Jewish nation...

 are believed to have been killed at Bełżec, along with an unknown number of Poles
Poles
thumb|right|180px|The state flag of [[Poland]] as used by Polish government and diplomatic authoritiesThe Polish people, or Poles , are a nation indigenous to Poland. They are united by the Polish language, which belongs to the historical Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages of Central Europe...

 and Roma; only one or two Jews are known to have survived Bełżec and the war: Rudolf Reder and Chaim Hirszman. The lack of survivors, who could have given testimony, is the primary reason why this camp is so little known despite the enormous number of victims.

Camp construction and purposes

Belzec was situated in the Lublin district forty-seven miles north of the major city of Lviv
Lviv
Lviv is a city in western Ukraine. The city is regarded as one of the main cultural centres of today's Ukraine and historically has also been a major Polish and Jewish cultural center, as Poles and Jews were the two main ethnicities of the city until the outbreak of World War II and the following...

 (Lvov, Lwow), conveniently between the large Jewish populations of southeast Poland and eastern Galicia. Belzec extermination camp, the model for two others in the Aktion Reinhard
Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government, and marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, the use of extermination camps...

 murder program, started as a labor camp in April 1940, in the course of the Burggraben-project attached to the Lublin reservation in the same area: the reservation was to serve as a pool for forced labour exploited by various small camps like Belzec, to erect defensive works along the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, named after the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, was an agreement officially titled the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union and signed in Moscow in the late hours of 23 August 1939...

 such as a long anti-tank ditch. While the Burggraben project was shut down by the end of the year due to its inefficiency, Belzec was re-opened in 1942 to finish part of the anti-tank ditch.

On 13 October 1941, Heinrich Himmler
Heinrich Himmler
Heinrich Luitpold Himmler was Reichsführer of the SS, a military commander, and a leading member of the Nazi Party. As Chief of the German Police and the Minister of the Interior from 1943, Himmler oversaw all internal and external police and security forces, including the Gestapo...

 gave SS and Police Leader Lublin, SS Brigadeführer
Brigadeführer
SS-Brigadeführer was an SS rank that was used in Nazi Germany between the years of 1932 and 1945. Brigadeführer was also an SA rank....

 Odilo Globocnik
Odilo Globocnik
Odilo Lotario Globocnik was a prominent Austrian Nazi and later an SS leader. He was an acquaintance of Adolf Eichmann, who played a major role in the extermination of Jews and others during the Holocaust...

, two orders which were closely connected with each other: to start Germanizing the area around Zamość
Zamosc
Zamość ukr. Замостя is a town in southeastern Poland with 66,633 inhabitants , situated in the south-western part of Lublin Voivodeship , about from Lublin, from Warsaw and from the border with Ukraine...

 and to start work on the first extermination camp in the General Government
General Government
The General Government was an area of Second Republic of Poland under Nazi German rule during World War II; designated as a separate region of the Third Reich between 1939–1945...

 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 Obersturmführer
Obersturmführer
Obersturmführer was a paramilitary rank of the Nazi party that was used by the SS and also as a rank of the SA. Translated as “Senior Assault Leader”, the rank of Obersturmführer was first created in 1932 as the result of an expansion of the Sturmabteilung and the need for an additional rank in...

 Richard Thomalla
Richard Thomalla
Richard Wolfgang Thomalla was an SS-Hauptsturmführer and a civil engineer by profession who was head of the SS Central Building Administration in Lublin and was in charge of construction of the Operation Reinhard death camps Bełżec, Sobibor and Treblinka during The Holocaust in Occupied...

 commenced work in early November 1941, using Polish villagers, Globocnik's Trawniki
Trawniki concentration camp
Trawniki concentration camp, in the village of Trawniki about 40 km southeast of Lublin in Poland, was an SS labour camp which provided forced labourers for a nearby industrial plant to work in appalling conditions with little food...

 men and, later, Jewish slave workers. The installation was finished by early March 1942 - the camp then started to turn from a labour to a killing camp as envisioned in the Wannsee Conference
Wannsee Conference
The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of senior officials of the Nazi German regime, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942. The purpose of the conference was to inform administrative leaders of Departments responsible for various policies relating to Jews, that Reinhard Heydrich...

.

Prior experience of killers in Nazi murders of disabled people

The two commanders of the camp, Kriminalpolizei
Kriminalpolizei
is the standard term for the criminal investigation agency within the police forces of Germany, Austria and the German-speaking cantons of Switzerland. In Nazi Germany during 1936, the Kripo became the Criminal Police Department for the entire Reich...

 officers SS
Schutzstaffel
The Schutzstaffel |Sig runes]]) was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Built upon the Nazi ideology, the SS under Heinrich Himmler's command was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity during World War II...

-Sturmbannführer
Sturmbannführer
Sturmbannführer was a paramilitary rank of the Nazi Party equivalent to major, used both in the Sturmabteilung and the Schutzstaffel...

Christian Wirth
Christian Wirth
Christian Wirth was a German police and SS officer who was one of the leading contributors to the program to exterminate the Jewish people of Poland, known as Operation Reinhard....

 and SS
Schutzstaffel
The Schutzstaffel |Sig runes]]) was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Built upon the Nazi ideology, the SS under Heinrich Himmler's command was responsible for many of the crimes against humanity during World War II...

-Hauptsturmführer
Hauptsturmführer
Hauptsturmführer was a Nazi rank of the SS which was used between the years of 1934 and 1945. The rank of Hauptsturmführer was a mid-grade company level officer and was the equivalent of a Captain in the German Army and also the equivalent of captain in foreign armies...

Gottlieb Hering
Gottlieb Hering
Gottlieb Hering was an SS-Hauptsturmführer who served in Action T4 and later as the second and last Commandant of Bełżec extermination camp during Operation Reinhard...

, had been — in common with almost all of their staff — involved in the Nazi euthanasia
Euthanasia
Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering....

 Action T4
Action T4
Action T4 was the name used after World War II for Nazi Germany's eugenics-based "euthanasia" program during which physicians killed thousands of people who were "judged incurably sick, by critical medical examination"...

 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
Pirna
Pirna is a town in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, capital of the administrative district Sächsische Schweiz-Osterzgebirge. The town's population is over 40,000. Pirna is located near Dresden and is an important district town as well as a Große Kreisstadt...

, Saxony
Saxony
The Free State of Saxony is a landlocked state of Germany, contingent with Brandenburg, Saxony Anhalt, Thuringia, Bavaria, the Czech Republic and Poland. It is the tenth-largest German state in area, with of Germany's sixteen states....

) and Hadamar
Hadamar
Hadamar is a small town in Limburg-Weilburg district in Hesse, Germany.Hadamar is known for its Clinic for Forensic Psychiatry/Centre for Social Psychiatry, lying at the edge of town, in whose outlying buildings is also found the Hadamar Memorial...

. As a participant of the first T-4 test gassing of handicapped people at Brandenburg
Brandenburg
Brandenburg is one of the sixteen federal-states of Germany. It lies in the east of the country and is one of the new federal states that were re-created in 1990 upon the reunification of the former West Germany and East Germany. The capital is Potsdam...

, 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
General Government
The General Government was an area of Second Republic of Poland under Nazi German rule during World War II; designated as a separate region of the Third Reich between 1939–1945...

. It might have been his proposal to transfer the T-4 technology of killing by carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide
Carbon monoxide , also called carbonous oxide, is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that is slightly lighter than air. It is highly toxic to humans and animals in higher quantities, although it is also produced in normal animal metabolism in low quantities, and is thought to have some normal...

 gas in stationary gas chambers to Bełżec, because the comparable technology of mobile gas van
Gas van
The gas van or gas wagon was an extermination method devised by Nazi Germany to kill victims of the regime. It was also rumored that analog of such device was used by the Soviet Union on an experimental basis during the Great Purge-Nazi Germany:...

s used before December 1941 in the extermination camp Chelmno had proven insufficient for the planned number of victims.

Changes to killing methods

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 Zyklon B
Zyklon B
Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide infamous for its use by Nazi Germany to kill human beings in gas chambers of extermination camps during the Holocaust. The "B" designation indicates one of two types of Zyklon...

 which was later used at Auschwitz
Auschwitz concentration camp
Concentration camp Auschwitz was a network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II...

. This gas was produced by private firms and its extensive use in Bełżec 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. 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, SS Hauptscharführer
Hauptscharführer
Hauptscharführer was a Nazi paramilitary rank which was used by the Schutzstaffel between the years of 1934 and 1945. The rank was the highest enlisted rank of the SS, with the exception of the special Waffen-SS rank of Sturmscharführer....

 Lorenz Hackenholt
Lorenz Hackenholt
Lorenz Marie Hackenholt built and operated the gas chamber at the Bełżec extermination camp...

, 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.

Concealment of camp's purpose from victims

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 Sonderkommando
Sonderkommando
Sonderkommandos were work units of Nazi death camp prisoners, composed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during The Holocaust...

s were killed periodically and replaced by new arrivals, so that they would neither organize a revolt nor survive to tell about the camp.

Camp operation

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 der 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 first of the Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government, and marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, the use of extermination camps...

 camps to begin killing. Its first victims were Jews deported from Lublin
Lublin
Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland. It is the capital of Lublin Voivodeship with a population of 350,392 . Lublin is also the largest Polish city east of the Vistula river...

 and Lwow. 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
Putrefaction
Putrefaction is one of seven stages in the decomposition of the body of a dead animal. It can be viewed, in broad terms, as the decomposition of proteins, in a process that results in the eventual breakdown of cohesion between tissues and the liquefaction of most organs.-Description:In terms of...

 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
Kraków
Kraków also Krakow, or Cracow , is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River in the Lesser Poland region, the city dates back to the 7th century. Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life...

 and Lviv
Lviv
Lviv is a city in western Ukraine. The city is regarded as one of the main cultural centres of today's Ukraine and historically has also been a major Polish and Jewish cultural center, as Poles and Jews were the two main ethnicities of the city until the outbreak of World War II and the following...

. 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: Sobibor
Sobibór extermination camp
Sobibor was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the town of Sobibór, Lublin Voivodeship of occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard; the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor...

 and Treblinka
Treblinka extermination camp
Treblinka was a Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland during World War II near the village of Treblinka in the modern-day Masovian Voivodeship of Poland. The camp, which was constructed as part of Operation Reinhard, operated between and ,. During this time, approximately 850,000 men, women...

. 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 murdered, and it was felt that the new facilities under construction at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Auschwitz concentration camp
Concentration camp Auschwitz was a network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II...

 could kill the rest.

Closure and dismantlement

A last train with 300 Jewish prisoners, told to depart for Germany but instead sent to Sobibor
Sobibór extermination camp
Sobibor was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the town of Sobibór, Lublin Voivodeship of occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard; the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor...

 for gassing, departed in late June 1943 as the closing act of the camp. As part of the Nazi plan called Sonderaktion 1005
Sonderaktion 1005
The Sonderaktion 1005, also called Aktion 1005, or Enterdungsaktion was conducted during World War II to hide any evidence that millions of people had been murdered by Nazi Germany in Aktion Reinhard in occupied Poland....

, bodies were exhumed and then cremated and bone fragments pulverized. The German and Ukrainian personnel then dismantled the camp and reforested the site with firs and wild lupines. Any equipment of potential reuse were taken to the concentration camp Majdanek. Wirth's house and the neighboring SS building, which had been the property of the Polish Railway before the war, were not demolished.

When the staff left, the local population from the surrounding villages started large-scale excavations on the camp site, searching for gold and valuables. These diggings were so extensive that the area was covered by human remains of all kind, and the Nazis' efforts to disguise the site were thwarted. In response, SS personnel were again ordered to the camp site to turn it into a farm, with one Ukrainian SS guard assigned to reside there permanently with his family. This model for guarding and disguising former camp sites was later adopted in Treblinka
Treblinka extermination camp
Treblinka was a Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland during World War II near the village of Treblinka in the modern-day Masovian Voivodeship of Poland. The camp, which was constructed as part of Operation Reinhard, operated between and ,. During this time, approximately 850,000 men, women...

 and Sobibor
Sobibór extermination camp
Sobibor was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the town of Sobibór, Lublin Voivodeship of occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard; the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor...

.

Subsequent careers of camp personnel

The camp's first known commander, Christian Wirth
Christian Wirth
Christian Wirth was a German police and SS officer who was one of the leading contributors to the program to exterminate the Jewish people of Poland, known as Operation Reinhard....

, lived very close to the camp in a house which also served as a kitchen for the SS as well as an armoury. He later moved to the Lublin airfield site to oversee Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government, and marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, the use of extermination camps...

. He was transferred to San Sabba
Risiera di San Sabba
Risiera di San Sabba was a Nazi concentration camp for the detention and killing of political prisoners during World War II, located in Trieste, northern Italy. SS members Odilo Globocnik and Karl Frenzel, and Ivan Marchenko are all said to have participated in the killings at this camp. Erwin...

, a former rice mill in Trieste
Trieste
Trieste is a city and seaport in northeastern Italy. It is situated towards the end of a narrow strip of land lying between the Adriatic Sea and Italy's border with Slovenia, which lies almost immediately south and east of the city...

, Italy
Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

. He received the Iron Cross
Iron Cross
The Iron Cross is a cross symbol typically in black with a white or silver outline that originated after 1219 when the Kingdom of Jerusalem granted the Teutonic Order the right to combine the Teutonic Black Cross placed above a silver Cross of Jerusalem....

 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
Gottlieb Hering
Gottlieb Hering was an SS-Hauptsturmführer who served in Action T4 and later as the second and last Commandant of Bełżec extermination camp during Operation Reinhard...

 served after the war for a short time as the chief of Criminal Police of Heilbronn
Heilbronn
Heilbronn is a city in northern Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It is completely surrounded by Heilbronn County and with approximately 123.000 residents, it is the sixth-largest city in the state....

 and died in autumn 1945 in a hospital. Lorenz Hackenholt
Lorenz Hackenholt
Lorenz Marie Hackenholt built and operated the gas chamber at the Bełżec extermination camp...

 survived the war, but disappeared in 1945. British historian Michael Tregenza may have come close to finding Hackenholt in 1990 and his colleague Alan Heath suggested that he had located where Hackenholt may have been hiding in the 1960s.

Only seven former members of the SS-Sonderkommando Belzec were indicted in Munich
Munich
Munich The city's motto is "" . Before 2006, it was "Weltstadt mit Herz" . Its native name, , is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat...

, but only one of them, Josef Oberhauser, was brought to trial in 1965 and sentenced to 4 years and 6 months in prison, half of which he served before being released.

Camp guards

Bełżec camp guards included Germans
Germans
The Germans are a Germanic ethnic group native to Central Europe. The English term Germans has referred to the German-speaking population of the Holy Roman Empire since the Late Middle Ages....

 (Volksdeutsche
Volksdeutsche
Volksdeutsche - "German in terms of people/folk" -, defined ethnically, is a historical term from the 20th century. The words volk and volkische conveyed in Nazi thinking the meanings of "folk" and "race" while adding the sense of superior civilization and blood...

) and former Soviet prisoners of war.

Before they were sent as guards to the concentration camps, most Soviet POWs who served as camp guards underwent special training in Trawniki
Trawniki concentration camp
Trawniki concentration camp, in the village of Trawniki about 40 km southeast of Lublin in Poland, was an SS labour camp which provided forced labourers for a nearby industrial plant to work in appalling conditions with little food...

, originally a holding center for refugees and Soviet POWs whom the Security Police and SD had designated potential collaborators or dangerous persons.

Kurt Gerstein's testimony

SS Lt. Kurt Gerstein
Kurt Gerstein
Kurt Gerstein was a German SS officer and member of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS. He witnessed mass murders in the Nazi extermination camps Belzec and Treblinka...

, who worked in the SS medical service, was ordered to deliver a shipment of Zyklon B
Zyklon B
Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide infamous for its use by Nazi Germany to kill human beings in gas chambers of extermination camps during the Holocaust. The "B" designation indicates one of two types of Zyklon...

 to Bełżec. He was so shocked by what he saw that he immediately buried the canisters of poison gas, and confessed his experiences to the Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter
Göran von Otter
Göran von Otter was a Swedish diplomat and friherre, best known for his service in Berlin during World War II. Anne Sofie von Otter is von Otter's daughter; former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik von Otter was his grandfather....

 in a train from Warsaw to Berlin, where they met on August 20. He describes how he arrived at Bełżec on August 19 (another source gives the date as August 18) where he witnessed the unloading of 45 train cars crowded with 6,700 Jews, many of whom were already dead, but the rest were marched naked to the gas chambers, where:

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 600,000. This number became widely accepted in literature. Raul Hilberg
Raul Hilberg
Raul Hilberg was an Austrian-born American political scientist and historian. He was widely considered to be the world's preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, and his three-volume, 1,273-page magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, is regarded as a seminal study of the Nazi Final...

 gave a figure of 550,000. Y. Arad accepted 600,000 as minimum, and the sum in his table of Bełżec deportations exceeded 500,000. J. Marszalek calculated 500,000. British historian Robin O'Neil
Robin O'Neil
Doctor Robin O'Neil is a former police major crimes investigator who worked at the sharp end of major criminal investigations in the United Kingdom and Central Europe. Formerly of Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan and Home Counties Police service, he then took up the challenge of Academia...

 once gave an estimate of about 800,000 (based on his investigations at the site). Dieter Pohl and Peter Witte 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
Höfle Telegram
The Höfle Telegram is a document discovered in 2000 among recently declassified World War II materials from the Public Record Office in Kew, England...

 sent by Hermann Höfle
Hermann Höfle
Hermann Julius "Hans" Höfle was an Austrian-born SS-Sturmbannführer . He was deputy to Odilo Globocnik in the Aktion Reinhard program, serving as his main deportation and extermination expert...

, 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 extermination camp
Sobibór extermination camp
Sobibor was a Nazi German extermination camp located on the outskirts of the town of Sobibór, Lublin Voivodeship of occupied Poland as part of Operation Reinhard; the official German name was SS-Sonderkommando 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.

It should also be noted that it is not completely clear whether the Jews who died in transit are included in the final sum. 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
Korherr Report
The Korherr Report is a document on the numbers of Jews in Germany and Europe as of January 1, 1943, written by the chief inspector of the statistical bureau of the SS, Dr Richard Korherr.- Significance :...

) they probably were included. Also, the sources like Westermann's 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.

Remains of the camp

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) and entire bodies preserved in wax-fat transformation. The foul smelling bottom layer of the graves consisted of several inches to a meter thick of human fat resembling black soap. One grave contained uncrushed human bones so closely packed that the drill could not penetrate."

Postwar commemoration

As a result of 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 people, possibly local inhabitants, disturbed them to look for any valuables buried with the victims. 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.

External links

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