The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Operation Reinhard
The Extermination Camps
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka

The Construction of the Belzec Extermination Camp

Belzec, a small town in the southeast of the district of Lublin, close to the border of the district of Lvov and on the Lublin-Zamosc-Rawa Ruska-Lvov railroad line, was selected as the locality for the first extermination camp. The area specified for the camp was a railroad siding half a kilometer from the Belzec railroad station.

The Pole Stanislaw Kozak described the beginning of its construction:

In October of the year 1941 three SS-men came to Belzec and demanded 20 men for the work from the municipal administrauon. The local council chose 20 workers from among the inhabitants of Belzec, and I was one of them. The Germans selected the terrain to the southeast of the railroad station, which adjoined a siding. The railway line to Lvov runs along this sidetrack. We began to work on November 1,1941, with the construction of huts on the plot adjoining the siding. One of the huts which stood right next to the siding was 50 m. Iong and 12.5 m. wide. The second hut, which was 25 m. Iong and 12.5 m. wide, was intended for the Jews who went to the baths. Next to this hut we built a third hut, which was 12 m. long and 8 m. wide. This hut was divided into three sections by wooden walls, so that each section was 4 m. wide and 8 m. Iong. These sections were 2 m. high. The interior walls of these huts were built such that we nailed the boards to them, filling in the empty space with sand. Inside the hut the walls were covered with cardboard; in addition the floors and the walls, to a height of 1.10 m. [were covered] with sheet- zinc. A 3 m. broad avenue, fenced in with barbed wire, which was also 3 m. high, led from the first to the second of the above-mentioned huts. A part of this fence, facing the siding and beyond it, was covered with pines and firs which had been specially felled, in order to conceal the siding. From the second hut a covered passage, ca. 2m. wide, 2 m. high, and ca. 10 m. Iong, led to the third hut. By way of this passage one reached the passage of the third hut, from which three doors led to its three sections. Each section of this hut had a door on its northern side, approximately 1.80 m. high and 1.10 m. wide. These doors, like the doors to the passage, were closely fitted with rubber. All the doors in this hut opened toward the outside. The doors were very strongly built of three-inch thick planks and were secured against pressure from inside by a wooden bolt that was pushed inside two iron hooks specially fitted for this purpose. In each of the three sections of this hut water pipes were fixed at a height of 10 cm. from the floor. In addition, on the western wall of each section of this hut water pipes branched off at an angle to a height of 1 m. from the floor, ending in an opening directed toward the middle of the hut. The elbow-plpes were connected to pipes which ran along the walls and under the floor... The trench has been dug by 70 "blacks," that is to say, by former Soviet soldiers who worked with the Germans. It was 6 m. deep, 20 m. wide, and 50 m. long. This was the first ditch in which the Jews, killed in the extermination camp, were buried. The "blacks" dug this ditch in six weeks, at the time when we built the huts. This ditch was later continued as far as the middle of the northern border. That was already at a time when we no longer worked on building the huts. The first hut which I mentioned was at a distance of approximately 20 m. from the siding and 100 m. from the southern border. At that time when we Poles were building the huts, the "blacks" put up the fence around the extermination camp; it consisted of posts with closely spaced barbed wire. After we had built the three huts described above, the Germans dismissed us Poles from work on December 22, 1941. (StA Munich 1, AZ:32Js 64-83-61 <AZ. ZSL AR-Z 252/59, vol. VI, p. 1179>.)

In the second half of December, Christian Wirth was appointed Camp Commandant of Belzec, with Josef Oberhauser as his adjutant. SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs reported on Wirth's arrival in Belzec:

One day in the winter of 1941, Wirth put together a transport to Poland. I was selected along with ca. eight to ten others and transferred to Belzec in three motorcars... Upon our arrival in Belzec we met Friedel Schwarz and two other SS-men whose names I do not remember. They served as guards during the building of a hut which we were to fit out as a gas chamber.

Wirth told us that in Belzec "all Jews were to be bumped off. " For this purpose the huts were fitted out as gas chambers. I installed shower nozzles in the gas chambers. The nozzles were not connected to a water pipe because they were only meant to serve as camouflage for the gas chambers. The Jews who were to be gassed were untruthfully informed that they were to be bathed and disinfected. (StA Dortmund AZ: 45Js 27-61 <AZ. ZSL: 208 AR-Z 251/59, vol. 9, pp. 1782f>)

Wirth developed his own ideas on the basis of the experience he had gained in the "Euthanasia" program. Thus, in Belzec he decided to supply the fixed gas chamber with gas produced by the internal-combustion engine of a motorcar. Wirth rejected Cyanide B which was later used at Auschwitz. This gas was produced by private firms and its extensive use in Belzec might have aroused suspicion and led to problems of supply. He therefore preferred a system of extermination based on ordinary, universally available gasoline and diesel fuel.

At the end of Febraury 1942 the installations for mass extermination were completed. The first two or three transports, each consisting of four to six freight cars fully loaded with a hundred or more Jews, were used for trial killings in order to test the capacity and efficiency of the gas chambers and the technique of the extermination process. The tests lasted several days. The last group to be killed consisted of the Jewish prisoners who had taken part in building the camp. (See note 6 <vol. IX, pp 1681 ff>)

Bottled carbon monoxide was used for these experiments. However, a short while later the gassings were carried out with carbon monoxide from the exhaust fumes a of motorcar engine. The engine from an armored vehicle ("250 h.p.") was installed in a shed outside the gas chamber, whence the gas was piped into the gas chamber. Wirth continued to experiment in his search for the most effective method of handling the transports of Jews, from their arrival at the camp to their extermination and the subsequent removal of the corpses. Everything was arranged in such a way that the victims should remain unaware of their impending doom. The intention was to convey to them the impression that they had arrived at a work or transit camp from which they would be sent on to another camp.

In addition, everything was to proceed at top speed so that the victims would have no chance to grasp what was going on. Their reactions were to be paralyzed to prevent escape attempts or acts of resistance.

The speedy process was to increase the camp's extermination capacity. In this way, several transports could be received and liquidated on one and the same day.

The entire camp covered a relatively small, flat, rectangular area. Its southern side measured 265 m., the other sides ca. 275 m. It was surrounded by a high wire fence, with barbed wire attached at the top and camouflaged with branches. Young trees were pianted along the fence so that no one would be able to look into the camp from the outside. There were three watchtowers in the corners, two of them on the eastern perimeter and the third on the southwestern one. There was an additional watch tower in the center of the camp, near the gas chambers. A railroad track some 500 m. in length led from the Belzec railroad station into the camp through the gate on its northern side. The southern and eastern boundaries were lined with conifers.

Belzec was divided into two areas. Camp I, in the northwest, was the reception and administrative sector; Camp II, in the eastern section, was the extermination sector.

The reception sector comprised the railroad ramp, which had room for twenty freight cars, and two huts for the arrivals -- one for undressing and the other for storing clothes and baggage. Camp II, the extermination sector, comprised the gas chambers and the mass graves which were located in the eastern and northeastern part. The gas chambers were surrounded by trees and a camouflage net was spread over their roof to prevent observation from the air. There were also two huts in this sector for the Jewish prisoners working here: one served as their living quarters, the other as the kitchen. Camp II was completely separated from the other sector by a strictly guarded gate.

A low path, 2 m. wide and 50-70m. Iong, known as the "tube," fenced in on both sides with barbed wire and partly partitioned off by a wooden fence, connected the hut in Camp I where the arrivals undressed with the gas chambers in Camp II. The living quarters of the SS-men were at a distance of ca. 500 m. from the camp, near the Belzec railroad station. All the SS-men were employed in the camp administration. Each SS- man had his specific job and some of them were assigned more than one task. From time to time there was an exchange in the spheres of responsibility. (Ibid., vol. VII, pp. 1288,1384; vol VIII, p. 1465)

SS-Oberscharführer Gottfried Schwarz was the Deputy Camp Commandant, SS-Oberscharführer Niemann was in charge of the extermination sector of Camp II, and SS-Oberscharführer Josef Oberhauser, Wirth's adjutant, held responsibility for the con- struction of the camp. SS-Oberscharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, together with two Ukrainians working under him, was respon- sible for the operation of the gas chambers.

The Ukrainian unit numbered 60-80 men, divided into two groups. The Ukrainians served as security guards inside the camp, at the entrance gate, and on the four watch towers; they also carried out several patrols. Some of them assisted in operat- ing the gas chambers. Before the arrival of a transport, the Ukrainians were deployed as guards around the ramp, at the hut for undressing and along the "tube," as iar as the gas chambers. During the experimental killings they had to remove the corpses from the gas chambers and bury them. Later on,Jewish prisoners were forced to do this work.

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