First Jews arrived in Bełżec in the 19th century.[1.1] Most of them were settlers from Rawa Ruska and Jarosław, attracted to the village due to its beneficial location at the border of Galicia and the Kingdom of Poland. According to Robert Kuwałek, there were more than 100 Jewish families living in Bełżec in the early 20th century, most of them making a living from trade. However, other sources provide lower figures: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life. Before and During the Holocaust mentions 100–150 Jews living in the village,[1.2] while according to the census of 1897, Bełżec had 126 Jewish residents among a total population of 1,101 (11.4%).[1.3] A house of prayer and a cheder operated in Bełżec, but the local Jewish population did not form an independent community and was subordinate to the kehillot in Narol and Lubycza Królewska.

During World War I, most local Jews left Bełżec. In 1921, the village had 109 Jewish residents among a total population of 1,960 (5.6%).[1.1.3] In the interwar period, only around a dozen Jewish families lived in the village.[1.4]

Bełżec was seized by German troops in 1939. One year later, Germans established a labour camp in the village. Its population comprised several hundred Jews deported from the General Government and Roma people from Poland and Germany. They were forced to work on the construction of an anti-tank ditch whose fragments have survived to this day.

In November 1941, the Nazi began the construction of the first prototype extermination camp in Bełżec. They chose this location mainly due to the vicinity of the village to the railway junction in Rawa Ruska (railroads running west, east and south). Between March and December 1942, the camp became the murder site of a total of ca. 500,000 Jews from Poland (districts of Kraków, Lublin, Radom, and Galicia) and abroad (i.a. Austria, Bohemia, Slovakia, and Germany), who were transported to Bełżec via the ghettos in the region of Lublin, as well as in Kraków and Lviv. Among the people killed in the camp there were also small groups of Roma people and Poles from the area of Lviv accused of helping Jews or belonging to underground organisations. The victims were murdered in primitive gas chambers, with their bodies buried in mass graves. In January–April 1943, the graves were dug up and the bodies incinerates on grates made of rails. In the months that followed, Germans tore down all the camp buildings and equipment, levelled the area, planted trees all over the place, and sent the remaining prisoners to the Sobibór camp.

After the war, the Nazi extermination camp in Bełżec – which had the third largest death toll right after Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka – was totally forgotten. It was not until 1963 that the first memorial honouring the victims was unveiled at the former campsite. The years 1993–2004 saw the foundation of the Museum – Memorial Site in Bełżec, which is currently a branch of the State Museum at Majdanek in Lublin. The central piece of the monument is a slag cemetery with marked mass graves and the names of over 200 municipalities from which Jews were deported to Bełżec. Adjacent to the memorial site is the museum building, which houses a multimedia exhibition.[1.5]

 Bibliography

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