The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Operation Reinhard
The Extermination Camps
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka

Belzec -- from March 17 till June 1942

Organized mass extermination began with the deportation of the Jews of Lublin on March 17,1942. This date marks the actual onset of Operation Reinhard.

When the train entered Belzec station, its 40-60 freight cars were rearranged into several separate transports because the reception capacity inside the camp was 20 cars at the most. Only after a set of cars had been unloaded and sent back empty was another section of the transport driven into the camp. The accompanying security guards as well as the German and Polish railroad personnel were forbidden to enter the camp. (See note 6 <vol. VII, pp. 1360 ff.>)

The train was brought into the camp by a specially selected and reliable team of railroad workers. According to the concept of the extermination process, the procedure was as follows:

The camp looked "peaceful." The victims were unable to discern either graves, ditches or gas chambers. They were led to believe that they had arrived at a transit camp. An SS-man strengthened this belief by announcing that they were to undress and go to the baths in order to wash and be disinfected. They were also told that afterwards they would receive clean clothes and be sent on to a work camp.

Separation of the sexes, undressing, and even the cropping of the women's hair could not but reinforce the impression that they were on their way to the baths. First the men were led into the gas chambers, before they were able to guess what was going on; then it was the turn of the women and children. (StA Munich 1, AZ. 22 Js 68/61, pp. 2625 f.)

The gas chambers resembled baths. A group of young and strong Jews, a few dozen, occasionally even a hundred, was usually selected during the unloading of a transport. Most of them were taken to Camp II. They were forced to drag the corpses from the gas chambers and to carry them to the open ditches. Several prisoners were employed in collecting the victims' clothes and belongings and carrying them to the sorting point. Others had to remove from the train those who had died during the transport and to take those unable to walk to the ditches in Camp II. These Jews were organized into work teams with their own Capos. They did this work for a few days or weeks. Each day some of them were killed and replaced by new arrivals.

SS-man Karl Alfred Schluch, a former "Euthanasia" worker, who spent ca. sixteen months in Belzec from the very beginning, described what else happened to the transports inside the camp:

The unloading of the freight cars was carried out by a Jewish work commando, headed by a Capo. Two to three members of the German camp personnel supervised it. It was one of my duties to supervise here. After the unloading, those Jews able to walk had to make their way to the assembly site. During the unloading the Jews were told that they had come for resettlement but that first they had to be bathed and disinfected. The address was given by Wirth, and also by his interpreter, a Jewish Capo. Immediately after this, the Jews were led to the undressing huts. In one hut the men had to undress and in the other the women and children. After they had stripped, the Jews, the men having been separated from the women and children, were led through the tube. I cannot recall with certainty who supervised the undressing huts... Since I was never on duty there I am unable to provide precise details about the stripping process. I just seem to remember that in the undressing hut some articles of clothing had to be left in one place, others in a different one, and in a third place valuables had to be handed over...

My location in the tube was in the immediate vicinity of the undressing hut. Wirth had stationed me there because he thought me capable of having a calming effect on the Jews. After the Jews left the undressing hut I had to direct them to the gas chamber. I believe that I eased the way there for the Jews because they must have been convinced by my words or gestures that they really were going to be bathed. After the Jews had entered the gas chambers the doors were securely locked by Hackenholt himself or by the Ukrainians assigned to him. Thereupon Hackenholt started the engine with which the gassing was carried out. After 5 - 7 minutes -- and I merely estimate this interval of time -- someone looked through a peephole into the gas chamber to ascertain whether death had overtaken them all. Only then were the outside gates opened and the gas chambers aired. Who did the checking, that is to say, who looked through the peephole? I can no longer say with any certainty... In my view, probably everyone had occasion to look through the peephole. After the gas chambers had been aired, a Jewish work commando headed by a Capo, arrived and removed the corpses. Occasionally, I also had to supervise in this place. I can therefore give an exact description of what happened, because I myself witnessed and experienced it all. The Jews had been very tightly squeezed into the gas chambers. For this reason the corpses did not lie on the floor but were caught this way and that, one bent forward, another one backward, one lay on his side another kneeled, all depending on the space. At least some of the corpses were soiled with feces and urine, others partly with saliva. I could see that the lips and tips of the noses of some of the corpses had taken on a bluish tint. Some had their eyes closed, with others the eyes were turned up. The corpses were pulled out of the chambers and immediately examined by a dentist. The dentist removed rings and extracted gold teeth when there were any. He threw the objects of value obtained in this manner into a cardboard box which stood there. After this procedure the corpses were thrown into the large graves there. (See note 6 <vol. VIII, p. 1511>)

It is difficult to establish exactly how many of the gas chambers were in operation during the first three months of the mass extermination in Belzec. At times not all three gas chambers functioned because of technical problems or actual defects.

Problems also arose with the burial of the victims. When a ditch was filled with corpses, it was covered with a thin layer of soil. As a result of the heat, the decomposition process, and sometimes also because water seeped into the ditches, the bodies swelled up and the thin layer of soil burst open.

Those no longer able to walk were led directly to the ditch where they were shot. Robert Juhrs, an SS-man who started his service in Belzec in the summer of 1942, described how such shootings were conducted:

At the beginning of the autumn of 1942, upon the arrival of a largish transport, I was assigned to the unloading site.

On this transport the freight cars had been seriously overcrowded, and many Jews were unable to walk. It is Possible that in the confusion a number of Jews had been pushed onto the floor and trampled on. In any case, there were Jews who could not possibly have walked via the undressing huts. As usual, Hering also turned up here for the unloading. He ordered me to shoot these Jews...

The Jews in question were taken to the gate by the Jewish work commando and from there conveyed to the ditch by other working Jews. As I recall, there were seven Jews, both men and women, who were laid inside the ditch.

At this point I should like to stress that the victims concerned were those persons who had suffered most severely from the transport. I would say that they were more dead than alive. It is hard to describe the condition of these people after the long journey in the indescribably overcrowded freight cars. I looked upon killing these people in that manner as a kindness and a release. (See note 6 <vol. VIII, pp. 1483 f.>)

The first large Jewish community taken to Belzec for extermination came from Lublin. Within four weeks, from March 17 to April 14, close to 30,000 of the 37,000 inhabitants of the ghetto were deported to Belzec. Within the same period of time an additional 18,000 - 20,000 Jews from the Lublin Bezirk were sent to Belzec.

The first Jewish transport from the Lvov Bezirk came from Zolkiew, a town 50 km. southwest of Belzec. This transport consisted of approximately 700 Jews and reached Belzec on March 25 or 26,1942. Subsequently, within the two weeks up to April 6, 1942, some 30,000 other Jews from the Lvov Bezirk arrived in Belzec.

After 80,000 Jews had been murdered in a major operation, which lasted about four weeks, the transports were discontinued. Toward the end of April or the beginning of May 1942, Wirth and his SS-men left the camp.

At the beginning of May 1942 SS-Oberführer Brack from Berlin visited Globocnik in Lublin. Globocnik requested the return of Wirth and his staff, and also asked for additional personnel from the "Euthanasia" program.

In mid-May 1942 Wirth returned to Belzec. Until the end of June more transports arrived from the Lublin and Krakow districts with about 22,000 Jews.

With the onset of the deportations from the Bezirks of Cracow, Lvov, and Lublin, Wirth realized that the wooden gas chambers could not cope with the arrival of the increasing number of victirns. Deportations to Belzec therefore ceased in mid-June 1942, while new gas chambers were being built there. This concluded the first period of the operation in Belzec.

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