To carry out the mass murder of Europe's Jews, the SS established killing centers devoted exclusively or primarily to the destruction of human beings in gas chambers. Belzec was among these killing centers. It was one of three killing centers linked to Operation Reinhard, the SS plan to murder almost two million Jews living in the German-administered territory of occupied Poland called the General Government.
Construction began in November 1941 on Belzec. This was the first killing center to implement Operation Reinhard (Aktion Reinhard).
Beginning in March 1942, Jews from various parts of the General Government were deported to Belzec, where they were murdered in gas chambers with carbon monoxide gas generated by large diesel engines.
Belzec was the first of the Operation Reinhard camps to close, in December 1942. By the time deportations to the killing center halted, German authorities had murdered approximately 434,500 Jews at the site.
Operation Reinhard authorities constructed the Belzec killing center on the site of a former labor camp in German occupied-Poland. It was the second German killing center to begin operation. It was also the first of three killing centers established as part of Operation Reinhard (also known as Aktion Reinhard or Einsatz Reinhard). Operation Reinhard was the plan implemented by the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, SS General Odilo Globocnik, to murder the Jews of the General Government (Generalgouvernement).
The labor camp and, later the killing center, were located between the cities of Zamosc and Lvov (today Lviv), about 70 miles southeast of Lublin. During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, this area was part of the Lublin District of the General Government. The camp was situated about 1.5 miles south of the village Belzec. Located along the Lublin-Lvov railway line, the killing center was only 1,620 feet (less than a half mile) from the Belzec railway station. A small rail siding connected the camp with the station.
Belzec: Labor Camp and Killing Center
In 1940, the Germans established a string of labor camps along the Bug (Buh) River. Until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Bug River formed the demarcation line between German- and Soviet-occupied Poland. The headquarters of this complex was a labor camp established on the outskirts of the village Belzec. SS officials forced Jews deported from Lublin District and other parts of the General Government to the Belzec labor camp and its subsidiary camps. There, they were forced to build fortifications and anti-tank ditches along the river. The Belzec labor camp and its subsidiaries were dismantled at the end of 1940.
In November 1941, the SS Central Building Administration (SS-Zentralbauverwaltung) in Lublin District began construction of the killing center on the site of the former labor camp. The choice of location was dictated by good rail connections. Also, Belzec was relatively close to cities and towns with significant Jewish populations. Among these towns were Lublin and Lvov.
German authorities initially deployed local Poles to build the camp’s barracks. These workers were eventually replaced by Jewish forced laborers, many of them skilled carpenters. The basic installations were in place by February 1942. German officials then brought in the first transports of Jewish prisoners. These prisoners were gassed in a series of experimental gassings. In this way, German officials tested the efficiency and efficacy of the killing process. Victims of the last experimental gassings included the Jewish forced laborers engaged in the construction of the camp.
These initial gassings mirrored the killing centers of the T4 (“euthanasia”) program. The killings were conducted with bottled, chemically produced carbon monoxide gas. The first commandant of Belzec, Christian Wirth, had experience as a T4 operative. Wirth had also viewed gassings conducted in gas vans at the Chelmno killing center. Based on his observations, he ordered a self-contained gassing installation that employed carbon monoxide gas generated from the exhaust of a large automotive engine. It was this gassing technique, used in stationary gas chambers, that would be replicated in the other Operation Reinhard camps.
Deportations to Belzec
Killing operations in Belzec began on a mass scale on March 17, 1942. On this date, the first Jewish communities were deported to Belzec. These communities came from the cities of Lublin and Lvov. 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 Jews killed in Belzec were deported from three of the five districts in the General Government. These were Galicia District, Krakow District, and Lublin District. The Germans also deported German, Austrian, and Czech Jews previously sent to transit camp-ghettos in Izbica, Piaski, and elsewhere to Belzec.
The Staff of Belzec
The authorities at the Belzec killing center consisted of a small staff (20-30) of German SS and police officials.
As at Sobibor and Treblinka, the other two Operation Reinhard killing centers, the German staff derived almost exclusively from the T4 program personnel. The first commandant of Belzec, Christian Wirth, would subsequently serve as Inspector of the Operation Reinhard camps. He was assuming the same role he had played for the “euthanasia” killing centers. First Lieutenant Gottlieb Hering replaced Wirth in June 1942. Hering then served as commandant until the camp was liquidated in June 1943. Previously, he had worked as an administrator at Bernburg and Hadamar T4 killing centers. Hering had also served as office manager at the Hartheim euthanasia facility.
T4 operatives comprised the majority of the German staff. However, the bulk of the guard unit, between 90 and 120 men, were either former Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) of various nationalities or Ukrainian and Polish civilians selected or recruited for this purpose. All members of the guard unit were trained at the Trawniki training camp in Lublin. Trawniki was a special facility of the SS and Police Leader, SS General Odilo Globocnik.
The SS staff and auxiliary police guards assigned to the Belzec killing center were housed in a compound near the railroad station less than a half mile from the camp.
German officials divided the Belzec camp into two zones. The first was a combined administration-reception zone. The other was a separate area in which the SS and police could carry out mass murder. This zone was hidden from the view of victims waiting in the reception area. A narrow enclosed path called the "tube" [Schlauch, in German] connected these two sections of the killing center. The railway siding and a ramp were in the reception area. The zone where mass murder took place included the gas chambers and a plot of mass graves. Rail tracks ran from the gas chambers to the graves to facilitate the disposal of victims’ remains. Each side of the camp measured 886 feet, about 2.5 lengths of a soccer field. Pine boughs woven into the barbed-wire fence and trees planted around the perimeter served as camouflage to prevent outsiders from seeing operations inside the camp.
Gassing operations at Belzec began in mid-March 1942. Typically, trains of 40 to 60 freight cars arrived at the Belzec railway station. Between 80 and 100 people were crowded into each car. Twenty freight cars at a time were detached and brought from the station, along the small rail siding, 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. When the killing center first started operations, men were separated from women and children. As time went on, however, Jews arriving at Belzec came to suspect the terrible fate that awaited them. In the chaotic circumstances which ensued, camp officials could not always segregate them.
Jewish victims were forced to undress and run through the "tube." The "tube" led directly into gas chambers, deceptively labeled as showers. Once the chamber doors were sealed, auxiliary police guards started a large motor 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.
Sonderkommandos at the Belzec Killing Center
Members of the Sonderkommandos (special detachments) worked in the killing area. Sonderkommandos were groups of Jewish prisoners selected to remain alive as forced laborers. They removed bodies from the gas chambers and buried the victims in mass graves. Other prisoners, who were selected for temporary survival, worked in the administration-reception area. They facilitated detraining, disrobing, relinquishment of valuables, and movement of the Jewish prisoners into the “tube.” They also sorted the possessions of the murdered victims in preparation for transport to Germany. In addition, these prisoners 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. Those murdered were then replaced with persons selected from newly arriving transports.
In October 1942, on orders from Odilo Globocnik, camp personnel deployed Jewish forced laborers from various locations in Lublin District to exhume the mass graves at Belzec. They ordered the forced laborers to burn the bodies on open-air “ovens” made from rail track. This was in keeping with the efforts of the Sonderkommando 1005, tasked with excavating and destroying evidence of Nazi mass murder in the German-occupied east.
By late spring 1943, Jewish forced laborers, guarded by the SS and police and their auxiliaries, had completed the task of exhuming and burning the bodies. They had also dismantled the camp. In June 1943, the camp was liquidated 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. They built a manor house and planted trees and crops to disguise the area as a farm. A former auxiliary police guard was placed on the site to farm the property in order to further camouflage the site.
In July 1944, the area was taken over by the advancing Soviet Army.
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?
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.