The small town of Belzec was located in southeastern Poland between the cities of Zamosc and Lvov (L’viv). During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, this area was located in the Lublin District of the Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not directly annexed to Germany, attached to German East Prussia or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union).
Labor Camp Established
In 1940, the Germans established a string of labor camps along the Bug (Buh) River, which, until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, formed the demarcation line between German- and Soviet-occupied Poland. The headquarters of this complex was a labor camp established on the outskirts of Belzec. SS officials forced Jews deported from Lublin District and other parts of the Generalgouvernement to the Belzec labor camp and its subsidiary camps to build fortifications and antitank ditches along the Bug River. The Belzec labor camp and its subsidiaries were dismantled at the end of 1940.
The Belzec Killing Center
In November 1941, SS and police authorities in Lublin District began construction of a killing center on the site of the former Belzec labor camp. The choice of location was dictated by good rail connections and proximity to significant Jewish populations in the Lvov, Krakow, and Lublin districts of the Generalgouvernement. The facility was finished in the late winter of 1942 as part of what later would be called Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard), the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin to murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement.
Belzec began operations on March 17, 1942. The first Jewish communities deported to Belzec were those of Lublin and Lvov. Belzec was the second German killing center, and the first of the Operation Reinhard killing centers, to begin operation.
Located along the Lublin-Lvov railway line, the killing center was only 1,620 feet from the Belzec railway station. A small rail siding connected the camp and the station. The SS staff and auxiliary police guards assigned to the camp were housed in a separate compound near the railroad station.
The authorities at the Belzec killing center consisted of a small staff of German SS and police officials (between 20 and 30) and a police auxiliary guard unit of between 90 and 120 men, all of whom were either former Soviet prisoners of war of various nationalities or Ukrainian and Polish civilians selected or recruited for this purpose. All members of the guard unit were trained at a special facility of the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, the Trawniki training camp.
Commandants of the Belzec camp were SS Major Christian Wirth until June 1942 and then SS First Lieutenant Gottlieb Hering from June 1942 until June 1943.
The Germans divided Belzec into a combined administration-reception area and a separate area, in which the SS and police could carry out the mass murder hidden from view of victims waiting in the reception area. A narrow enclosed path called the "tube" connected the two sections of the killing center. The reception area held the railway siding and a ramp. The area where the mass murder took place included the gas chambers and mass graves. Rail tracks ran from the gas chambers to the burial pits. Each side of the camp measured 886 feet. Fine boughs woven into the barbed-wire fence and trees planted around the perimeter served as camouflage to prevent curious outsiders from seeing operations inside the camp.
Gassing operations at Belzec began in mid-March 1942. Trains of 40 to 60 freight cars, with 80 to 100 people crowded into each car, arrived at the Belzec railway station. Twenty freight cars at a time were detached and brought from the station into the camp. The arriving Jews were then ordered to disembark at the platform of the reception area. German SS and police personnel announced that the Jewish deportees had arrived at a transit camp and were to hand over all valuables in their possession.
Initially, men were separated from women and children, though in later months, as transport arrivals became more chaotic due to increased awareness of the victims of what would happen, the Germans and the Trawniki-trained auxiliaries could not always implement this segregation.
The Jews were forced to undress and run through the "tube," which led directly into gas chambers deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, auxiliary police guards started an engine located outside the building housing the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was funneled into the gas chambers, killing all those inside. The process was then repeated with deportees in the next 20 freight cars.
Forced Labor at Belzec
Members of the Sonderkommandos (special detachments)—groups of prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers—worked in the killing area. They removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners selected for temporary survival worked in the administration-reception area, facilitating detraining, disrobing, relinquishment of valuables, and movement into the “tube” of new arrivals. They also sorted the possessions of the murdered victims in preparation for transport to Germany, and were responsible for cleaning out freight cars for the next deportation. German SS and police personnel and the Trawniki-trained guards periodically murdered the members of these detachments of Jewish laborers, and replaced them with persons selected from newly arriving transports.
In October 1942, on orders from Lublin, German SS and police personnel, using groups of Jewish forced laborers rounded up from various locations in Lublin District, began to exhume the mass graves at Belzec and burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. The Germans also utilized a machine to crush bone fragments into powder.
Deportations to Belzec
Between March and December 1942, the Germans deported approximately 434,500 Jews and an undetermined number of Poles and Roma (Gypsies) to Belzec, where they were killed. Most of the victims were Jews from the ghettos of southern and southeastern Poland. The Germans also deported German, Austrian, and Czech Jews previously sent to transit camp-ghettos in Izbica, Piaski, and elsewhere to Belzec.
By late spring 1943, Jewish forced laborers, guarded by the SS and police and their auxiliaries, had completed the task of exhuming the bodies and burning them and had dismantled the camp. During June 1943, the job was completed and the Jewish forced laborers were either shot in Belzec or deported to the Sobibor killing center to be gassed.
After the Belzec camp was dismantled, the Germans ploughed over the site, built a manor house and planted trees and crops to disguise the area as a farm. A former auxiliary police guard at the camp ostensibly farmed the land.
Soviet forces overran the region in July 1944.
Series: Killing Centers
Critical Thinking Questions
- Where were the killing centers located? To what degree was the local population aware of the camps, their purpose, and the conditions within? How would you begin to research this question?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about the killing centers? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials?
- What choices do other countries have in the face of mistreatment of civilians?