Pre-war Bełżec was a typical Galician town, where Poles, Ukrainians and Jews lived side by side in relative harmony. In the interwar period, Bełżec formed part of the district of Rawa, Lviv Province. After the outbreak of World War II, it was incorporated into Kreishauptmannschaft Zamosc.
The partition of the Polish territory by the Third Reich and the USSR determined the fate of the small town. Since autumn 1939, Bełżec was a border town in the German occupation zone. Due to its strategic location, the SS Construction Kommando established a labour camp in Bełżec. The camp operated from spring to autumn 1940. It was a fortified camp set up for military purposes, primarily to secure the border with the Soviet Union. During the short period of its existence, it served as a transit camp, a forced labour camp and a penitentiary camp. A total of over 11,000 people were imprisoned in the Bełżec camp and its sub-camps. The first group of prisoners to reach Bełżec were 1,140 Sinti people, deported from the Third Reich at the end of May 1940. Among those deported to the facility were also Polish Roma people, but their number is difficult to determine. Apart from the Roma and Sinti, the prisoner population also included Jews, who constituted the largest group inside the facility. The Bełżec camp was also used as a prison for Polish peasants who had not delivered the required German quota or participated in the illegal black market. SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Dolp was the camp commandant.
It can be assumed that Bełżec was selected as the first site to form part of “Operation Reinhard” due to the fact that a labour camp had already operated there in 1940. This particular location was most likely suggested to Odilo Globocnik, the head of the SS and police in the Lublin district, by two former members of the labour camp staff, Richard Thomalla and Georg Michalsen. Both officers worked on “Operation Reinhard.”
After the outbreak of the German-Russian war in June 1941 and the incorporation of Galicia into the General Government on 1 August 1941, Bełżec found itself at the crossroads of three districts – Lublin, Krakow and Galicia. Ca. 1,000,000 Jews lived in this area. In the Lublin district, the Jewish population constituted 10% of the total population, in the Kraków district – 9% and in the Galician district – 14%. In addition, great numbers of Jews from Warthegau, the Third Reich, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia were deported to the Lublin District in 1941 and in the first half of 1942.
Bełżec was also an important site from the logistical point of view. The railway line connecting Warsaw with Lviv crossed the town, while the junction station in Rawa Ruska, connecting the area directly with Kraków, was located ca. 30 km away from Bełżec.
The death camp was located 1 km away from the centre of Bełżec and 400–500 metres from the railway station on the Kozielsko hill. This location was also convenient for Germans thanks to the proximity of a railway siding constructed by Austrians before World War I. It was used as a camp ramp in 1942.
The decision to open the death camp in Bełżec was made in the late summer or early autumn of 1941. However, no document directly confirming the final decision has been preserved. The first SS group arrived to Bełżec at the end of October 1941.
The construction of the death camp began on 1 November 1941. The works most likely continued until the turn of March 1942. The camp occupied an area of ca. 7 hectares, the entirety of which was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence. Felled conifers were woven into the fence to mask the interior of the camp. There was a watchtower in every corner. The first group of workers were the inhabitants of Bełżec and the surrounding area – a group of 20 people. They constructed three buildings, unaware of their intended use. Former Soviet prisoners of war from Trawniki also participated in the construction works. On 23 December 1941, local workers were dismissed and replaced by Jews brought from the nearby village of Lubycza Królewska. It was a group of ca. 120–150 people. They completed the final stages of the construction of the camp. In February or early March 1942, they were murdered in the test run of gas chambers. The death camp in Bełżec was the first death camp to feature stationary gas chambers. Initially, Germans used compressed carbon dioxide to kill their victims, but this solution was ultimately replaced with exhaust fumes produced by an engine pulled out of a Soviet tank.
The first two transports of prisoners arrived to the death camp in Bełżec on 17 March 1942. A group of Jews from the Lublin Ghetto was brought to the site in the morning, while in the afternoon they were joined by people deported from Lviv. From that day on, transports continued to arrive to the site almost until mid-December 1942. Deportations were carried out in waves. Displacement campaigns intensified in the summer of 1942, following Heinrich Himmler’s order to complete the liquidation of all ghettos in the General Government. In the short history of the camp, two phases can be distinguished: March-June and July-December. Within several months, at least 179 transports arrived at the camp in Bełżec, 59 of which reached the site in the former period and 120 in the latter.
Transports were generally accepted only during daytime. Trains which arrived late in the afternoon or at night were kept under guard at the railway station.
Over 430,000 people were killed in the camp. The victims were mostly Polish Jews deported from the three districts mentioned above, as well as German, Austrian, Czech and Slovak Jews. Germans murdered most of them without leaving any trace, as no deportation lists were drawn up. Apart from Jews, a relatively small group of Roma people and Poles was murdered in Bełżec.
At least 37 SS officers, 35 Germans and two Austrians, formed part of the SS staff during the operation of the death camp in Bełżec. Between 15 and 20 SS officers were present in the camp at the same time. Christian Wirth was its first commandant; in 1 August 1942, he was succeeded by Gottlieb Hering. Wirth was responsible for the organisation of the camp and introducing highly effective mechanisms of extermination. Hering was present in the camp during the final period of its operation, right until its liquidation. Before the war, both commandants had worked for the German police, and had taken part in the euthanasia programme known under the name Aktion T4 before being sent to Bełżec.
The camp staff was supplemented by guards recruited from among Soviet prisoners of war. Most of them were Ukrainians, but there were also some Volksdeutsche, ethnic Russians and people of various nationalities from the USSR.
All physical work was carried out by Jews selected on the ramp. Initially, the prisoners were killed immediately after carrying out the tasks assigned to them. Later on, permanent working groups were organised on the order of the first commandant. The number of Jewish prisoners in the camp amounted to ca. 500 persons.
The camp was divided into two sections. Victims were received in the lower camp (Camp I) and murdered in the upper camp (Camp II). The lower section was separated from the upper section by a fence disguised with conifers. A special passage, called the “lock” (German: schlauch, schleuse), led to the gas chambers. Initially, there were three wooden barracks in the camp – one room for men and one for women to undress, and a gas chamber with three rooms. Women had their hair shaved off in the women’s room. The camp underwent maintenance and repair works at the turn of July 1942. A brick gas chamber with six rooms was constructed and the railway ramp was extended. In the spring of 1942, 8–10 train cars could enter the camp at a time, while in the summer of the same year the capacity was increased up to 20 cars. Among other facilities constructed in the camp during its operation were barracks for Jewish prisoners, shoemaking, locksmithing and tailoring workshops, a laundry service, and barracks for guards. The camp commandant’s office, the SS garrison and warehouses for storing stolen Jewish property were located outside the camp, in the buildings belonging to the Bełżec railway line.
The modus operandi developed in the Bełżec camp was geared towards high time efficiency. Germans were determined to carry out the genocide, from the moment the wagons arrived at the camp ramp to the moment the bodies were buried in mass graves, in the shortest possible time. People from a single transport were usually murdered in the span of 2–3 hours. Gold teeth were extracted from the bodies of the gassed victims and every orifice was inspected for valuables. The sick, disabled, small children or people inciting rebellion were shot over a mass grave, which was referred to as the “Lazaret.”
During the first weeks of the camp’s operation, bodies were buried in mass graves. Several layers of human corpses were laid in a single grave, four or five metres deep. The putrefaction, however, proceeded at a quick pace, which caused omnipresent fetor and posed a threat of an epidemic. In order to stop the process of decomposition, corpses were covered with chloride and then with a layer of cement. It turned out, however, that septic gases led to the cracking of the cement covers. It was therefore decided that bodies would be mixed with coke. This method, however, did not live up to the standard expected by Germans. Subsequent bodies of victims were burnt on pyres constructed from rail tracks and ties. The pyres operated continuously from autumn 1942 to spring 1943. Some 3 to 5 pyres were used. After completing the extermination of the Jewish population, Germans started to liquidate the camp. Eventually, by the summer of 1943, the buildings and camp equipment had all been destroyed, and the area was levelled and forested. After all traces of the camp had been removed, the last group of ca. 300 prisoners was deported to the camp in Sobibór on 26 June 1943. When they arrived at the site, they organised a rebellion on the ramp and were shot on the spot.
According to the German plans, all people deported to the death camp in Bełżec were to be killed. After the war, only two former prisoners made a written report. They were Rudolf Reder (born in 1881) and Chaim Hirszman (born in 1912). Reder was deported to Bełżec from Lviv during the “Great August Aktion,” while Hirszman, together with his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old son, were sent to the camp from Zaklików in November 1942. Reder managed to escape in November 1942, when five members of the German staff took him to Lviv to buy metal sheet. Chaim Hirszman escaped from the train headed from the Bełżec camp to Sobibór in June 1943.
In the post-war period, the area of the former death camp long remained in a state of neglect. In 1963, the communist authorities erected the first monument at the site. However, it did not reflect the historical significance of this place and provided no protection to the existing mass graves. Moreover, its design was largely inexpressive and based on unclear symbolism. The cuboid-shaped monument bore a short inscription: “In memory of the victims of Nazi terror murdered in the years 1942–1943,” with two human figures at the forefront. There were also four pedestals situated along a paved avenue, six concrete candles, an informative board, and a commemorative plaque.
Many people did not accept such state of affairs and sought to properly commemorate the victims of Bełżec. One of them was Miles Lerman, the Chairman of the Council of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. In 1987, he began negotiations regarding the construction of a new monument with the communist authorities of Poland. The cooperation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, the American Jews Committee and the Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom resulted in the creation of the Museum – Memorial Site in Bełżec, which was officially opened on 3 June 2004. The newly established institution became a branch of the State Museum at Majdanek. Before the start of construction works, archaeological research under the supervision of Prof. Andrzej Kola of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń was carried out in the years 1997–2000. The researchers discovered 33 mass graves, the foundations of several camp buildings, and numerous items belonging to the victims.
The design of the monument-museum, made by Andrzej Sołyga, Zbigniew Pidek, and Marcin Roszczyk, took a unique, narrative form, transforming the landscape and architecture of the killing site. The most important part of the monument, protecting the ashes and remains of people, was covered with metallurgical slag, symbolising the burning of bodies and resembling freshly ploughed land, where nothing will grow to cover the murder scene. The main part of the monument is divided in two by the Road-Crevice leading to the Niche-Ohel, symbolically ending with a granite wall bearing a fragment from the Book of Job: “Earth do not cover my blood; Let there be no resting place for my outcry.” Two hollows made on the opposite wall feature 120 carved names – the most popular names among the pre-war Jewish community, with the list referring to the idea that each victim had its own name. The area holding mass graves is surrounded with a concrete yard featuring the names of the towns from which the victims were deported. At the entrance to the memorial site there is a symbolic ramp, closed on one side by a sculpture made out of original railway ties, symbolising a freight car and a burning pile. On the other side of the yard there is the Museum building, designed in the shape of a train embedded in concrete. It houses the Museum’s permanent exhibition telling the history of the camp, as well as the Contemplation Room – a darkened hall with resounding acoustics designated for prayer, meditation and reflection on human nature.
dr Ewa Koper