“If we could take in what happened here, we could not go on living.”
Paul Neville, cited in Gilbert’s Holocaust Journey p.218
Bełżec was established as a labour camp in April 1940. It was, however, to become the model for two other
Aktion Reinhardt camps in Eastern Poland: Sobibor and Treblinka. The site was chosen because of its
location, a convenient half-way point between Krakow, Zywiec and Galicia in the west, Lublin to the north,
and Tarnopol and Lvov in the east. These regions were renowned for the density of their Jewish populations.
Bełżec‟s victims would all come from here. In addition, a few Poles and Gypsies were to be murdered at the
camp alongside other Jews from parts of Europe as far a field as the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Romania
and the Czech lands.
Yet, in spite of the scale of what happened at Bełżec, as Miles Lerman states, “of the six existing
extermination camps, Bełżec seems to be the most forgotten.” (See Foreword on page 3 of A. Koła‟s Archaeological Survey of the Camp.) Estimates about the number exterminated at Bełżec range from about 450,000 to 600,000 victims. The difficulty is that so little is known because eyewitness accounts are rare.
Originally it was believed that only two to three people were known to have survived and, of these, only one -
Rudolf Reder - provided written testimony. However,
http://www.deathcamps.org/belzec/roll%20of%20remembrance.html lists a total of 11 people having escaped
the camp but details in this area are sketchy and they did not all necessarily survive the war.
Location of the camp in relation to the village. Source: www.deathcamps.org
The camp is located just 300 yards south of Bełżec‟s main railway station on the left hand side of the Lublin-Lvov Highway 17 to Hrebenne (on the border with Ukraine). It is about an hour and a half‟s drive from Lublin
via Zamosc and Tomaszow Lubelski.
The New Memorial and Museum at Bełżec:
A renovated Memorial and new Museum were opened on the site in June 2004 to great acclaim. Prior to this,
the camp was a neglected ruin containing a handful of decaying concrete monuments randomly situated
around the grounds in the 1960s. For many years, visitors to Bełżec were shocked and disappointed by what
they found here. For instance, there used to be a house at the entrance that was inhabited by a local family
and there are accounts of people‟s reactions at seeing children playing on what was effectively the site of mass slaughter. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/belz1.html and show photos of Bełżec as it was before the new memorial museum was constructed in 2004. See also M.Gilbert‟s Holocaust Journey pages 209-210.
At http://www.ajc.org/media/videos.asp one can find video of the camp today & the opening ceremony of the
new Memorial and Museum in June 2004. Click on Bełżec Memorial Dedication.
ststThe site is open from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily, including weekends (1 April-31 October) and from 8 a.m. – 4 ndstp.m. daily (between 2 November and 31 March). The Museum is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily, ndstndstincluding weekends (2 April-31 October) and 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily (2 November-31 March). It is closed ththstththon: 15 August, Yom Kippur (25 September), 1 and 11 November and over the Christmas holiday (24 – th26 December). Admission to all parts of the Memorial is free; ask at reception by the museum entrance for
guided tours. http://www.deathcamps.org/belzec/memorial.html provides details of opening times and other
information. At the moment visiting Bełżec‟s own website at firstname.lastname@example.org is less than helpful as it‟s only in Polish.
Early Bełżec camp history:
Originally, there were 80 Jews living in Bełżec. Because of plans to resettle all Jews from Germany, the
Warthegau and other Polish territories into the Lublin district, in April 1940 the Germans established a series
of labour camps in the district. Workers were also needed to build border fortifications – the so-called “Case
Otto" or "Otto Line" - between the General-Government and the USSR. This was to be a 140 km long
defensive line - 2.5 m deep and 7.5 m wide - between the Bug and San rivers. Prisoners from these Bełżec
camps would build a 6 km long section and fragments of the "Otto Line" ramparts are still visible close to the
camp today. These were located near the camp‟s uppermost perimeter.
Approximately 10,000 Jewish „volunteers‟ from the Lublin, Radom and Warsaw districts were despatched to
Bełżec as a result. To start with, they were housed in cramped, primitive conditions. They were then
redeployed to 20 other sub-camps, three of which were established in Bełżec village itself and 17 others in the surrounding area. 35 forced labour camps in all were established along the "Otto Line", mainly in
abandoned granaries, synagogues, warehouses and barns.
SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Dolp, from the Lipowa Street Camp in Lublin was placed in charge. Assisted
by Franz Bartetzko, ex-kommandant of Trawniki‟s labour camp, they were both very cruel and responsible
for the deaths of many prisoners. Dolp, for example, would order Jews to use the latrines only at certain
times. Those who were found on the toilets before or after this time were killed, especially those with
diarrhoea. Dolp became known as one of the most corrupt SS men in Bełżec. Prisoners who worked in the workshops were forced to produce clothes and other sundry items at his insistence.
Despite being under the aegis of the SS, food and clothing supplies were managed by the Judenrat of Lublin.
All prisoners‟ costs were to be paid for by the Jewish Councils of the towns whence the prisoners came.
Corruption was rife here too: see the reading about the Lublin Judenrat’s 1940 Report, see http://www.deathcamps.org/belzec/belzec.html
“The Bełżec camp was a cottage industry. Everybody made something out of it.”
Mike Tregenza, cited in Gilbert’s Holocaust Journey p. 209
Gypsies from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland were also resettled alongside the early Jewish inmates.
Ernst Zörner, Lublin's governor, had decreed that a farm at Bełżec‟s manor should become the central holding camp for Romany Gypsies as well as a group of Polish hostages arrested for failing to pay a “tribute”
to the Nazis. Early Jewish prisoners lived at three sites around Bełżec: 1,000 at the manor; another 500 at Kessler‟s Mill; and 1,500 settled in the locomotive shed.
Gypsies at Belzec Source: USHMM # 74705
It goes without saying that conditions in the camps were horrible: prisoners started work at 4 or 6 am. Harsh
working conditions, frequent beatings and a near starvation diet left many little more than skeletons. Mothers
would kill their babies because of the lack of food. Every day inmates were issued with anaemic, sugarless
black coffee, 300g of bread and soup that was little more than warm water flavoured with rotting vegetables
and rancid meat. Only when the Swiss Red Cross visited was the food improved for the two day duration of
Jewish labourers at Belzec Source: USHMM # 51528
Dr Janusz Peter of Tomaszów Lubelski‟s hospital would describe them as "spectres in rags". Germans would take photos of these people as "examples of the sub-human Jewish culture in Poland". Consequently, typhus and dysentery caused the deaths of many, especially the gypsies. The total number of Romany dead is
unknown. Their graves are located in Bełżec near the railway and on the road to Jaroslaw. The number of
Jewish victims is estimated to be about 300 for Bełżec itself. Of the 2,000 that came from Radom, there were
no survivors. Local Poles estimate that around 200 victims are buried in an old park near the manor; others
in the forest opposite to the death camp. Other victims were buried in Tomaszow Lubelski‟s Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish labour camps were disbanded in October 1940. The death camp that was subsequently erected
was not part of, or converted from, any other recognisable camp facility. It was purpose-built in connection
with Aktion Reinhardt, specifically for the murder of Jews.
The Establishment of the Extermination Camp: Phase 1 – December 1941- May 1942.
st 1941, using pre-existing labour and local Construction on the extermination facilities began on November 1Jewish villagers. Richard Thomalla constructed a camp, divided into two areas, covering a small, rectangular
area with three sides being about 275m long and with the south side measuring 265m. There were three
watchtowers in the corners and an additional one near the gas chambers. A 500 m railway spur from Bełżec station entered the camp through its northern gate. Camp I, in the northwest, was where Jews arrived and
their worldly goods unloaded and catalogued; the eastern Camp II, which included the gas chambers and
large rectangular burial pits, was the extermination section. Surrounded by high barbed wire fencing,
saplings were planted along the fence and branches woven through the wire so that no one would be able to
see what went on beyond. The pits were on average 20 m x 30 m x 6 m in size and located at the northeast,
east and southerly sections of the camp. Two barracks, that provided living quarters and a kitchen, were
later added to Camp II for the Jewish Sonderkommando.
Christian Wirth (centre) Source: http://www.deathcamps.org/belzec/ #23
In late December, Christian Wirth, commanding 20-30 SS men, was appointed as Kommandant of Bełżec. On arrival they were met by Josef Oberhauser, responsible for the camp‟s overall construction, and Gottfried Schwarz, Deputy Camp Kommandant. Niemann was placed in charge of Camp II. The SS garrison lived in
two stone houses across from the station. The first, Wirth‟s living quarters and the Kommandantur, was in a house near the camp. The second housed the SS and had a stable behind it. Gottlieb Hering and Erwin
Fichtner lived next to Wirth in a one-storey wooden cottage known as "The Pavilion". To the left of the
Kommandantur, a barrack was erected to accommodate the extra T4 personnel who would arrive in July
SS Garrison at Belzec Source: USHMM # 87764
See the reading by SS-Scharfuhrer Erich Fuchs at
Lorenz Hackenholt, together with assisted by Siegfried Graetschuss and two Ukrainians working under him,
was responsible for the operation of the gas chambers. To start with, they converted and used a mail
delivery van as a mobile gas chamber.
Ukrainian Guards (“Hiwis” or “Trawnikimanner”) Source: USHMM #10263
Between 60 and 120 Ukrainians under Schwarz‟s command who were trained at the Trawniki camp were used as camp guards at the entrance, in watchtowers, and on certain patrols. One-third of Bełżec‟s pre-war
population was Ukrainian and, at the war‟s outbreak, many collaborated with the Germans because they
were sympathisers or members of the Ukrainian Uprising Army (UPA). The UPA was not only anti-Polish but
anti-Semitic as well. Before a transport‟s arrival, the Ukrainians would line the ramp, undressing barracks
and the "Sluice". They also removed the bodies from the gas chamber and buried them in the early days
before Jewish Sonderkommando were created for this task.
Wirth had his own ideas about mass killing based on his T4 "Euthanasia" programme experience. From late
February 1942, Wirth along with Dr Helmuth Kallmayer, another T4 chemist from Berlin, conducted extensive
tests on exhaust fumes produced by a Russian tank‟s engine. It was decided that gas based on ordinary, universally available gasoline or diesel fuel would be best rather than Zyklon B. Wirth firmly rejected the latter
because it was manufactured by private firms and its use, Wirth feared, might arouse suspicion and make
thOrganised mass extermination started with the Jews of Lublin on March 17, 1942, the date demarking the ththonset of Aktion Reinhardt. Within four weeks, from March 17 to April 14, close to 30,000 of the 37,000 inhabitants of the ghetto were deported to Bełżec. Within the same period of time an additional 18,000 - 20,000 Jews from the Lublin region were also sent there. At the beginning of May 1942, Wirth and his SS-
men left the camp. Franz Stangl described visiting Bełżec in April 1942:
”I can't describe to you what it was like. I went there by car. As one arrived, one first reached Bełżec railway
station, on the left side of the road. The camp was on the same side, but up a hill. The Kommandatur was
200 metres away, on the other side of the road. It was a one-storey building. The smell...oh God, the smell. It
was everywhere. Wirth wasn't in his office. I remember they took me to him... He was standing on a hill; next
to the pits...the pits...full...they were full. I can't tell you; not hundreds, thousands, thousands of corpses...oh
God. That's where Wirth told me - he said that was what Sobibor was for. And that he was putting me
officially in charge...”
Later Stangl offered a slightly revised account of the same events:
“Wirth wasn't in his office; they said he was up in the camp. I asked whether I should go up there and they
said, `I wouldn't if I was you - he's mad with fury. It isn't healthy to go near him.' I asked what the matter was.
The man I was talking to said that one of the pits had overflowed. They had put too many corpses in it and
putrefaction has progressed too fast, so that the liquid underneath had pushed the bodies on top up and over
and the corpses had rolled down the hill. I saw some of them - oh God, it was awful. A bit later Wirth came
down. And that's when he told me..."
Franz Stangl, cited in G. Sereny, Into That Darkness pp.111-112
The main reason for the halt at this time was that several problems had arisen. In the first phase of
operations (mid-March 1942 to mid-May 1942), the three gas chambers were little more than adapted
wooden barracks, with double walls filled with sand, constructed to look like a bathing facility. To enhance
this deception, false showerheads were installed and signs saying “bathhouse” displayed. The gas chambers were half-lined with tin and equipped with two airtight doors, one for entry and one through which corpses
were removed. Carbon monoxide gas was piped in from the diesel engine mounted outside. Once the chambers were filled and the doors shut, the killing process took up to 30 minutes.
Despite all of their efforts, the construction team were unable to make the building airtight and, at each gassing, more sand had to be piled against the outer doors to rectify this problem. The sand then had to be removed to allow access to the corpses. It became apparent that major alterations were necessary, particularly since the gas chambers were proving inadequate in size. It was taking up to three hours to "process" one section of a transport. If the engine broke down, as it frequently did, victims could be left trapped inside for hours on end.
Phase 2 of Bełżec’s existence – May 1942 – December 1942.
At the beginning of May 1942 Viktor Brack from the Berlin Reich Chancellery visited Globocnik in Lublin.
Globocnik requested the return of Wirth and his staff, and Wirth returned to Bełżec in mid-May 1942. More “experts” would follow in July.
In the second phase, a total of 500 prisoners from Camps I and II were organised into work brigades –
Sonderkommando - to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and bury them. They also collected and
sorted clothing, suitcases and other goods left behind by the victims. To begin with, Jewish workers were
executed after a few days until Wirth realised the improved efficiency of having more permanent work
brigades in which each member knew his function.
Jewish Sonderkommando at Belzec Source: USHMM # 08312
In mid-June, the old wooden structure containing the three gas chambers was demolished, and on the same
spot a larger, brick and concrete building (24 m. long by 10 m. wide) housing six gas chambers was erected.
These new gas chambers were completed in mid-July and were able to process 1,500 people at once, i.e. a
transport of about 15 freight cars.
“The building was low, long, and broad. It was built of grey concrete and had a flat roof made of roofing felt,
with a net over it which was covered with branches. Three steps without banisters led into the building. They
were about 1 m. wide. In front of the building stood a large flowerpot with colourful flowers and a clearly
written placard: "Bath and Inhalation Rooms.” The steps led into a dark, empty corridor which was very long,
but only 1.5 m. wide. To the left and right of it were the doors to the gas chambers. They were wooden
doors, 1 m. wide... The corridor and the chambers were lower than normal rooms, no higher than 2 m. In the
opposite wall of every chamber was a removable door through which the bodies of the gassed were thrown
out. Outside the building was a 2 x 2 m. shed which housed the gas machine. The chambers were 1.5 m.
above the ground...”
Rudolf Reder, Belzec p.124
thOn August 18 1942, Kurt Gerstein and Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, from the SS‟ Technical Disinfection Service, arrived in Bełżec. They were there to test Zyklon B so that further improvements to the gas chambers could
be made. They were there on the pretext that the Zyklon B was needed to delouse clothing. Gerstein would
later reveal details of the Final Solution to Baron von Otter, a Swedish diplomat. He would ultimately commit
suicide in a French prison.
See the account from Kurt Gerstein, an engineer working for the SS at Belzec, May 26, 1945 available
at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/gerstein.html or else an account of this is also to be found in Gilbert’s Holocaust Journey pp.212-214, 219
The Killing Process:
When a train entered Bełżec station, its 40-60 cattle trucks, holding about 2-2,500 Jews, were broken down
into separate transports as the reception capacity inside the camp was, at most, 15-20 trucks. Only after one
set of carriages empited and sent back was another part of the transport allowed in. The trains‟ accompanying security guards and Polish railroad personnel were forbidden to enter the camp.
st In the train from Rawa Ruska to Chelm 5.30 pm “August 31
When we boarded the train at 4.40pm an empty transport had just arrived. I walked along the train twice and
counted 56 cars. On the doors had been written “60”, “70”, once “90”, occasionally “40” – obviously the number of Jews carried inside...
…I spoke with a railway policeman‟s wife…[who] says these transports are now passing through daily, sometimes also with German Jews. Yesterday, six children‟s bodies were found along the track. The woman
thinks that the Jews themselves killed these children – that they must have succumbed during the trip… 6.20pm. We passed Camp Bełżec … one could see a high hedge of fir trees. A strong sweetish odour could
be made out distinctly. „But they are stinking already‟, says the woman. „Oh nonsense, that is only the gas,‟
the railway policeman said laughing. Meanwhile… the sweetish odour was transformed into a strong smell of something burning. „That is from the crematorium,‟ says the policeman. ”
German NCO Wilhelm Cornides, cited in Gilbert’s Holocaust Journey p.211
See also Lt. Westermann’s report cited in Gilbert p.217 for a description of another transport.
At its peak period of "resettlement" (July - October 1942), 3-4 transports per day were arriving at Bełżec. Piles of rotting corpses were dumped on the ramps, awaiting clearance by the Sonderkommando. Hering
ordered Robert Jührs to take those too sick or weak to be gassed "for a pill" (a euphemism for a shot to the
back of the neck). They were led directly to the Lazarett and shot.
After the bemused and frightened Jews had been offloaded at the reception yard, they would encounter the
SS. Anyone showing anguish or defiance was taken by guards to the execution pit in Camp II. The SS tried
to keep everyone calm. Wirth or Jirmann would welcome by talking through a loud-speaker: "This is Bełżec. Your stay is temporary - you will move onto work camps where your skills are needed. There is work for
everyone. Even you housewives are needed to feed your families and to keep the houses clean. First I must
have your co-operation so that we can get you on your way quickly". There was often a ripple of applause and shouts of "Thank you Mr. Kommandant". Then Wirth mentioned the crucial part of the deception: "We must have order and cleanliness. Before we feed you, you must all have a bath and have your clothes
disinfected. It is necessary for women to have their hair cut". Wirth then left the gassing process to his NCO's
and the Ukrainian askaris.
Two Jews await their fate Source: USHMM # 13148
Camouflage was essential to the murder process. The extermination site was screened off from the rest of
the camp by leafy branches intertwined with the barbed wire. A narrow passageway called "die Schleuse", ("the Sluice"), was constructed. 2 m wide and a 100 m long, it connected the undressing barracks in Camp I
to the gas chambers in Camp II. A camouflage net was stretched over the roof of the building housing the
gas chambers in order to prevent aerial observation.
See account by Professor Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, Waffen-SS hygienist,
on witnessing a gassing at Bełżec with Gerstein (see also above) cited at
Men, now separated, tied their shoes together with pieces of string given out by Jewish workers and were
marched off towards the "Sluice" in groups of 750. Supervised by the SS, they parted with clothing, personal
property and money, until left naked at the entrance to the "Sluice". The Ukrainians would whip, bayonet and
push the men into the chambers before slamming the doors. The engine was started at a given signal and,
20 minutes or so later, someone would check through the chamber door‟s peephole whether it could be turned off. The SS part of the operation over, the Jewish Sonderkommando, led by Zugführer Moniek, would clear out the bodies using straps that made it easier to lift them onto trolleys. Another commando cleaned
the gas chambers, whilst others raked the sandy pathways to the building. All the while, a camp orchestra
played tunes popular with the SS (e.g. Drei Lilien).
A Jewish victim of Belzec Source: ARCFI www.deathcamps.org #29
See SS-man Karl Schluch’s account. He spent about 16 months in Belzec, see it at
Despite German attempts to maintain secrecy, two Polish underground reports about Bełżec show that a good deal was known about the camp.
See these Polish Underground Reports from July 1942 at http://www.deathcamps.org/belzec/belzec.html
There were other leaks too:
“It was also said that one of the Ukrainians employed in the killing of Jews had told his girlfriend about what
was going on at Bełżec. Appalled, she considered it her duty to spread the word and warn the doomed. This
is how news of Bełżec reached us.”
Rudolf Reder, Belzec p.116
Problems also arose with the burial of the victims. When a ditch was filled with corpses, it was covered with a
thin layer of soil. As a result of the heat, the decomposition process, and sometimes also because water
seeped into the ditches, the bodies swelled up and the thin layer of soil burst open.
Chaim Hirszman, another Belzec survivor, offers an account at thhttp://www.deathcamps.org/belzec/belzec.html. For more of his testimony of March 19 1946, see Gilbert’s Holocaust Journey pp. 215-216
Incidentally, Hirszmann escaped by jumping off the last train to leave Belzec on its way to Sobibor. He would
go on to survive the war and give testimony to the post-war investigation in Lublin, but was murdered by anti-
Semitic Poles in 1946.