Heinrich Himmler, Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of German Police, appoints SS General Odilo Globocnik as Lublin District SS and Police Leader on November 1, 1939. On July 17, 1941, Himmler appoints Globocnik 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 Generalgouvernement (that part of German-occupied Poland not annexed directly to Germany, attached to German East Prussia, or incorporated within the German-occupied USSR). This operation later becomes known as Operation Reinhard (also called Aktion Reinhard); it was named after Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office. During the course of Operation Reinhard, the Germans kill approximately 1.7 million Jews between March 1942 and November 1943 at three killing centers—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II—constructed for the sole purpose of killing Jews
November 1, 1941
Under supervision of SS and police personnel and Trawniki-trained auxiliary police guards, 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, Krakow, and Lublin. The Belzec killing center is the first Aktion Reinhard killing center to become operational. The gas chambers are constructed in a wooden building and will operate with carbon monoxide gas. In February 1942, SS and police personnel and Trawniki-trained guards murder small groups of Jews deported from towns near Belzec to test efficiency and capacity in 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 the deportation of Jews from Lublin. This deportation was the first carried out within the framework of what became known as Operation Reinhard. By April 14, 1942, the SS and police will have killed nearly 30,000 of the 37,000 Jews of Lublin and about 15,000 Jews from Lvov (Lwow, L’viv). 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 Belzec.
June 19, 1942
The first phase of gassing operations ends at Belzec after the arrival of over 11,000 Jews from Tarnow. Operation Reinhard authorities in Lublin halt deportations in order to replace the wooden building housing the gas chambers with a more substantial building. SS and police authorities construct a larger building with six gas chambers, capable of killing 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 Aktion 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 19, 1942
SS official Kurt Gerstein inspects Belzec. Gerstein, as an official of the Institute of Hygiene of the Waffen SS in the SS Operations Main Office, checks the efficiency of carbon monoxide as a gassing agent in the three Aktion Reinhard camps.
The Operation Reinhard authorities halt deportations to Belzec. In total, German authorities 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?