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March 27, 2012

When did the Holocaust gas chambers become common knowledge?

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 11:51 am

A reader of my blog, who has his own blog here, wrote a comment which I am quoting below:

At least since the summer of 1942 the Belzec extermination camp was known in far away remote areas of the General Government (German occupied Poland). Although not all the details were reported back to the public, the majority of Poles, Jews and Germans, had been aware of the name of this camp and associated it with a place of Jewish exterminations.

Belzec was the first of the three Operation Reinhard camps which were set up to carry out the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, which was planned at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. The other two Operation Reinhard camps were Sobibor and Treblinka. The Belzec camp was located just outside the village of Belzec, on the eastern border of German-occupied Poland.

Jews from the ghettos of southern Poland were sent to Belzec where there were three gas chambers that had been put into operation on March 17, 1942.  This was the start of the gassing of the Jews.

All three of the Operation Reinhard camps were conveniently located near a major Jewish ghetto. Belzec was between the Lublin and the Lvov ghettos. Treblinka was 60 miles from the Warsaw ghetto and Sobibor was near the Lublin ghetto. All three Operation Reinhard camps were near the Bug river, which formed the eastern border of German-occupied Poland.

In other words, the Jews were first rounded up and put into ghettos; they were then transported, as far as trains could go, to the eastern border of Germany territory, where they were killed.  In spite of the secrecy involved, the people in the area knew about the gassing.

Memorial to the Jews who were gassed at Belzec Photo Credit: Bonnie M. Harris

The memorial at the site of the Belzec camp was designed by Andrzej Solyga, Zdzislaw Pidek, and Marcin Roszczyk. It was opened in a solemn ceremony on June 3, 2004 as a joint project of the American Jewish Committee and the Council for the Protection of the Memory of Combat and Martyrdom in Warsaw. The complex at the former death camp consists of a memorial to the 600,000 victims, who were murdered in the camp, and a museum with an exhibition about the history of the Belzec death camp.

The Belzec death camp was only in existence for nine months, after which it was completely dismantled to destroy the evidence of the murder of the 600,000 Jews who were killed in the gas chambers. The bodies, which had been buried, were exhumed and then burned on pyres before the camp was abandoned.

When did people in the rest of the world first know about the gassing of the Jews?  I learned about it in elementary school when I was in the seventh grade.  I was in Catholic school where we studied Catholic history, which was actually world history. We had been learning about how the Jews had been persecuted for centuries, in many different countries, so the story of how the Jews were being gassed by the Nazis fit right in with what we had been learning about past history in Europe.

The first news of the gassing of the Jews had come from the BBC in June 1942.  My family did not have a radio, but our neighbors had a radio that was capable of hearing the BBC broadcasts.  Back then, news spread by word of mouth, so it was very quickly known around the world that the Jews were being gassed.

At the time that I first heard about the gas chambers, I didn’t think that this was anything unusual.  I lived in Missouri where there was a gas chamber in Jefferson City.  I had actually gone on a class trip to see “the Big House,” as the Missouri State Penitentiary was called.  The Missouri gas chamber was a very small stone building that was outside the huge prison.  I only saw it from a distance and didn’t see the inside, which had two chairs where two criminals could be gassed at one time.  I imagined that the Jews were being gassed, two at a time.  I didn’t dwell on this at the time; it never occurred to me that this would have been a very inefficient way to kill millions of people.

The photo below shows the broken concrete which now covers the entire area of the former Belzec camp where 600,000 Jews were gassed to death in only nine months.

Close-up of  Belzec memorial shows field of broken concrete  Photo credit: Bonnie M. Harris