CHANGING OF THE CAMP COMMANDANT AND STRENGTHENING OF GUARDS.
On 1 August 1942 arrived a new camp commandant at Belzec. SS-1st Lieutenant Christian Wirth became "Inspector of the extermination camps of "Aktion Reinhardt"while at the same time he was commander of the sub-camp Lublin-Lipowastraße in the former aircraft factory "Plage Laskiewicz" in Lublin. This was the main collection point where confiscated property of the victims of "Aktion Reinhardt" was moved and stored. in his place, who had travelled here from Germany was SS Captain Gottlieb Hering, who had previously worked together at the Stuttgart police and during the "Operation T4" with Wirth. in his cruelty, he resembled Wirth, though he was rarely present within the camp. The survivor Rudolf Reder described him in following terms: "We knew that the camp commandant lived in a beautiful house next to the railway station Belzec. He was a First Lieutenant,[in fact his rank was Hauptsturmführer, which is a Captain,sic] his name I can not remember, although I keep trying. It was a short name. He was rarely seen in the camp, only came when something happened or went wrong. He was a big grown thug, broad-shouldered, about 40, with a vulgar expression, probably the way a born criminal looks like. An absolute monster. Once the killing machine broke down. He was informed of this, came into the camp, riding on his horse and ordered the repair of the machine. He did not allow, however, people out of the gas chambers, rather let them suffer few hours longer and in agonies of the stifling and suffocating gas chambers. He crouched down with rage, screaming and trembling. Although he rarely showed up, but he was the terror of the SS men". (80) From testimony of former SS men it is well known that Hering behaved particularly cruel towards the Trawniki men, some of which he sentenced to death for lack of obedience and escape attempts or for the theft of Jewish property. (81)[ Under Hering's rule at least 350,000 Jews were killed in Belzec. After the liquidation of Belzec in spring 1943, he became commander of the forced labour camp Poniatowa. On 4 November 1943 all Jewish inmates of the camp were shot in the course of Aktion Erntefest. In 1944 he was ordered to Italy, where he again replaced Wirth as chief of Kommando R 1 in Trieste after Wirth's death. On 9 October 1945 he died as a result of illness at the Katherinen Hospital in Stetten im Remstal, Germany.sic]
Ref :80-Reder, Belzec, page 63
Ref :81-statement, Heinrich U., 21/07/1960, BArch in Ludwigsburg, B 162/208, the trial against Josef Oberhauser, Vol 5, page 965; Arad, Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, page100-104.
|Hering, Bolender, and Zierke|
Ref :83-Karl Schluch testified during the investigation, a surprise, that most SS men who served in the camp service, participated in the shootings of the elderly, disabled and young children, most commonly was Hackenbolt, Gley, Schwarz and Dubois. He himself was not present at the executions. That is, given the fact that he was the only defendant of the few that did give a reasonably precise method and procedure at the gas chambers and corrected others, was accepted as truthful and factual. Karl Schluch statement, 11/10/1961, in StA Munich, StanW 33033/II, Process against Josef Oberhauser, page 1169.[Schluch's own statement contradicts previous comments and reports, that he, too, did participated in shootings, although he was acquitted of the charges during the trials sic.]
The number of Trawniki men was reinforced. In the summer of 1942 their number rose to 120 men, divided into three section for service at Belzec. Officially, they were only used for surveillance. In fact, however, they were involved from the beginning throughout the extermination process. They were guarding the deportation trains at the Belzec station, they were present on the ramp, they drove the Jews from the ramp and watched them in the undressing shed, through the "Sclauch" and into the gas chambers. Like the SS, they behaved brutally and ruthlessly. A former security guard testified after the war: "Our role in the extermination of the Jews was that we had to sometimes pull the victims out by force from the freight cars and drove them to the barracks where they had to undress. We forced them to strip naked, and then drove them through a passage(Schlauch) fenced in with barbed wire to the gas chambers. We ran them into the gas chamber. I would like to note that all security guards who served in the Belzec extermination camp did the same service".
|Ukranians drinking at the Belzec Camp|
Ref :86-statement of Vasily Orlowski, 23.8.1965, in: ibid, page 135th The leaders of the three "sections" that made up the guard company in the extermination camp at Belzec were, Schmidt, Schneider, and Siebert, presumably Volga German.(Wolga Deutsche)
DISPOSAL OF THE MURDERED
One of the biggest problems the camp administration at Belzec had to deal with was the removal of the corpses. Even in the initial extermination phase in the spring of 1942 the stench of rotting bodies was evident throughout Belzec, their smell was even noticed by the inhabitants of the village that was relatively far away from the camp. (87) First, the bodies were buried only in mass graves, but soon a smelly liquid would ooze from the graves, which was created by the decaying process and the stench spread throughout and rapidly towards Belzec. Janusz Peter described it. "In the passenger trains, which led through Belzec, no one crowded at the window to see the infamous place of execution. Depending on the wind direction, the windows were quickly shut as far away as Lubycza or Susiec, and the conductor announced at times, all who wanted to get out in Belzec, to get out of the coaches on the corridor side. Even in the nine Kilometers away township Tomaszow Lubelski, people had to vomit or fainted. Some had to leave the area because they suffered from chronic headaches , weight loss, loss of appetite or suffering from anaemia. Although the Nazis devoted a lot of efforts to the "big thing" they themselves could no longer stand the awful unpleasant smell. Finally, they drove some freight cars to the pits with cement and covered them with a layer of concrete". (88)
Ref :87-16-year-old at the time, Wladyslaw Brogowski reported that in April 1942 in Belzec all smelled after "Sauerkraut". The residents quickly came to the conclusion that the cause of the smell were rotting corpses from the camp. In the summer of 1942 the stench intensified. Prof. Brogowski then lived four to five Kilometers from the camp. Interview with Prof. Wladyslaw Brogowski, 29.4.2007, in: AMMPB.
Ref: 88 - Peter W Belzcu,page 196.
|Holes dug by Poles searching for valuables in the area of the former death camp|
The first pyres were burning until January 1943. The bottom layer was formed of railway tracks and stones, then they stacked layers of wood and corpses, all doused with oil and lit it. On one day you could burn about 2,000 bodies in this way. Already at that this point in time began the exhumation of mass graves. The purpose and order to leave no traces by burning virtually all of the dead bodies did not begin until January 1943 when no more transports came to Belzec.
Ref. :90-Rudolf Reder, who was until November 1942 in Belzec, does not mention any cremations. Reder, Belzec, page 57. The fact that the pyres were already burning since November 1942, reported the former SS-man Dubois on 29.4.1963, in: StA Munich, Stan W 33033/II, during the trial of Josef Oberhausen, Page 1517
PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE ABOUT BELZEC
At least since the summer of 1942 the Belzec extermination camp was known in far away remote areas of the General Government. Although not all the details were reported back to the public, the majority of Poles, Jews and Germans, had been aware of the name of this camp and associated it with a place of Jewish exterminations. Hans Bratsch, who was employed as a German policeman(Gendarm) in Jaslo and Nowy Sacz in the district of Krakau and was involved in the closure of the local ghetto, testified after the war. "The Jews were crowded into freight cars like sardines, men, women and children, I reported the departure of the train and knew at that time even the name of the place to which they travelled. This place was an extermination camp and that the Jews were gassed, I learned later, during my service in Jaslo and Nowy Sacz that the Jews in a particular location were collected and killed there somehow".
Furthermore, Polish railway workers and escapees from the camp did provide information about Blezec. Also German and Polish passengers who travelled by train through Belzec reported about the camp. Officials of the German civil administration in the area or employees of the German Labour Office(Arbeitsamt) in Zamosc regularly visited the camp and kept a friendly relationship with the SS crew. Former German civil servants from Zamozc and Tomscow said consistently after the war, that the knowledge about Belzec was widespread throughout the area under the Germans and the Poles.
It is therefore not surprising that this knowledge came also to the Jews trapped in ghettos. The farther they were removed from Belzec, the less the victims could believe what happened to the deportees. In the surrounding towns like Lemberg they knew a lot about it, which is not to say that the majority refused to acknowledge this. Many still argued that it would be contrary to all logic, if the Germans would kill all the Jews. However, many then were looking for rescue possibilities: in the fall of 1942, the escapes from transportations became a mass phenomenon.
ESCAPE ATTEMPTS DURING TRANSPORTS
During the entire trip some deportees jumped from fast moving trains. Even at the station of Belzec desperate Jews were fleeing right before the eyes of waiting passenger on the platform and were shot on the run by their escorts. Most of them died during the jump, shot or died of their injuries along the rail-way track. Those who had survived the jump, were often apprehended by patrolling Ukrainian, Polish or German soldiers or civilians from the area, who received money for the so called "Springer" (Jumpers). Usually the escapees were trying to organise themselves as quickly as possible into small groups. However, their fate was often sealed, because without weapons and without the support of the local population, which in most cases refused to hide Jews, they were easy prey for the police. Janusz Peter described their situation: "The fate of these short-term recovered group was predetermined, the askaris (Ukrainian guards) scoured the woods and thickets along the rail-road tracks thoroughly, and knew from experience that the victims would easily fall into their hands. Also peasants (Bauern) would turn against them, after listening to the plight of these pathetic half-crazed beings, it made no difference. It was even quite common that the wandering refugees found no support and then either were reported to the askaris or in the village itself, and therefore begged to be sent to the camp at Belzec. The Jews, who were often city dwellers had, in the woods no orientation and could not satisfy their simple survival needs and quickly found , that they could not cope". This assessment is a stereotype that was prevalent among the non-Jewish population. Examples show that even in the near Belzec area, small Jewish partisan units as well as family camps existed that housed the escapees from transports and ghettos. The decision to report themselves to the police, had more to do, that he or she had given up all hope to receive help from the outside. Local farmers were afraid to help Jews who had escaped, because it entailed the death sentence (die Todesstrafe) for the whole family, and among the nearest neighbours there were often informers. This is what Janusz Peter had to say: "One should mention that along the railway line of Belzec-Zwierzyniec roamed quite a few spies, jackals in human bodies, who were willing to betray others for money and to kill, as well as ordinary profiteers, who collected along the way objects that had been thrown from the trains. These were mainly letters in different languages, even in Greek, documents, books, prayer books, often rare items, money and jewellery and the like".
The deportees had often with them, tools like small metal files or knifes to cut an opening inside the freight cars. In the fall of 1942, a group arrived with no baggage, nor did they carry money or jewellery, lest it fall into the hands of the Germans. Upon arrival at the camp, they threw themselves at the SS men and guards. Janusz Peter described that the guard Gottfried Schwarz was wounded by a Jew at the ramp and had to be treated in the hospital. During the Tomaszow-Lubelski post-war investigations, however, no SS-man reported of resistance on the camp grounds. [They would normally not do so, partly due to their indoctrination: ["Widerstände sind da um sie zu brechen, und nicht davor zu kapitulatieren", Adolf Hitler in "Mein Kampf", (Resistance is there to be broken and not to capitulate) I still remember it to this day sic.] However, Polish residents from Belzec still recall that the drunken guards told them about the Jewish resistance efforts. (98) The Trawniki men also reported actions of resistance in the camp. They confirmed that some of the arriving Jews already knew the truth about Belzec and objected and were recalcitrant upon arrival at the camp. This justified the Trawniki men to the brutal treatment of the deportees. (99)
Ref :98-statement of Miecyslaw Nieduzak, 10.3.1967, in: AIPNL, sign Ds. 338/67, investigations into labour camps for Jews in Belzec Folwark. The files and saws, which took away the Jews in transports, see Taffet, The Destruction of the Jews, page 41f.
Ref :99-statement of Mitrofan Klötz, 8.9.1965, in: StA Munich, StanW 33033/32, 103 statements from Trawniki Wachmämmer to their activities at Belzec on page 103.
EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR OF RUTA WERMUTH
"In September 1942, the entire population of the (Kolomyja) ghetto were ordered to gather in the yard of the Judenrat, allegedly to be registered. Some 5,000 people presented themselves. In the manner commonly used by the Germans by way of "selection", approximately 300 were chosen and sent to the right – which meant life. All others, surrounded by Ukrainian militia and SS men with specially trained dogs, were herded in the direction of the railway station.
The column moved slowly towards the railway station. Apart from the sound of the scraping of thousands of feet, it was amazingly quiet. From time to time a child would cry, to be quickly silenced by its mother. There were only a few children and elderly men and women. Always amongst the weakest of the ghetto inmates, many of the youngest and eldest had perished earlier. The ghetto had been closed in early spring, and terror, hunger and disease had prowled there ceaselessly.
It was a long journey to the railway station, situated on the outskirts of the town. We waited in vain for a miracle to happen... We came to the station buildings, but we were driven on further, to the ramp, where a very long train with many cattle wagons was waiting. The doors of the wagons were already open, ready for loading. There was an odour of chlorine, which had been abundantly sprinkled within the wagons. Obedient to this point, at the sight of the train the column wavered, then with a final cry of despair, broke and dispersed. Did I scream too? If so, it was subconsciously, joining in the anguish of all around me.
Suddenly we heard shooting. An additional detachment of Ukrainian militia ran towards the ramp. Like the Gestapo, they carried long whips. The SS and militia began to attack the crowd, who were already deranged with fear. The nightmare began.
Barking dogs, cracking whips, the guttural orders of Germans and the vulgar shouts of Ukrainians: "Vorwärts, los, los, schnell, schnell!" and "Go on, you damned Jewish pigs!", the screaming voices all merging into a single yell. Attempting to avoid the beating, people quickly helped each other to climb the high steps of the cattle wagons for the assumed safety of the wagons' interiors. Wave by wave, driven on, insulted and cursed, the people rapidly filled the wagons.
When it was so full that it seemed impossible than any more could be crammed in, a drunken Ukrainian militiaman climbed into the wagon and began swinging his whip and shooting in all directions. As a result, people standing near him pushed themselves further into the wagon in order to avoid the lashing whip. Into the space thus created, another group was forced, to the accompaniment of shouting and shooting. This method of filling the wagons had been long established.
The screaming and yelling did not cease until late afternoon, when the train finally moved. To where? There was no doubt – ultimately to death.
I was in one of those wagons, along with my parents. We were still together. My parents probably thanked God that I often lost consciousness, because what was taking place inside the wagon exceeded the most vivid conception of purgatory.
How long did it last? Hours? Eternity?
Whenever I recovered consciousness I was still there – in hell. In a wagon that could hardly contain 50 or 60 people, some 200 had been packed. (...) Cries, stench, and the acrid odour of chlorine...
Through the screams and the drumming of the wheels we could hear shooting. In a moment of awareness, I realized that we were standing naked, pressed to the side of the wagon. With their intertwined arms, my parents had created a kind of shelter. It was thanks to this that I was still alive. I noticed that everybody was naked, although I remembered that we had all entered the wagon fully clothed. It was so hot that people had somehow managed to undress themselves in the midst of the crowd. Those standing in the middle were probably already dead, but were unable to fall down.
Suddenly, I felt a breath of fresh air. There was now more room around us. My mother whispered in my ear:"Do you hear me dear? If you understand what I say, just nod. Some young people managed to make a hole in the side of the wagon and they are jumping out, one by one. We have decided to do the same. First Papa will jump, then you, and finally me. The train is going through the forest now. Its night. If you make it, try to hide in the forest. Don't be afraid. We will find you afterwards..." I nodded that I understood. Before I realised what was happening, strong arms took me up and pushed me out of the wagon through a narrow hole. I was suspended for a moment, held by my armpits, choked by the blast of fresh air. I became more aware. Not for long. The arms that held me opened and I fell into a dark abyss..."
Her mother subsequently managed to assume a false identity to get a position as a maid in a local Manor House, but was unable to keep Ruta since she had no papers. Ruta decided to assume a false identity and go to the last place the Germans would think of looking for her: to volunteer for work inside Germany.
Ruta survived for the rest of the war working in various positions in western Germany; at a shoe factory, in the household of a well connected German, and at the BMW plant in Allach (near Munich). It was at this final assignment that she met her future husband,- another Pole named Witek Burak. [The German spelling of her name is Ruth. sic]
Continued under Part 6