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April 4, 2013

Belzec, the little-known extermination camp where half a million Jews died in less than a year

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 1:44 pm
The entire site of the former Belzec camp was turned into a memorial

The entire site of the Belzec camp has been turned into a memorial  Photo Credit: Bonnie Harris

The photo above shows a path that leads up a 120 ft. slope to a granite wall.  This huge field of randomly sized concrete rubble covers the entire camp area of Belzec, with the center path through the site symbolizing “Die Schleuse,” (The Sluice) a camouflaged barbed wire path that led from the undressing and barber barracks straight to the gas chambers, which were also camouflaged with netting over raised poles. (The “barber barrack” was where the victims had their heads shaved to get rid of any lice that could spread typhus in the hereafter.)

Close-up of the rocks which cover the entire Belzec camp

Close-up of the concrete rubble which covers the entire Belzec camp  Photo Credit: Bonnie Harris

The following quote is from an article about Belzec, written by Alan Elsner and published on April 3, 2013, which you can read in full here:

These are the facts about Belzec: 47 miles north of the major city of Lvov, on the railway line to Lublin, the gas chambers were installed in the winter of 1941, and the camp received its first shipment of Jews on March 13, 1942. Within a week or two of coming online, it was handling 5,000 victims a day.  […]

There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas was pumped in to kill the victims. SS Lt. Kurt Gerstein left a rare description of a gassing. He described how the Jews were packed into the gas chamber so tight they could not move. When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers — four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead,” Gerstein wrote. “Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall.”

On the specific point of whether children died at Belzec, we have the testimony of Edward Luczynski from a 1964 trial of German officers: “After the doors were opened, it was often ascertained that some of the children and adults were still alive. Children on the floor and adults with their faces pressed against cracks sometimes managed to survive. The survivors were killed by the Ukrainians,” he said.

Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans liquidated Belzec early in 1943. One problem was the lack of efficient facilities for the disposal of bodies, which were dumped in nearby anti-tank ditches. By then, a much more sophisticated killing facility was available at Auschwitz to take up the slack. When the Germans closed Belzec, they tried to erase all telltale signs. Bodies were removed from their mass graves, their bones were crushed with a special machine, the remains were burnt and the ashes scattered. Ethnic Germans were settled on a farm established on the site. Only two Jews survived Belzec, and both were dead by 1954. Few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified or brought to justice.

According to Wikipedia, the Belzec camp was in operation from March 17, 1942 until December 1942.  Only 9 months, but in that short time, according to Wikipedia: “Between 430,000 and 500,000 Jews are believed to have been killed by German Nazis at Bełżec…”  Note that Wikipedia says that “Jews are believed to have been killed…” The Nazis were careful to destroy all the evidence of mass murder.

Among those killed at Belzec were the grandparents of Alan Elser, who wrote the quote at the top of this blog post.  In 1993, Elser went to visit the site of the camp in order to pay his respect to the dead.  This quote is from his article:

As we pulled in, we saw a rusty sign, half hidden by trees, next to another larger placard advertising agricultural vehicles. There was no car park. We pulled up next to the gate, outside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. A child was puttering around in the backyard. We were the only visitors.

As we got out of the car, a woman came out of the house to talk to us. “It’s not true they killed children here,” she told us. “They just put up that sign to get people to give money.” To be confronted by a Holocaust denier actually living beside a death camp is a highly disconcerting experience. But when she saw the flowers in our hands, she went into the house and brought us two vases with water to put them in.  […]

There was little to see at the site of the camp. The Nazis removed most of the evidence when they evacuated the camp, and the Poles had made little effort to maintain the site. A block of granite near the entrance, engraved in Polish, noted that 600,000 Jews, and 1,500 Poles who helped Jews, died horrible deaths here. (Historians later adjusted the figure to 500,000.)

A few yards behind that marker was another memorial, a statue of an emaciated figure supporting another skeletal figure. Its Polish inscription read: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror murdered from 1942 to 1943.”

Behind that, birch trees had grown up. Among them stood a row of concrete blocks, perhaps intended to symbolize the gas chambers. Adjacent to that was a row of giant urns. The overwhelming effect was of neglect. There was not a single Jewish emblem — not a Hebrew word, not a Star of David — although we saw a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees. The place was overgrown with weeds, and the symbolic structures were crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a shortcut home through the camp.

In 1993, I didn’t know anything about the Belzec camp, except that it was one of the three Operation Reinhard camps, which were set up following the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942.

In July 2006, Bonnie Harris visited the Memorial Site that had been constructed in July 2004; she wrote the following history of the camp, which she had learned on her visit:

BELZEC, The Nazi Death Camp

Immediately following the decision of the Nazi authorities to implement “Aktion Reinhard,” the Germans began construction of three death camps in Poland, designed for the purpose of exterminating the Jews living in the region known as the “Generalgouvernement.”

On November 1, 1941, Belzec, the first of the three death camps, the others being Treblinka and Sobibor, was the first death camp in which the Nazis used stationary gas chambers for killing their victims. The annihilation of the Jews at Belzec lasted for only nine months, between March and December of 1942, but in that time about a million exterminations took place, mostly Polish and foreign Jews, and small groups of non-Jewish Poles and Gypsies.

Corpses were buried in about 30 mass graves located within the perimeter of the camp site, which was at most 400 meters square. It was this practice of mass burials within the camp area itself that caused the Germans to abandon the camp when the Fall and Winter weather caused the bodies of the buried to swell and literally push themselves up out of the ground. This presented great health dangers for the perpetrators.

Between December 1942 and April 1943, transports no longer arrived at the camp and during these months, Jewish prisoners had to open the mass graves and burn the bodies of the gassed victims on huge pyres of layered railroad ties. In June 1943, the camp was totally liquidated and all the buildings were destroyed. No significant physical evidence of the victims was ever to be found at the site and the transport lists were also destroyed. The victims of Belzec died in an anonymous mass and only two official survivors of the camp lived to provide post-war testimonies of life and death at Belzec.

The memorial path that completely encircles the entire site bears the names of all the communities of the Jewish victims that were murdered at Belzec. The path is shown in the photo below.

Path around the entire site of the former Belzec camp

Path around the entire site of the former Belzec camp  Photo Credit: Bonnie Harris

Between 1997 and 1999, a team of archeologists from Nicolas Copernicus University of Torun, led by Professor Andrzej Kola, drilled down into the earth at Belzec and found the locations of 33 mass graves. In the center of the photo above, the darkly colored area of concrete rubble indicates the locations of these mass graves.

The remains of thousands of unburned bodies were found. Out of respect for the dead, the graves were not opened and the bodies were not exhumed, so no identification was made, but according to the USHMM, these were the bodies of the Jews who were forced to dig up the mass graves at Belzec and burn the bodies on pyres, such as the reconstructed pyre shown in the photo below.

Memorial in the shape of a pyre like those on which the exhumed bodies of Jews were burned

Memorial in the shape of a pyre like those on which the exhumed bodies of Jews were burned  Photo Credit:  Bonnie Harris

In the area of the rail ramps, where the train cars stopped to unload their human cargo, stands a memorial shown in the photo above. It is fashioned after the pyres that were constructed for the burning of the corpses from the mass graves.

The photo below shows the entrance into the Memorial with the end of the Memorial pyre on the left.

Entrance into Belzec Memorial Site

Entrance into Belzec Memorial Site  Photo Credit: Bonnie Harris

Women’s brick barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau are now out of bounds for tourists

This quote is from a news article about Auschwitz-Birkenau, which you can read in full here:

Truth continues to be an elusive concept in Auschwitz. The place has begun, literally, to fall apart. The brick-built barracks of Birkenau are out of bounds now because they are unsafe; the museum authorities have replicated one of the Aushwitz II bunk barracks inside an Auschwitz I building so that visitors may imbibe the atmosphere without venturing into the dangerous Birkenau barracks. Workmen are replacing rotten wood in one of the watchtowers. There is much debate about whether maintenance is appropriate to memorial.

On a typical tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau (the Auschwitz II camp), the first thing that visitors do is to climb up into the gatehouse tower so that they can look out over the 425-acre site, which stretches as far as the eye can see. To the left of the gatehouse are some brick barracks buildings, which look quite nice from a distance, but wait until you go inside them!

These barracks were built on the bare ground with no foundations and no concrete pads; the floors are made of bricks, laid on the bare uneven ground.  The ground around the buildings has been churned by millions of feet, walking around on the wet ground, creating hidden pot holes that are perfect for spraining an ankle. This is an accident waiting to happen.

View of women's camp from the tower of the gate house at Auschwitz-Birkenau

View of women’s camp from the tower of the gate house at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The photo above is an early morning shot, taken by me in 2005 from the tower of the Birkenau gatehouse. In the foreground are the outlines of buildings that have been torn down. On the bottom edge of the photo, you can see the barbed wire fence around this section of the camp.  The ground is covered with grass now, but when the Birkenau camp was filled with prisoners, the area around these brick buildings was nothing but mud.

The Birkenau camp was originally built in 1941 to house Soviet Prisoners of War. The homes of Polish residents in seven villages were confiscated and the land was taken to build the camp. The Soviet POWs had to tear down the houses with their bare hands and use the bricks to build barracks buildings.

The photo below shows a close-up of the ground near one of the brick barracks. Notice that the building is built directly on the wet ground with no foundation. The ground has moss growing on it, which indicates that this area was constantly wet. Survivors have said that the ground between the barracks in the women’s camp was always muddy. Even today, the ground near the barracks is very uneven.

Brick barracks were built on the ground with no foundation

Brick barracks were built on the ground with no foundation

The Birkenau camp was built on a marsh, with poor drainage; the ground is always wet. It didn’t rain the whole time I was there in 2005, but the women’s barracks were damp inside. The whole place smelled like a damp basement.

Map of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Map of Auschwitz-Birkenau

A map of the Birkenau camp is shown above. (Click on the map to see a larger size)  At the bottom of the map, on the left side, the train tracks can be seen going through an opening in the gate house. Parallel to the tracks is the Hauptstrasse, or the main street of the camp. On the left side of the main street are the women’s barracks with two disinfection chambers shown in orange in between the two sections of women’s barracks.  Krema II and Krema III, two of the four gas chamber buildings at Birkenau, are shown in red on the map.

View of the women's camp from the main camp road

View of the women’s camp from the main camp road

In the photo above, notice the fake guard towers along the road; these towers were added later for the benefit of tourists.

The photo below shows the brick floor in one of the women’s barracks. The bricks were just laid on top of the bare ground. The floor became very uneven as the women walked on it and the muddy ground underneath caused the floor to buckle.

Uneven brick floor inside one of the brick barrack buildings

Uneven brick floor inside one of the brick barrack buildings

At the top of the photo above, you can see the entrance door into the barrack and a stone floor that is very uneven. On the top left in the photo, you can see the doorway into the tiny room where the block leader had a bed all to herself.

Another barrack building that I entered had a concrete floor, but it was so broken and buckled that it was dangerous to walk on.

The photo below shows the bunks inside one of the brick buildings in the women’s camp. The prisoners slept in three tiers with the bottom tier on the brick floor.

Bunk beds inside the women's barracks

Bunk beds inside the women’s barracks

The bunks in the women’s barracks were almost as wide as a double bed, but 5 or more women had to sleep, crosswise, in one bunk. A tall woman would have had her feet hanging over the edge of the bed. There were no mattresses; the prisoners slept on straw that was damp and worse than nothing at all. It is a miracle that anyone survived in this atmosphere which was conducive to illness.

The brick barracks buildings did not have a stove running down the center, as in the wooden barracks. Instead, there were bunks down the center of the building with two rows of beds, back to back. There were two more rows of bunks, one against each outside wall. A brick stove was at the end of each building.

The photo below shows a washroom in one of the women’s barracks. There are two long basins where the women had to wash with cold water. The men’s barracks had washrooms in a separate building. The toilets were in another building in both the men’s and women’s camps.

Women's washroom in one of the brick barracks

Women’s washroom in one of the brick barracks

The women were given no soap or towels, no shampoo, no mirrors, no nail files, no toenail clippers, not even a handkerchief to blow their noses. The women who were the most likely to survive were the ones who worked in the clothing warehouses where they could steal items from the luggage of the incoming prisoners, or the women who worked in the kitchen who could steal extra food to trade for clothes or other necessities.

The old photo below shows the Medical Building at Auschwitz-Birkeanu.  This building, which is still standing, is shown in the color photo below that I took in 2005.

Women prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau lined up in front of the Medical Building

Women prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau lined up in front of the Medical Building

Medical building in women's camp

Medical building in women’s camp

The photo above shows a building in the women’s camp, which was identified as the “medical building.”  In the background on the right hand side of the photo is the gate house into the Birkenau camp. According to a sign at this location: “SS doctors and nurses murdered mothers and their newborns with phenol injections” in this building.  The women had to line up in front of this building for roll call.

On the map of the Birkenau camp which is shown above, there are two red spots which indicate the location of the gas chamber buildings, known as Krema II and Krema III.  The gas chambers were very close to the women’s camp; the women could see the smoke from the crematorium ovens.

The photo below shows the ruins of Krema II with the kitchen in the women’s camp in the background.

Ruins of Krema II with women's camp in the background

Ruins of Krema II with brick buildings in the women’s camp in the background

The photo above, taken by me in 2005, shows the ruins of the Krema II building, which had a crematorium, with an undressing room and a gas chamber located partially underground. Directly behind the gas chamber building, the women’s kitchen building can be seen.

Women's kitchen at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Women’s kitchen at Auschwitz-Birkenau was right behind Krema II

Gate into section of the Birkenau camp where the disinfection chambers are located

Gate into the section of the Birkenau camp where the disinfection chambers are located

The photo above was taken in the early morning hours before the crowds of tourists arrived at the Birkenau camp in 2005. This area was not being shown to tourists in 2005 because the disinfection chambers were the last thing that the Museum authorities wanted tourists to see. I wandered around by myself and peeked through the windows at the blue-strained gas chambers where the clothing was disinfected with Zyklon-B.