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Belzec: The Experimental Phase

The construction of the Belzec death camp was the first major step towards realizing the entire Reinhardt extermination operation. Although the first static death camp to be built within the Reinhardt complex, Belzec was not alone. In October 1941, plans were apparently made to build gas chambers in Riga, Chelmno, and Sobibor[1]. With the exception of Auschwitz (where gassing experiments were already taking place) and Sobibor, gas vans were preferred as the main tool of destruction.[2] Without question, a concerted policy of multiple killing experiments by gassing and shooting had been authorized at the highest level.[3] With all this going on, it is unlikely, as has been suggested, that Belzec was one of Globocnik's innovations to solve a localized problem. As Browning has said, “Most importantly, the construction of Belzec at this time ought not be viewed in isolation but rather in conjuncture with the evidence of other Nazi plans for gassing facilities in the fall of 1941.”[4] That Sobibor was also being surveyed in December 1941 confirms this.[5]

In late October 1941, SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla,[6] a construction engineer and building contractor at the Zentralbauleitung der Waffen-SS und Polizei (Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS and Police) in Lublin, and head of the SS-Bauleitung (SS Construction Office) in Zamosæ, arrived in Belzec. Thomalla, a career SS officer, was accompanied by SS- Hauptscharführer Gottfried Schwarz[7] and SS-Oberscharführer Josef Oberhauser, acting as liaison officers for Globocnik's office in Lublin.

Artisans and laborers were recruited from the local villages to do the work and to construct the camp buildings.[8] The locomotive shed was amalgamated into the death camp complex and used as a warehouse for sorting and storing the belongings of the murdered Jews.[9]

Construction of the Belzec camp began on November 1, 1941, before the arrival of the police leadership and euthanasia specialists. Although the SS were charged with the construction of the camp buildings, locally employed tradesmen were used for skilled manual tasks and the erection of the buildings. The Mayor of Belzec, Ludwig Obalek, who was responsible for supplying local labor to the SS, confirms in detail the identification and names of the Polish workers engaged in this work.[10]

The first buildings to be erected were three barracks that were linked by a walkway to the third barrack (the gas chamber). This barrack had a corridor with three compartments, each of which had an exit door. All six doors (entry and exit) were sealed. The camp itself was surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire.

A railway engine driver, Michael Kusmierczak, had limited access to the camp but, more importantly, he became friendly with the Ukrainian guards. When Kusmierczak asked what was going on, he was informed that the Jews were being killed with exhaust fumes produced by a 250 hp engine located a short distance from the gassing barrack.[11]

Stanislaw Kozak, the local locksmith, was employed in the early construction, including the installation of a narrow-gauge track for the removal of bodies from the gassing barracks to the mass graves.[12]Kozak, who gave evidence to the Polish Commission of Enquiry after the war, also has given a detailed account of the construction of Belzec:[13]

“In October 1941, three SS men came to Belzec and requested from the municipality 20 men for work. The municipality allotted 20 workers, residents of Belzec, and I was among them. We began work on November 1,1941. We built barracks close to the side track of the railway. One barrack, which was close to the railway siding, was 50 meters long and 12.5 meters wide. The second barrack, 25 metres long and 12.5 metres wide, was for the Jews destined for the 'baths.'

We built a third hut, 12 m long, 8 m wide. Inside, it was divided into three parts by wooden walls, so each part was 4 m wide and 6 m long. The height inside was 2 m. The double walls of the hut were made of boards and the space between them was filled with sand. The walls inside were covered with tarpaper, and the floors and walls were covered with sheets of zinc. There was a corridor with three doors opening into the windowless rooms. Each part of the construction had another door in the north wall, about 1.8 m high. That door as well as the one inside was tightly sealed with rubber. All doors of the building opened outwards …”

The author offers possible layouts to Phase 1 gas chambers.

Below: gas chambers of the first phase drawn from the testimonies of witnesses

1. Narrow gauge railway. 2. Unloading platform. 3. Sliding door.
4. Interior zinc sheeting/tar paper. 5. Door to gas chamber. 6. Entrance.
7. Camouflaged fence. 8. Passageway from barbers barracks.
9. Sand infill. 10. Double plank walls. 11. Concrete foundations.
12. Corridor. 13. Gas outlet. 14. Gas pipe. 15. Sand pile for sealing doors



“The unloading doors were fastened shut from the outside by heavy wooden locking bars that fitted into big hooks on either side. The doors were sealed with rubber gaskets around the edges.

In each of those three parts were water pipes placed at a height of 10 cm. In the eastern wall of each room, there were also water pipes with an elbow joint at a height of 1 m above the floor. There was a wooden platform at the height of 1 m along the northern part of the hut, along which ran the rails of a narrow-gauge railway. It led to the pit dug by the Ukrainians, which was situated in the very corner of north and east border of the camp).

During the time that we Poles built the barracks, the 'Blacks' (Ukrainians) erected the fences of the extermination camp, which were made of dense barbed wire. After we Poles had completed building the three above-mentioned barracks, the Germans dismissed us, on 22 December 1941.”

The Treblinka gas chambers were based on the already constructed “Stiftung Hackenholt” in Belzec, which served as a blueprint for the new Sobibór and Treblinka death rooms. Although the building constructed at Treblinka had a larger chamber capacity, the principle was the same in all three Reinhardt camps. In Sobibór, Wirth flew into a rage and ordered the gas chamber “exit” doors to be immediately changed, as they had not followed the method achieved at Belzec. The doors of these rooms were small and opened upward, much like contemporary garage doors of today. These heavy wooden doors were then supported on iron poles until the corpses had been removed.

For some time, many historians thought the doors slid along the walls of these buildings. This is not so as all the Reinhardt camps used strong wooden beams to hold the doors securely against the outer walls. These beams were slotted into iron hooks set between the bricks in these structures during construction, sealing the gas chambers, which were then faced with concrete. A sliding method would have been impossible due to the iron hooks jutting out of the walls on either side of the doors. It has also been suggested in the past that an outward single door movement took place. This is also very unlikely due to the weight of these double wooden doors. Yet another suggestion is of folding doors in two sections, upward and downward. Again, this is extremely unlikely as the bottom section would have been very difficult to clean after the rooms were emptied, the lower section being covered in human waste, etc.[14]

On December 22,1941, Christian Wirth arrived in Belzec to finalize his staff accommodations by requisitioning properties along the main village street close to the camp. A final inspection of the camp was carried out by SS-Hauptsturmführer Neumann from the Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS in Lublin. After signing over the camp structures to Wirth and Thomalla, he left for Sobibór to repeat the Belzec operation in the newly surveyed site adjacent to the Sobibór railway station.[15]

There was a break in activity at Belzec over the Christmas period when Wirth left the area and returned to Germany. At the beginning of January 1942, he returned, having selected his initial camp staff. The first T4 conscripts arrived at Belzec. SS- Hauptscharführer Gottfried Schwarz was designated deputy commandant and held full powers of command after Wirth. SS-Oberscharführer Josef Oberhauser supervised the Ukrainian guards and acted as personal assistant to Wirth.[16]Among this first group of T4 specialists were Erich Fuchs, Werner Borowski, Johann Niemann, Siegfried Graetschus, and later, Kurt Franz, Heinrich Barbl, and Erwin Fichtner.

In late December 1941, about 70 Ukrainians arrived from Trawniki to complete other structures--the watchtowers, security fences, and temporary accommodations. Also in this area was located what is believed to be first mass grave, which had taken the Ukranians six weeks to excavate with spades and which measured approximately 75 m x 35 m x 5 m deep.[17] It is probable that the earth from this grave was used to landscape and level the ground on which the Ukrainian barracks were built.

The exact location of the first mass graves is difficult to determine. According to the witness Kozak's description of the narrow gauge rail link on the north side, it would seem that the first ones were located at the northeast corner (graves 8: 9, 32, or 33). However, the lime content found in grave pit 14 that in April confronted Stangl on his visit to Belzec suggests otherwise.[18]

Another observer and witness to the building of the gassing barracks during the experimental period was the Polish mechanic Kazimierz Czerniak, who had his workshop in the nearby town of Tomaszòw-Lubelski. Czerniak, in his evidence to the Polish War Crimes Investigating Commission, recalled the Germans coming to his workshop to have pipe-work welded, which he later delivered to the camp personally and had a look inside the chambers.[19] When he asked a Ukrainian the purpose of the building, he was told it was a storeroom (the Ukrainian smirked), but Czerniak guessed it was a gassing barrack by its construction, the lack of windows, and wooden doors that opened outward onto a ramp.[20]

On a number of occasions, the Germans took Czerniak into the camp to carry out maintenance work and to install the narrow gauge rails that linked the gas barracks to the field of mass graves.[21] Shortly after, on another occasion when he visited the camp, he saw piles of discarded clothes being sorted by Ukrainians and Jews.[22]

Although the camp was in effect one large area, there was a camouflaged division between the main reception area and grave field. Later, when the camp was re-constructed (July) in the second phase, it became two defined established areas with the grave area having moved to fresh ground.[23] In the main reception area, there was space for 2,000 Jews to assemble before being segregated. Initially, there were no barracks for hair cutting or property storage facilities and this was done on the spot men, women, and children were not segregated for the first few transports. The hair was shaved off the bodies of the women after gassing. The bodies were piled up alongside the gas chamber unloading ramp. The locomotive shed was used for storage from the first days. It was only after the reconstruction of the camp that separate and more permanent barracks were built for this purpose. A camouflaged corridor (the tube/walkway) joined the barracks that led directly into the gassing barracks.


  1. A huge cremation facility, bigger than Birkenau, was planned for Mogilev, paid for by the SS, and then abandoned. At least one of the cremation furnaces ended up in Auschwitz. Return

  2. Longerich, Unwritten Order, 81-2. Return

  3. Ibid. See also: Browning, Nazi Policy, 41-47. Gerlach, Grundsatzentscheidung, 9, 43 (cited by Browning). Return

  4. Ibid, Browning, Nazi Policy, 45. Return

  5. Ibid, 46 Return

  6. Ibid. Construction of Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka were directed and supervised from the Zentral bauleitung der Waffen-SS und Polizei (Central Construction Office of the Waffen-SS and Police at Bernhardiner Strasse 9 (now Ulica Bernardynska 9) in Lublin, which had a branch office in Zamosæ, 40 km from Belzec. The officer with overall responsibility was SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla, a former building contractor from Silesia. Return

  7. SS-Oberscharführer Gottfried Schwarz held the post of deputy commandant of Belzec from the end of 1941 until May 1943 when the camp was dismantled under his supervision. In 1943 Himmler promoted him to the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (see Polin, Belzec, 284, n. 23). Return

  8. Hilberg, Destruction, vol. 3, 875 n. 27. See also: TAL/OKBZ, Statement of Stanislaw Kozak, 14 October 1945. This practice has not changed; during the 1997-1998 archaeological survey of the camp conducted by a team of archeologists from Torun University, local labour was employed for the manual labour of digging and drilling at the rate of $1 per hour. Return

  9. TLA/ZStL, Belzec Case: Statement of Heinrich Unverhau. From the end of July 1942, Unverhau supervised the warehouse in the old locomotive shed near Belzec station in which the clothing and belongings of the victims were sorted by a 'work brigade' of German-speaking Jews. Return

  10. TAL/OKBZ: Statement of Ludwig Obalek, 10 October 1945. Return

  11. Ibid. Statement of Michal Kusmierczak, 16 October 1945. Return

  12. Ibid. Statement of Edward Ferens, 14 October 45. See also: Statements of 19 May 1945 and 20 March 1946. See also: Szrojt, Belzec, 35. Chrusciewicz, Sprawozdanie, 128. Return

  13. TAL/OKBZ, Statement of Stanislaw Kozak, 14 October 1945. See also: Szrojt, Belzec, 40, fig. 2. Return

  14. The 2nd phase Belzec unloading doors were of the sliding variety; next came Treblinka with 'up and over doors', followed by Sobibor which very likely followed the Treblnka pattern, – especially as Lambert and Hackenholt built both gassing buildings. Return

  15. See: TAL/ZStL, Der Leitende Oberstaatsanwalt beim Landgericht, Hamburg: File No. 45 Js 27/61. Sobibór was a variant of Belzec to the northeast, adjacent to the Chelm-Wlodawa railway line and was commissioned on 3 May 1942, under commandant Franz Stangl. Shortly after Sobibór's commission, Dr Irmfried Eberl also arrived in Sobibór prior to taking over as commandant of third constructed death camp, Treblinka (2). (* Treblika I, the labour camp. That camp was commanded by van Eupen). Return

  16. Klee, Dressen and Riess, Days, 228: Statement of Josef Oberhauser. Return

  17. See: Kola, Belzec, 28. It was the opinion of the investigators on-site that this grave could well be double the size. Return

  18. Ibid., 67. Lime was spread on the decomposing corpses in the graves in an attempt to at least lessen the possibility of an epidemic. The argument about the line of the narrow gauge railway depends entirely of the site of the first gas chambers. Return

  19. TAL/OKBZ: Statement of Kazimierz Czerniak, 18 October 1945. Further testimonies relating to the construction of the camp and the gassing facilities can be found in the testimonies of: Edward Luczynski, 15.10. 1945; Michael Kusmierczak, 16.10.1945; Eustachy Ukrainski, 11.10.1945; Jan Busse, 23.5.1945; Marie Wlasink, 21.2.1945; Jan Glab, 16.10.1945; Edward Ferens, 20.3.1945; and Eugeniusz Goch, 14.10.1945. For overview of the witness Ukrainski (inhabitant of Belzec), see: Longerich, Ermordung, 360-362 Return

  20. Ibid. Return

  21. Ibid. Return

  22. These wooden doors (* they opened outwards like ordinary doors) (to remove the bodies from the chambers) were to cause some difficulty in the gassing operations due to sealing problems. To overcome this, piles of sand were kept outside the doors to secure the gaps. Return

  23. It will be shown later that recently discovered Luftwaffe aerial photographs show a second rail link into the camp, thus doubling the number of wagons from 20 to 40. (* The double track had existed since before WWI). Return

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