On November 1, 1939, Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of German Police, appoints SS General Odilo Globocnik to the position of Lublin District SS and Police Leader. On July 17, 1941, Himmler appoints Globocnik as Commissioner for the Establishment of SS and Police Bases in the Occupied Eastern Territories. In early autumn of that year, Himmler tasks Globocnik with organizing the mass murder of Jews residing in the General Government (Generalgouvernement). This operation later becomes known as Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhard). The effort was named for Reinhard Heydrich, a key architect of the “Final Solution” who died following an assassination attempt in June 1942. During the course of Operation Reinhard, the Germans murder approximately 1.7 million Jews between March 1942 and November 1943 at three killing centers: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. These killing centers are constructed for the sole purpose of murdering Jews.
November 1, 1941
Under the supervision of the camp’s first commandant, Christian Wirth, Polish civilian workers begin construction of a killing center on the outskirts of Belzec, in southeastern Poland, along a major rail line that connects the large Jewish population centers in and around Lvov (today Lviv), Krakow, and Lublin. The Belzec killing center is the first Operation Reinhard killing center to become operational. Most of the German staff have been recruited from the “euthanasia” program (Operation T4), the Nazis’ first program of systematic mass murder that targeted patients with disabilities upon German soil. Thus, some Belzec staff have previous experience in a killing program. The gas chambers are constructed in a wooden building and operate using carbon monoxide gas from the exhaust fumes of a motor vehicle engine. In February 1942, SS and police personnel and Trawniki-trained guards murder small groups of Jews deported from towns near Belzec to test the efficacy and capacity of the gas chambers. The camp is ready for mass killing operations by March 1942.
March 17, 1942
The systematic mass murder of Jews begins in Belzec with deportations from the city Lublin. These deportations are the first to be carried out within the framework of what becomes known as Operation Reinhard. By April 14, 1942, German authorities will kill nearly 30,000 of the 37,000 Jews of Lublin and about 15,000 Jews from Lvov. During the summer of 1942, the SS and police will deport over 120,000 Jews from the Krakow district to Belzec. Between March and June 1942, the Germans kill an estimated 85,000 Jews in the Belzec killing center.
June 19, 1942
The first phase of gassing operations ends at Belzec after the arrival of over 11,000 Jews from the city Tarnow. Operation Reinhard authorities in Lublin halt deportations in order to replace the wooden building that houses the gas chambers with a more substantial structure. SS and police authorities construct a larger building with six gas chambers. These new gas chambers enable the camp authorities to kill up to 1,500 people at one time. The six gas chambers begin operations in July and, like the original chamber, use carbon monoxide gas from the exhaust fumes of a motor vehicle engine.
July 7, 1942
Deportations to Belzec resume. During this phase of deportations, the SS and police deport around 350,000 Jews from Krakow, Lublin, and Lvov Districts to Belzec.
July 10, 1942
Polish underground officials in occupied Poland send a report to the Polish government-in-exile in London detailing the extermination process in the Belzec camp. Polish underground organizations also send reports about all Operation Reinhard camps to Jewish organizations, the Polish government-in-exile in London, the British government, and other Allied organizations in western Europe. Many of the reports are met with doubt and distrust; thus, little or no action is taken to warn Jews still in ghettos about the camps.
August 1, 1942
Gottlieb Hering replaces Christian Wirth as commandant of the Belzec camp. Like Wirth, Hering comes to Operation Reinhard from the “euthanasia” program (Operation T4). Hering will remain camp commandant until the liquidation of the camp in 1943.
August 19, 1942
SS official Kurt Gerstein inspects Belzec. Gerstein is an official of the Institute of Hygiene of the Waffen SS in the SS Operations Main Office. He checks the efficiency of carbon monoxide as a gassing agent in the three Operation Reinhard camps. Gerstein later leaks a detailed report to Swiss and Swedish diplomats, to Catholic church officials, and to the Dutch government in exile in an effort to make Allied and neutral circles aware of the Holocaust.
The Operation Reinhard authorities halt deportations to Belzec. By this time, German authorities have killed approximately 434,500 Jews in the Belzec killing center.
Critical Thinking Questions
- How did the functions of the camp system expand after World War II began?
- Where were camps located?
- To what degree was the local population aware of the Belzec camp, its purpose, and the conditions within? How would you begin to research this question?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what, if any, actions were taken by other governments and their officials?
- How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews?
Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Black, Peter. Foot Soldiers of the Final Solution: The Trawniki Training Camp and Operation Reinhard. Oxford: Oxford University Press, in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2011.
Kuwałek, Robert. From Lublin to Bełżec: Traces of Jewish Presence and the Holocaust in the Southeastern Part of the Lublin Region, transl. Adam Janiszewski. Lublin: Ad Rem, 2005.
de Mildt, Dick. In the Name of the People: Perpetrators of Genocide in the Reflection of their Post-war Prosecution in West Germany. The 'Euthanasia' and 'Aktion Reinhard' Trial Cases. The Hague/London: Martinus Nijhoff, 1996.