Saturday, March 17, 2012

BELZEC Extermination Camp part 1

The first considerations for the establishment of an extermination camp at Belzec in southeastern Poland were considered in connection with the decision of the Reichs Leader(Reichsführer der) SS Himmler, dated 20 July 1941,  to have the District of Lublin Germanized and later the entire General Government. To accomplish this project as a "clean up"  it necessitated to remove the entire population of the Jewish and Polish communities.Thus began the planning by  the SS and Police Leader in the Lublin District, SS Brigadier Odilo Globocnik with  the Germanization of the region. At the same  time Globocnik worked during the summer of 1941 on a concept for the effective mass killing of Jews, not only in Lublin area, but for the entire General Government which came under his jurisdiction.

The decision to make Auschwitz  the place(Schauplatz)of the mass murder of European Jews was not  made later than  February 1942 while Belzec was already completed for the reception of the first transports. Although the Germans had already in the summer of 1941 in Auschwitz done experiments on the use of gas as a means of killing, however, the German-Polish historian Bogdan Musial argues that both, the decision to implement the mass murder in stationary gas chambers and the decision on the site of Belzec as a place of execution for the "Final Solution"(Endlösung)" was made at the same time, between July and October 1941. What influenced this decision making, while at that time mass shootings of Jews in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union had been in full swing, was, that  this method of slaughter required a large staffing and took a long time. Moreover, the participation in the executions of the perpetrators took a great toll on them psychologically. [Those Einsatztruppen that refused(Befehlsverweigerung) to shoot women and children were court marshaled, sentenced and as a rule finished up at Dachau KZ, very little has been written about their emotional feelings and distress.sic]  This method of murder was therefore not intended for the rapid killing of millions of Polish and European Jews. At the same time, it became clear that logistical reasons and because of the war situation it was hopeless to deport  the Jews from the General Government, let alone to transport them en mases from all over Europe, only to be shot in the Soviet Union was out of question.
In Western Europe, this method of killing was already out of deference to public opinion not an issue of debate . The use of mobile gas vans in the opinion of the murderers turned out to be too time consuming. The establishment of extermination camps in the General Government allowed first and foremost for secrecy of the crime. This appeared to the National Socialists political administration(Parteiverwaltung) particularly important and necessary in relation to the Deportation of German Jews. [Hitler did finally gave the green light to deport Reichs-Juden to the East after lengthly delays and dithering.sic] Another reason for the establishment of an extermination camp in the General Government was that the Germans were able to prevail here with impunity an occupation regime without any recall to the law,  furthermore people in the occupied countries of Western Europe, were neither exposed nor aware to the extent of the terror that existed.
Belzec was the first camp where the Nazis installed stationary gas chambers. The decision to build this extermination camp was probably already taken in September 1941, or as early as mid-October with SS lieutenant Gottfried Schwarz, SS Sergeant Josef Oberhauser and SS lieutenant Josef Niemann, the first who had been involved in"Aktion T4"  who arrived in Lublin, and who later became members of the camp's team (5) at  the end of October they were already in Belzec. Further plans for the building were probably held at a meeting on 13 October, at which Himmler, Globocnik were present as well as higher ranking SS and Police Leaders of the General Government including Hans Krüger. Ref.: (5) Statement, Josef Oberhauser 12/04/1961 in StA Munich Stan33033 / 6, Process against Josef Oberhauser, page 1194..Oberhauser testified that he arrived already in the summer of 1941 in Lublin shortly after the completion of the euthanasia program,his claim that he was ordered to Lublin, in order to establish a Ukrainian division at Belzec with the aim to collect only the Russian abandoned war material, is not true.[The researcher might be wrong as the name of the Police Chief at that time was Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, not Hans, sic]

Joseph Oberhauser at his trial
The choice of location as a site of Belzec as  the first death camp with gas chambers was mainly for logistical reasons. Belzec was situated on the railway line Warsaw-Lublin-Lemberg(then Lwów, now Lwiw  in Ukraine). 14 km from Belzec away was the railway hub Rawa Ruska, the region with the southern part of Poland during the occupation was part of the"Cracow District," from here it was planned the deportations to Belzec to be carried out as well, and were joined to the northern part of the occupied eastern territories.Through  Rawa Ruska on the Bug River you can reach Brzesc, today it is Brest in Belarus and Vilnius. The good rail link guaranteed a proportionate rapid arrival of transports to the extermination camp. A second and possibly decisive factor for the location of the camp at Belzec would have been the "Kozielsk Hill" (7)  the fact that at the foot of the hill was a railway ramp. This one belonged to the "Upper Silesia wood-industrial society"(Oberschlesischen Holz-Industrieanlagen)  and was before the First World War used for the removal of timber from the forests of the area around it. Belzec was at that time the most northernly border station of the Austrian territory since the division  (8) The ramp, after modernization was able to handle about  20 railway freight cars. The front of the ramp had sufficient space for the deportees. (9)
Ref: (7) This expressionn was used by the inhabitants of Belzec and other surrounding villages like Cieszanow about 20 km away the death camp known as "camp on the "Kozielsk"
Ref: (8) In the years 1918-1939 Belzec belonged to the district of the county of Rawa Ruska, Lemberg.Aftter the German invasion of 1939, the largest part of the village was under German occupation and thus added to the Lublin district. The boundary between German and the Soviet occupation zone, the so-called Molotov-line ran exactly on the site of the later extermination camp. You can recognize the remains of a bunker built by the Soviets as well as a German anti-tank ditch from 1940, which are each about 100 meters from the camp grounds. On the history of the place during the 1st World War and immediately afterwards, see Pavel Sygowsky, Belzec, woj. zamojskie.Historia i Rozwoj przestrzenny, Lublin 1990

Ref: (9) statement Scluch Karl, 11.10.1961, in StA Munich, StanW 33033/11, Process against Josef Oberhauser page 1161

WIRTH, Christian SS-Sturmbannführer
Inspector of all Aktion Reinhard death camps and in charge of DAW (Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke) at Lublin Airfield.
After the official cessation of the euthanasia programme (September 1941) he was ordered to join the staff of SS- und Polizeiführer im Distrikt Lublin Odilo Globocnik. The experience gained by Wirth in the euthanasia institutions, his enthusiasm for National Socialism, as well as his innate cruelty were all put to use when he assumed command of Belzec and later was appointed inspector of the Aktion Reinhard death camps. Not only was he the inspector of the death camps and, in this capacity, the actual commander, but also it was he who developed the entire system of the extermination machine in these camps. It was Wirth who introduced the regime of terror and death in the Aktion Reinhard camps and influenced the daily life and sufferings of the Jewish prisoners there more than any other commander. Because of his cruelty he became known as "Christian the Terrible" by his subordinates. The killing system, as developed by Wirth, enabled the murder of tens of thousands of Jews every day in the three death camps under his jurisdiction.

Christian Wirth

Christian Wirth's driver at Belzec

Wirth was posted to Trieste (Italy) in September 1943 and commanded the SS-Einsatzkommando R, which was composed of former Aktion Reinhard members. On 26 May 1944 partisans killed Wirth near Trieste. His grave (no 716) is marked by a great cross in the German Military Cemetery at Costermano, near Verona (Italy).
THOMALLA, Richard SS-Hauptsturmführer, the Camp Belzec "Architect"
Service at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka:
"Architect" of all three Aktion Reinhard death camps and their temporary commander.Richard Thomalla was the "architect" of Belzec. On 1 November 1941 the construction of Belzec started. It ended in March 1942. At first Polish workers were used, later they were replaced by Jews from the surrounding ghettos.
Thomalla was executed by NKWD (Russian Secret Service) in Jicin, Czechoslovakia on 12 May 1945.
was a Nazi official and high-ranking member of the SA and SS. Between 1939 and 1943 he was SS and Police Leader in the General Government in German-occupied Poland and in that capacity he organized and supervised numerous acts of war crimes.On 4 October 1939, because of his ambition and his loyalty to the party, Heinrich Himmler, appointed him to as Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPF East) (Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer) in the part of German-occupied Poland called the General Government. Krüger thus became one of the most powerful men in occupied Poland. Among other things he was responsible for: crushing rebellion in the extermination camps, setting up forced labor camps, the employment of police and SS in the evacuations of people from Warsaw ghettos, the execution Aktion Erntefest, the so-called "anti-partisan" fighting in the General Government, and the driving out of over 100.000 Polish farmers from the area around Zamosc. Authority quarrels with Governor General Hans Frank led to his dismissal on 9 November 1943. He was replaced by Wilhelm Koppe. The Polish Secret State ordered his death, but an assassination attempt on 20 April 1943 in Kraków failed when two bombs hurled at his car missed the target. Half a year later, he wrote in a letter, "I have lost honour and reputation due to my four year struggle in the GG (General Government) (Ich habe für meinen vierjährigen Kampf im GG Ehre und Reputation verloren.).
From November 1943 until April 1944 Krüger served with the 7th SS mountain infantry "Prince Eugen" division in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. While ostensibly engaged in anti-partisan actions in Yugoslavia, this unit became notorious for committing atrocities against the civilian population.
Later from June to August Krüger took over the command over the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord in northern Finland. From August 1944 until February 1945 Krüger was commanding general of the Fifth SS Mountain Infantry Corps. In February 1945 he was Himmler's representative at the German southeast front and in April and May 1945 he was commander of a combat unit of the Ordnungspolizei (Orpo) at Army Group South (known as Army Group Ostmark after 1 May 1945). At the end of the war Krüger committed suicide in upper Austria
On October 31, 1941 Josef Oberhauser and Gottfried Schwarz went, accompanied by SS Captain Richard Thomalla of the SS Central Construction Office in Lublin and recruited about 30 Polish residents for the construction of the extermination camp. Most volunteered and were paid for their work. Of course the Germans did not inform them of the purpose of the camp. (11) They had been under the impression that another camp would be erected in the vicinity of Belzec as previously was the case, another labor camp for Jews, as it had been done in 1940 in the town. (12) The Polish workers had to level and pave the Kozelsk hill and set up the first primitive barracks, and the gas chambers.
Ref: (11) The research of Michael Tregenza, including interviews with inhabitants of Belzec and the surrounding area who were employed in the construction of the extermination camp suggests that the people were fully aware of the purpose of the camp. However, these discussions were led by Tregenza in the early '90s, when the mass murder at Belzec was generally known. Yet, if one analyzes the statements of the same people from the years 1945 and 1946, it seems that the Polish workers were not aware for what purpose they set up the barracks. Only during the camps activities did it become clear that this was an extermination camp. Ibid, pg 170f. Compare this statement of Stanilaw Kozak on 14/10/1945 and Jan Gib on 16/10/1945 in: OKBZH Lublin, ref.:1604/45, investigations of crimes in the death camp at Belzec.
Ref: (12) In addition there were Jews, Polish and German Sinti and Roma as well as some Polish farmers who had been arrested from the area for not delivering their mandatory quotas. The former prisoners had to build a tank ditch(Panzergraben) along the German-Soviet border.

The whole camp area measured about seven hectares From the beginning the Belzec extermination camp was divided into two sections, known as Camp I and II, some former SS-men referred to the section in which the ramp was a "Reception Area(Vorlager)". Also properties outside the fence of the camp, like two houses that came from the 1920s  in Lwowska Street, which had been originally built for the families of the workers at the railway station of Belzec become objects of "interest" to the SS for good reasons. In December 1941, when the first commander of the camp, Christian Wirth arrived in Belzec, they seized them for residential and administrative purposes. Until then, the SS men who supervised the construction of the camp, lodged in private homes of the Belzec population. During the occupation these properties now belonged to the German Eastern Railway, which was responsible and came under the administration of the General Government. Another object outside the camp's fence was the locomotive shed which led to the warehouses of the belongings of the victims. All these buildings were located 400 to 500 meters from the camp, as well the railway station Belzec, where the Transports arrived.
Inside the camp, across the ramp there were two undressing barracks, one for men and one for women and children. In another large shed the clothes were collected. From the undressing barracks to the gas chambers led  a kind of corridor, the Germans called the (Schlauch) "tube" and through which the victim walked or run naked towards the chambers. It was protected on both sides with a high wooden fence, behind which were the mass graves. This fence camouflaged the site and prevented the victims from knowing  that they would be gassed.

Two photos showing the construction of the Belzec camp
The first gas chambers were made of wood and very primitive. The Polish worker Stanislaw Kozak from Belzec, who was involved in the construction, described it:.. "On 1 November 1941 we started to work with the construction of the barracks on the part that bordered on the siding of the railway line, a hut, which was 50 meters long and 12.5 meters wide, which was located directly next to the track, that was the waiting room for the Jews who would be working in the camp. A second hut about 25 meters long and 12.5 meters wide was intended for the Jews, who were to go into the showers, in addition to this hut we built a third one of 12 Meters long and 8 meters wide, this was divided into three parts with wooden walls, so that each part was four Meters wide and eight Meters long the height was two Meters, the inner walls of these barracks we done like this:.. we nailed two boards together and filled the space with sand. These walls were then covered with cardboard, also the floors and walls up to a height of 1,10 meter were then lined with galvanized steel sheets. [...]
From the second to the third hut that lead to a covered corridor, two meters high, two meters wide and some ten meters long.  This corridor led through into the hall of the third hut. From there three doors leading into the three-part of barrack. Each part of the hut had a door on the north side, which is about 1.80 meters high and 1.10 meters wide. These doors, as well as the doors of the Corridor were sealed with rubber gaskets. All these doors opened outward. They were built of massive wooden beams and interlocked by wooden cross bars so that they could not be broken from the inside. These wooden bars were placed into two iron brackets that had been mounted there for this purpose [...] Along the northern side of the hut as mentioned was a ramp made ​​of wooden planks at a height of 1 meter and placed along the ramp on a narrow gage railway track, that led into the pit that was dug out by the "blacks" (15) and was located in the northeastern corner of the camp".
Ref: (15) The Trawniki men that were at Belzec were known as "blacks"(Schwarze) or "askaris"by the local population,(at that stage they did wear black uniforms). The Germans called them "Hiwis"(Hilfswillige)="willing to help"
In order to introduce gas into the gas chambers pipes may have been installed that were connected to an engine that came from a Soviet tank and probably was sent from Lemberg.  The gas supply was probably not installed until after December 1941 when the Polish workers were no longer employed at the site of the future camp None of them remembers a motor.
Outwardly, the camp was fenced with barbed wire, only at the level of the ramp was a three-meter high wooden fence set up and camouflaged  with branches. This was meant to shield the camp from the looks of the passengers on trains that were running by as the regular train line ran parallel to the ramp. In the vicinity of the gas chamber, a watchtower with machine gun position and a spotlight was erected, illuminating the whole camp site. Four other towers stood at the corners of the camp, a fifth was at the camp gate, which guarded the entrance while fright cars went through with the deportees on their way to the ramp.
Just behind the gate and the guard-hut in the so-called camp area I there were three barracks for the Trawniki guards. The barrack located closest to the camp gate was used as accommodation, the one in the center as a kitchen and dining room. In the third, there was a barbershop, a clinic and a dental treatment room for the guards, where Jewish prisoners were working. The roll call square located in front of the barracks was used for both the guards and for the Jewish inmates of the camp.
The barrack accommodation and the kitchen for Jewish prisoners from the Sonderkommando were in the area of the extermination part of the camp, near the gas chambers and mass graves. The second group of Jewish prisoners who worked in different functions within the commandos and had to perform outside of the camp was, however, in the vicinity of camp I, and located at the end of the ramp. This was to prevent the prisoners from the Sonderkommando could come in contact  with the inmates of the labor detachments. Initially, the Jewish prisoners were exchanged frequently, often they were shot after a few days. The most common rotation took place in the Sonderkommando. It is probable that camp commandant Wirth decided to copy the example of Sobibor in late May 1942, that a group of Jewish prisoners would be more valuable alive then to teach new arrivals from scratch. About the Jewish Sonderkommando there is little known because only two reports from former prisoners have been handed down, but they came later into the camp. As the prisoner treatment was designed along the lines of that at Sobibor, comparison can only be gained from the statements of those survivors.
All camp sections: the extermination area with gas chambers and mass graves, the area for the Trawniki men, and the area of the Jewish prisoners were fenced off with barbed wire from each other, which was also camouflaged. A fence was also erected for reason of concealment​​ between the area of the undressing barracks and the area of the gas chambers.
The members of the German staff lived outside the camp grounds.The properties near the railway station which were  taken over by the SS during 1941was used by the camp commandant as his private residence as well as the Camp's Administration Office(Lagerkommandantur).

Belzec Kommandantur
In the neighboring house lived most of the SS team. Even an old mill which had belonged before the war to the Jewish family Kessler, was used to accommodate staff members. Near the railway houses an additional hut was erected,  which was furnished as an apartment for one SS man. In another part of this hut Jewish women were housed who worked in the camp as laundresses. Along the road between the German-occupied houses and the railway tracks was a small wooded area with a bunker that was used as a detention block for Trawniki men.

An Ukrainian Guard on the staff of the Belzec camp, posing in front of the flour mill used as an assembly place for Jews deported to the camp.
Some of the SS-men mentioned in this narrative:
OBERHAUSER, Josef SS-Untersturmführer
From November 1941 until 1 August 1942 in Belzec as contact to the Lublin office without a special task but leader of guard platoon. On 1 August 1942 ordered to Wirth's office. He became chief of the Ukrainian guards in Lublin. Accompanied Wirth on his inspection tours of the three camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka).
Promoted SS-Untersturmführer on 20 April 1943 because of his "merits" in the course of Aktion Reinhard.
In Autumn 1943 ordered to Italy where he was promoted SS-Obersturmführer on 30 January 1945. Captured by British troops in May 1945 in Bad Gastein (Austria).
Sentenced to 15 years in prison by Landgericht Magdeburg. Amnesty on 28 April 1956. Casual labourer and waiter in Munich. Then sentenced to 4 years and 6 months by Landgericht München in 1965.
NIEMANN, Johann SS-Untersturmführer
Served in Belzec as SS-Hauptscharführer before he was permanently posted to Sobibor.
As a soldier in the Waffen-SS, he served several times in 1942 as acting commander in this camp. From early 1943 he occupied the post of camp commander permanently. He was responsible for the events in Camp III. Promoted SS-Untersturmführer after Himmler's visit to the camp on 12 February 1943.
During the Sobibor revolt he was the first SS-officer to be killed at the dressmaking barrack.
SCHWARZ, Gottfried SS-Hauptscharführer, promoted to SS-Untersturmführer after Aktion Reinhardt
Deputy commander and head of the gassing squad from Winter 1941. Himmler praised him as one of the most meritful men of Aktion Reinhard.
According to Erich Fuchs he served also at Sobibor.
After Belzec / Sobibor commander of the Dorohucza labour camp, then ordered to Trieste in Italy (Einsatz R). He was killed in San Pietro (Istria / Italy) in 1944. Buried at the German military cemetery at Costermano near Verona (grave no. 666)
.SCHLUCH, Karl Alfred SS-Unterscharführer
Schluch was in Belzec from June 1942 until early summer 1943. He served as a guard at the ramp, and accompanied the naked Jews through the Schleuse (sluice) to the gas chambers.
After Belzec to Poniatowa labour camp. In autumn 1943 to Italy, where he fought against partisans, probably in the frame of "Aktion R".
At the end of war he was arrested by US troops, but released on 6 July 1945. Until 1948 agricultural worker, from 1948 - 1952 construction worker. From 1952 male nurse again, at the hospital in Bedburg-Hau.

  Equivalent Ranks of the SS compared withe the Wehrmacht, which seems to be confusing to some readers:   
Reichsführer-SS / RFSS     =     General of the army
SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS / Ostgruf     =     General
SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS / Ogruf     =     Lt General
SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS / Gruf     =     Major General
SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS / Brigaf     =     Brigadier General
SS-Oberführer / Obf     =     Senior Colonel
SS-Standartenführer / Staf     =     Colonel
SS-Obersturmbannführer / Ostubaf     =     Lt Colonel
SS-Sturmbannführer / Stubaf     =     Major
SS-Hauptsturmführer / Hstuf     =     Captain
SS-Obersturmführer / Ostuf     =     1st Lieutenant
SS-Untersturmführer / Ustuf     =     2nd Lieutenant
SS-Sturmscharführer / Stuscha     =     Sergeant Major
SS-Hauptscharführer / Hscha     =     Master Sergeant
SS-Oberscharführer / Oscha     =     Technical Sergeant
SS-Scharführer / Schaf     =     Staff Sergeant
SS-Unterscharführer / Uscha     =     Sergeant
SS-Rottenführer / Rttf     =     Corporal
SS-Sturmmann / Strmm     =     Lance Corporal
SS-Oberschütze     =     Private 1st class
SS-Schütze= Private

Aerial photo and surroundings of Extermination Camp Belzec 
                                                                   Continued under Part Two

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