Monday, March 19, 2012

BELZEC Extermination Camp part 2

The Polish workers were working until Christmas 1941 at the construction of the extermination camp. At that time, SS First Lieutenant Christian Wirth arrived , he was the first commander of the camp in Belzec, was a skilled carpenter who had been working since 1913 in the police service. From 1939 he was involved in the Nazi Euthanasia-Program, during 1940 he was appointed "Inspector" of all Euthanasia Installations (Anstalten). After completion of the "Action T4" in August 1941  he moved like many others to the "Reinhardt Operation". His first step upon arrival at the camp was the release of Polish workers, he replaced them with Trawniki men and a group of 120-150 Jews, who had been arrested in the neighboring township of Lubycza Krolewska. These people had to finish the construction work at the camp. The reason for the dismissal of Polish workers may have been the growing rumors about the intended use of the new camp. How much did the population of Belzec at that time knew about the camp is difficult to assess. In any case, the Germans, who were employed in police formations or in the civil service administration in the region, the future use of the place was known. Janusz Peter, who before and during the war was chief doctor at the hospital in Tomaszow Lubelski, he collected for the Polish underground information about the camp: "The Germans built barracks and were planning to do something mysterious, none of the inhabitants of Belzec could look inside the fenced-off square, as visibility was prevented by closely planted pine trees.(spruces). The inhabitants rhymed different things together, he wrote after the war in its local history chronicle... for example, that there is an experimental station being built as the barracks were lined inside with sheet metal, or to combat diseases, a hosiery factory or a hospital for frostbite or something similar. Only when on the corners of the quadrangle watchtowers were set up, they realized that a detention camp was in the making. The  same watchtowers could be seen when you drove along the road to Majdanek near Lublin. For this reason, every inhabitant of Belzec or farmer from Zylka or other location stayed away from the threatening wires, more so when signs in German, Polish and Ukrainian language went up, after which it was forbidden under pain of death to approach the fence".

Belzec remains of the fence
Fence posts and logs at Belzec
Even before the start of the camp,  Christian Wirth ordered ten SS-men from Germany to Belzec who should form the camp staff. They had been previously involved at the Euthanasia "Action T4"  facilities(Anstalt) in Bernburg. Gottfried Schwarz was Wirths deputy in the camp, Josef Oberhauswer his "right hand" and the next assistant. (29)
[Ref:29, during the trial of Oberhauser he denied the allegation, that he had been adjutant of Wirth. He described himself as the closest collaborator(Mitarbeiter) of the camp commander and also as liaison officer between Belzec and the staff of Globocnik in Lublin, Statement Joseph O., 15/09/1960, in ibid, B 162/208. Oberhauser trial, Volume 6, page 1038].

Probably at this time was an engine of a Soviet tank dismantled, and transported to the camp. Wirth, who was known for trying out various methods of killing, experimented and tried since 1942, before the commissioning of the annihilation camp, methods of killing with gas. His subordinates Siegfried Graetschuss and Lorenz Hackenbolt, both by profession truck drivers and car mechanics converted a post delivery bus into a mobile gas chamber. Wirth selected patients from the villages within the vicinity of Belzec. From the village of Teniatyska, the Germans deported for example, five physically or mentally disabled persons. The villagers found out after some time that their relatives were taken to Belzec. Also during this time political prisoners were killed, in one instance for example from the prison which was  nearly  44 kilometers away at  Zamosec were taken to Belzec. Wirth probably experimented at this time also with cyanide(Blausäure) as a killing agent.
Even before the start of the camp about 60 guards were transferred from Trawniki, over time this number has doubled but these were were used to dig mass graves at first in the camp grounds. They were recruited from a large group of Soviet prisoners of war from the Ukraine. In order to save their lives, they consented to a transfer to the German side and were trained in the Trawniki SS training camp in which they were under the jurisdiction of SS and Police Leader in Lublin district, Odilo Globocnik. Their task was only at  first was to watch the ghettos, labor camps and military installations. With the beginning of "Operation Reinhard", ie from March 1942 they were used also during the deportation actions in some places and to guard convoys of the deported Jews to extermination camps. They also represented a significant portion of the security services in the Belzec extermination camp, and later in the death camps of Sobibor and Treblinka. Although the local population usually described them as "Ukrainians", there were also Russians and representatives of other ethnicities of the former Soviet Union, like Volga German(Wolga-Deutsche)or ethnic Germans from the Ukraine that acted as a translators and led divisions of Trawnikis-for example Christian Schmidt, who commanded a guard platoon at Belzec and at the same acted as translator. He was particular known for his peculiar cruelty. Another Soviet citizens of German origin was Karol Trautwein, who interpreted in the camp between the guards and the Germans.
Among them at Belzec were also a Georgian and a Bulgarian. Most Trawniki men spoke no German. The guard company at Belzec was divided into platoons, each of which was commanded by an ethnic German from the Soviet Union, who's German was sufficient to lead.
Between the population of Belzec and the Trawniki men contacts quickly developed that deepened when the first transports arrived in Belzec. The Trawniki men left more or less regularly and sneaked out of the camp and smuggled stolen Jewish property, which they exchanged with the local populations for alcohol or "love services". Former residents  reported contacts and intimate relationships with women that arrived from other villages as a convenient method for desirable goods in exchange for their "services". For alcohol, they had paid twice the retail price. Payment was made in Polish or foreign currencies or valuables that had been stolen. The Trawniki men were also among the first source of information about the crimes in the camp. Officially these contacts were banned, but visits among the Trawniki men in Belzec and environment was a matter of everyday life. The barracks of them were searched regularly. When they were caught leaving the camp without authorisation, they received 25 lashes. Some of them were shot as a penalty for smuggling out of valuables from the camp.

 Belzec Trawniki SS and one ethnic German on the right. Most likely a (Volksdeutscher). Neither of them does have the obligatory "Hoheitsabzeichen"(Eagle with Swastika) on their caps, only their own insignia, thus not part of any part of the German Armed Forces 
The first victims, that were killed in the gas chambers of Belzec were the Jewish workers from Lubycza Krolewska. This was probably for testing purposes in late February or early March 1942, about two weeks before the arrival of the first transport into the camp. One of the Jewish workers could watch from a hiding place in the camp, what had happened to his colleagues. After his escape, he retold the people of Belzec and the Jews from the village of Lubycza Krolewska what went on. A witness to his comments recalls. "In February 1942, the Germans from camp Belzec approached the chairman of the Jewish community in a bid to provide a dozen or so Jews for a Work Detail. (Arbeitseinsatz) They emphasized that they should bring with them spoons.and utensils. The Germans took little more than twenty Jews from Lubycza Krolewska and brought them by car to the camp at Belzec. One of the Jews, who was there, told me that they had to cut down pine trees several days in the camp, then herded them all into a barrack, but he managed to get free and hide. From his hiding place he heard the Jews screaming in the barrack for a few seconds, and then it was quiet, one must assume that this was the first attempt in  killing Jews in Belzec. I then heard that the Germans later caught the fleeing Jew and killed him".(36)Ref: 36:Statement Mieczyslaw Kudyba, 14.10.1945, in: APMM, photocopies, sign.1284, OKBL, Ds.1604/45 investigation files to the crimes in the death camp at Belzec.
Jewish work detail at Belzec

The trains stopped at the Belzec station and went from there onto a side track and dependent on the length of the train, were separated  in two or three parts of 15 to 20 cars and shunted singly onto the ramp. At the beginning  the Polish railway workers were not allowed into the camp. The German station master Rudolf Göckel, who was also responsible for documenting the transport lists, took over the train at the Belzec railway station and drove it into the camp. Later on, Polish railway workers were permitted out of necessity to attend the trains towards the camp, however, the SS men stayed with them so that they could not have a thorough look around to  what actually was going on. They were for all intense and purposes under the supervision of the station master Göckel at all times.

Jews arriving at Belzec
On the ramp they drove the people out of the freight cars and ordered them to leave their luggage behind. Overseeing the procedure was led by the camp commander and two or three SS men. During the first transports Wirth oversaw the complete annihilation process from the moment in which the cars were driven to the ramp and got the people out, until the time when the bodies were pulled out of the gas chambers, Wirth led in person by example, how, with cruelly they had to deal with these victims. On his orders, all transports should continue to be treated this way. His brutality and vulgarity also left at the SS camp staff and the Trawniki men marks, who called him "the wild Christian" or "Stuka". Disobedience of his subordinates, Wirth responded with violence. Wirth said that he threatened a few SS men with death who had asked Berlin for a transfer from Bezec. In the sources available there are no indications, however, that any SS-Man from Belzec was transferred upon his request to the Front or returned to the Reich. (39)
Ref: 39: Josef Oberhauser statement,13.12.1962 and statement Hans Girtzig 15.1.1963, in: StA Munich, StanW 33033/11, the trial against Josef Oberhauser, page 2438 and 2471
   When unloading the transports Trawniki men were also present, who would quickly drive people out of the cars. Later on Jewish prisoners worked there, who would help, especially those who's own strength were not able to do so. In addition, they moved the bodies from the transports, deceased persons that had died during the long train journeys who had succumbed to sickness or of old age. They also gathered the luggage of the deportees and stacked them first along the railway track. Initially the host (Lt. Wirth) did welcome incoming Jews with a speech that should have served their peace of mind. It said that they had came into a transit camp and would be after a bath and disinfection sent to a labor camp. The speech was probably by one of the Jewish prisoners, translated into Polish. Then the SS divided them into groups of 60-80 people who were led into the undressing barrack. From there they were driven out in a naked state through the "tube"(Schlauch) into the gas chambers. All this took place in an atmosphere of brutality and under constant driving. Victims should have no time to think about what would happen to them and not be able to fight back. The division into groups of 60 to 80 people took place only with the first transports. Later, the groups have been greater after the Germans wanted to accelerate the process quickly and efficiently. According to SS-men, the groups that came in the first phase of the camp in total was never greater than 400 to 500 people at any time,  since the pick- capacity(Aufnahmevermögen) was limited at the undressing barracks and the gas chambers were of a primitive type in the early days.(Ref.:41,Statement Karl Schluch,10.11.1961,in:ibid,page 1166)

In the Undressing Barrack, which was separated between the sexes, men, women and children, there was a place, were the deportees had to deposit their money and valuables. Former members of the SS guards(Lagermannschaft) later testified that the victims had been issued with a receipt. It is possible that these were 4 to 5 cm (Centimetre) large cement discs with punched-in high numbers on them, of which a few dozens were found during excavations at the former camp grounds in the years 1993-2000 and 2002-2004 and are now on display as part of the permanent exhibition of the Memorial to Berlzec.
First, the men were driven through the "tube" into the gas chambers. Meanwhile, the women were in the undressing barrack and had their hair cut off, then they were herded into the gas chamber barrack as well. On both sides of the "tube" were Trawniki guards that drove them through this narrow path  and not seldom used whips, rifle butts, or  sticks, there was an SS-man on duty, who should be supervising the whole operation. In the first phase of camp, this was Karl Schluch. Despite the primitive equipment, the gas chambers resembled a washing room and, therefore no negative associations with anything else crossed the minds of the victims. On the ceiling were - with great difficulty dummy shower heads installed, (42) to the end, the victim remained in the dark about their fate.. Ref: 42, Erich Fuchs testified after the war, he had told Wirth that it was not without difficulties to attach dummy shower heads to be mounted without any special installation on the ceiling. Wirth, then had him whipped and threatened to have him shot. Ultimately, the installation was built. Statement by Erich Fuchs, 28.5.1963, in ibid, page 2644f.
If all people were in the gas chamber, Lorenz Hackenholt locked together with an Ukrainian guard all the doors and started the engine. Some witnesses recall that the engine was running only for four to five minutes, others have reported up to 20 minutes. In the beginning you could hear the screams of the victims who died one by one. Then Hackenholt examined using a peep-hole, if all people were dead in the chambers. The Jewish prisoners from the Sonderkommndo then opened the doors and pulled out the bodies of those murdered. Often they had to separate mutual bodies, which had entwined in their last agony. The corpses were soiled by urine, faeces and menstrual blood. Some were lying on the floor, the rest were intertwined and still standing up. A Jewish prisoner called the "Dentist",(Zahnarzt) after the bodies were pulled out, removed the rings from her fingers and pulled out gold teeth, which were packed into cartons. (43)
Ref: 43, Karl Schluch's statement 11.10.1961, in: ibid, page 1167f. Polish witnesses mentioned during investigations in 1945 that the extermination process could take even longer in the gas chambers. The information they had received from the guards in the camp. Statements by Edward Luczynski, 15/10/1945, and Alojzy Berezowski, 12/04/1946, in APMM, photocopies, Sign 1284, OKBL, Ds.1604/45. Luczynski had first hand information. The guard Wlasiuk, who operated the gas chambers together with Hackenbolt had told him personally, how the gassings was ran.

                                                                                          continued under Part 3

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.