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Belzec: The Experimental Phase (cont.)

Survivors from Belzec

Two Jews who survived the Belzec death camp have confirmed the layout of the camp in some detail: Rudolf Reder (second phase) and Chaim Hirszman (first and second phases). When Hirszman and his wife arrived at Belzec from Janow-Lubelski, his wife went to the gas chambers but he was selected for work: “Du bist ein Militärmensch, dich können wir brauchen.” (You are a military man, we could need you.') Hirszman's physique had impressed the SS and had saved him. Hirszman's evidence after the war is the only record by a victim of these early transport procedures.[24] Both Reder and Hirszmann were to escape: one by stealth and the other, by more desperate measures. Their recollections remain the most enlightening testaments to emerge relating to the death camp.

“At the entrance to the gas chambers stood Schmidt, a Latvian Volksdeutsche, who beat each woman with a club as she entered. Before the door was closed, he fired a few shots from his revolver, after which the doors closed automatically, and 40 minutes later we went in an took out the bodies and shaved off their hair, which was packed into bags and taken away by the Germans … the bodies were not buried immediately; they waited until more had been collected.”[25]

As the camp was located on the edge of the village, the local population was aware of the happenings in the camp, as many testified to the commission of enquiry after the war. Stanislaw Kozak, who helped build the camp, went to the hill above the camp to observe activities. Kozak, using a telescope, watched as the Ukrainians beat the Jews with whips as they were being driven towards the gas chamber. He could hear shouting, screaming, and wailing as the Jews were driven into the gassing barrack.[26] Further descriptions of the layout of the camp in the first and second phases were provided by the perpetrators in the Belzec court hearings after the war.[27]


The executives of KdF in Berlin kept a close eye on their developing murder center and offered assistance and advice to Wirth, particularly from their gassing experts. Like many of the central cadre who had instigated and administered the transformation from euthanasia to death camps, these so-called experts operated under pseudonyms. When Erich Fuchs was sent to Lublin to collect 'Dr Blaurock,' he was actually collecting Dr. Helmuth Kallmeyer, known as 'Brack's chemist,' who arrived to test the gassing system at Belzec.[28] Many of the physicians resorted to covering their traces by adopting pseudonyms, as they realized they might be committing criminal offences.[29] The supervisors and registrars also used this practice, but oddly, Wirth never did.[30]

Throughout February and March 1942, before the main onslaught of mass gassings got underway,[31] both Kallmeyer and Wirth experimented with bottled gas as used at T4 and Zyklon B. SS-Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt and Siegfried Graetschus had provided the expertise behind the experimental gas van, and Hackenholt's expertise on the gassing engines was to earn him the honor of having the gas chambers in the second phase named after him - 'Stiftung Hackenholt' ('Hackenholt Foundation'), which was exhibited over the gassing buildings at Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. Fuchs recalled: “He (Hackenholt) wanted to go and piss with the big dogs, but was unable to lift his leg.” (Er wollte mit den grossen Hunden pissen gehen, aber konnte das Bein nicht heben.)[32]

The engines used in the Reinhardt camps were captured Russian tank engines mounted on concrete plinths. Pipes from two engines led directly to the roofs of the installations, which in turn led into an opening for the carbon monoxide to be pumped. The construction of the gas chambers in each of the camps varied only slightly. It was mainly the aesthetics of each camp that differed. In Belzec, for example, a camouflaged net strung on wooden poles was used to mask the building from aerial observation, which was later refined at Treblinka by adding an “innocent” stable type artificial roof typical of the concentration/labor/POW camps of the period. This also gave a false illusion to the victims that they were entering a “known” barrack of the era, the idea being to give the gassing building the appearance of normality. A wooden display board was erected around the “bathhouse” entrance. This was deceitfully decorated with geraniums in large flowerpots at the sides of the three steps leading into the central passageway. On the building a painted sign “Bade und Inhalationsraume” (Baths and Inhalation Rooms) as well as the above-mentioned “Stiftung Hackenhol” sign, were intended as reassurance for the victims that they were actually entering a bathing and Inhalation facility.

The first experimental killing with Zyklon B was carried out by Wirth on a group of about 150 Jews who had been brought to the camp from the nearby town of Lubycza-Królewska to complete construction of the camp and fell trees.[33] The Jews were working when they were suddenly on Wirth's orders forced into the newly built gas chambers. Within minutes, all had been gassed with Zyklon B and the corpses removed to open graves nearby. A local Pole, Mieczyslaw Kudyba, reports that a youth from this group, who had witnessed the gassing from the safety of nearby bushes, later escaped from the camp.[34]

The experiments continued with CO gas from cylinders, used so extensively in the T4 operation, which Schwarz brought from Lvóv. The final testing of gassing techniques was carried out on two or three small transports brought into the camp from the Lublin district transit ghettos at Izbica and Piaski. Further experiments with the converted gas van were abandoned. Wirth needed, and indeed favored, the static engine technique and went in search of a suitable petrol engine that would serve his purposes. In early March 1942, a suitable engine was found in Lvóv and transported to Belzec, where it was installed and tested.[35] The tests with exhaust fumes were so effective that it became the preferred system and was to prevail in all three Reinhardt death camps.

The camp operation in those early weeks was not without difficulties. The gas chamber was nothing more than a wooden barrack. To enhance this deception, the false showerheads that Fuchs had been unable to fit earlier were now installed and signs indicating a bathhouse displayed. Despite all their efforts, the construction team was unable to make the unloading doors airtight.[36] According to Werner Dubois, on each gassing operation in the wooden barrack, sand had to be piled against the outer door to try to rectify this problem. After the gassing, the sand had to be removed to allow access to the corpses.[37]

Cruelty in Belzec

In the euthanasia phase and subsequent crossover to Reinhardt, an essential qualification of the men chosen for this duty was their capacity to cope unemotionally with day-to-day operations. Some failed this test but many adapted. Heading the list for automatic Reinhardt duty were the 'cremators,' 'burners,' and the concentration camp guards, who were the most psychologically hardened men due to the nature of their duties in T4. Devoid of feeling, they behaved like troopers in a closed canteen type culture or, as Karin Orth puts it, “SS-Sippengemeinschaf” (SS Clan Community'[38]: that is, obedient, efficient ,and single-minded. This was more to Wirth's liking, as he could identify with them. Wirth was pragmatic when allocating duties to his staff in Belzec. Regardless of rank or personality, he selected the man with the right attitude and expertise to be placed where he was most effective to get the job done smoothly, efficiently and without problems.

That the SS leadership indiscriminately shot Jews is generally unchallenged. However, apart from a few exceptions, they rarely added sadism to these duties. But cruelty was a daily occurrence among the Ukrainians and some maverick SS-Scharführers: SS-Scharführer Gustav Münzberger, a Sudeten German and carpenter from T4 (Sonnenstein), who was in charge of driving the Jews into the gas chambers at Treblinka, where he acted with much unnecessary cruelty.[39] On the other hand, the previously mentioned 'idiot,' SS-Scharführer Heinrich Barbl, was not known for any acts of cruelty but was often whipped by Wirth for his drunken behavior.[40] Nevertheless, Barbl had his uses; in civilian life he had been a plumber and was later sent to Sobibór by Wirth to fit the pipe system in the gas chambers.[41] Despite all their perceived difficulties and personal worries, the SS-garrison held together, supported by over-eager auxiliary cadres and the entrapped Jewish Sonderkommandos, plundering and processing each transport as it entered the camp.

At Belzec, the entire SS-garrison was billeted together, sharing on a communal basis the village houses along the main Belzec - Lvóv road. Perhaps the combination of male communal living and common activity was a crucial factor in welding these men together as one unit. In Sobibór. So strong was the bond among the SS that they had rings made featuring SS runes from five mark pieces for every member of the permanent staff.[42]

To emphasize and endorse the fact that the men now engaged at Belzec, despite wearing the uniforms of the Waffen-SS, were a civilian group, we have an interesting observation that occurred at the railway station. When the attention of a German railway inspector from Lublin was drawn to a group of SS men behaving strangely, he questioned them. They stated that they were not SS men, but had been issued SS uniforms for their work at the camp. They told the inspector that they were from lunatic asylums and nursing homes where they had killed the mentally ill.[43] This is corroborated by the men themselves, who claimed that they were civilians and outsiders - in the military sense.

Any personal relationships between SS personnel and the Jewesses or personal friendship with Ukrainians, even for chess games, was enough for Wirth to take action. These reprisals usually occurred when the officer was either on leave or temporarily away from the camp. On return, all relationships had been 'dealt with' – the targeted companion had been shot or gassed on direct orders of the camp commandant, much to the distress of the officer concerned. Very often, this completely changed the behavior of the individual concerned. Some changed from a cruel and sadistic murderer to an introverted character who saw no reason to carry-on, as happened to SS-Scharführer Paul Groth in Sobibor.[44]

Paul Groth, aged 20, was one of the youngest guards in SS-uniform. Because of his perpetual drunkenness and sadistic cruelty in Belzec, which concerned his SS colleagues, and threatened to disrupt the smooth running of the camp, Wirth disciplined him by transferring him to Sobibór in the hope he would mend his ways. However, this was not to be. In Sobibór, Groth ordered Jews to carry him around the camp in an armchair.[45] On other occasions when he was supervising young boys and one became tired, he would send him to the 'hospital' for a bullet.[46] Groth continued to abuse his position to such an extent that the smooth workings of the camp were being compromised. Wirth recognized this and immediately curbed this talent by removing Groth's most prized possession.[47] SS or Ukrainians on duty at the 'hospital' amused themselves by placing a bucket on the victim's head, sending them into the grave for shooting practice.[48] It was acceptable to kill and torture the 'Untermenschen,' but to associate with them was not acceptable. Groth's catalog of cruelty is unending. He tormented the Jews with his dog 'Barry,' the size of a small pony. He had trained the animal to attack on the command 'Jew,' whereupon the animal leapt at the victim, biting him in the groin. Now disabled, the victim was invited by Groth to go with him to the 'hospital' (Lazarett – the grave), where he was shot. Groth ordered prisoners to eat their own excrement even though they pleaded to be shot instead. In another instance, he ordered Jews to climb to the top of buildings and then jump holding an open umbrella. All these Jews were shot, as broken bones were a ticket to the open pit. Because of his actions, from which he took great pleasure, Groth was soon ostracized by his SS colleagues.

When Groth struck up a relationship with a Jewish cleaning girl named Ruth, he became more reasonable. A relationship with a Jewess, it appears, was a more serious affront to camp discipline than neglecting orders, and the association between Groth and Ruth was quickly dealt with, probably on Wirth's direct orders. On Groth's return from leave, he found the Jewess Ruth had been shot. Shortly after, he was transferred back to Belzec.[49] An identical situation arose in Sobibór with SS-Scharführer Hans-Heinz Schütt, who was associating with an Austrian Jewess named Gisela and her 22-year-old niece. When Schütt returned from leave, his SS colleague, SS-Scharführer Erich Bauer, called him to the pits in Camp III. Bauer remarked, “Enjoy the Jewess's beautiful ass.” Both Jewish women were dead, having been shot, it is alleged, by Bauer on orders from the commandant.[50]

To pass the time between gassing operations all manner of cruelties were indulged in and condoned by the leadership. Each SS man had his preference for entertainment and torture. SS-Scharführer Paul Bredow, in charge at the 'Lazarett' in Sobibór, indulged in his hobby of target shooting. He boasted of shooting 50 Jews a day with his automatic pistol. He also selected young girls from the transports and whipped them. Scharführer Hubert Gomerski used a truncheon with nails to assault the victims.[51] The auxiliary ranks (Volksdeutsche), who were not established SS, were the most undisciplined elements, who abused the power given to them, usually under the influence of alcohol. Wirth, despite his hatred for Jews and contempt for his own men who showed dissent, did take action against excesses of drunkenness and brutality when it threatened the orderly killing system.

In early 1942, when the experimental gassings in Belzec had come to an abrupt halt, all the Jewish workers were shot. Wirth and the rest of the German personnel left Belzec for Berlin without informing Globocnik. It was clear, even then, that Wirth was working under an independent authority on all operational issues concerning Belzec. Josef Oberhauser, returning from Lublin, found the camp deserted apart from a nominal security guard of Ukrainians.[52] Within a few weeks, Wirth was back in Belzec and with new vigor, commenced immediately to reorganize the camp. In additon, he had orders from the KdF to prepare for and receive Jews from the districts of Lublin and Galicia.[53]

Early Deportations from Kolomyja District

During the period 1939 - 1941, thousands of Jews fled from surrounding towns to what they thought was the safety of Kolomyja and its neighboring towns and villages - an area already heavily populated with Jews - thereby swelling the Jewish population of Kolomyja to over 60,000. Tragically, it was to become the central transit and extermination center for the Jewish population of that district. Mass killings had been occurring there since October 1941, the majority by shooting operations in local forests. Nevertheless, 16,000 Jews still remained in the ghetto and surrounding districts who were sent to Belzec in four large transports: two in April, and two in September 1942.

As the ghettos in Galicia were self-governing, a most essential requisite was the maintenance of law and order and the keeping up to date population records as required by the SD. This brought about the establishment of the Jewish Ordnungsdienst ('Order Service'), a paramilitary ghetto police armed with rubber truncheons and wearing a distinguishable uniform. Initially, the Jewish auxiliaries did their best to be fair and considerate when maintaining law and order, but when used by the SD for 'resettlement' operations, their people accused them of collaboration[54] and brutality. In Stanislawow, the Jewish Order Police were told that if they failed to bring the allotted quota of Jews for transports, then they and their families would make up the shortfall. In the eyes of their community, the Jewish Order Police became corrupt tools of the murder machinery and an extension of the Gestapo.[55 At the end of the war, only 200 Jews had survived from the Kolomyja deportations, and it is from a small number of these survivors that we are able to piece together the calendar of events during this period of Nazi occupation. Following the first transports from Lvóv and Lublin to Belzec in March 1942, simultaneous mass deportations commenced from East Galicia and the regions south of Lublin.

In April 1942, deportations to Belzec began in Tarnopol and Zloczów and then moved on to other areas: Sambor, Drohobycz, Czortków, Stanislawów, Stryj, and Kolomyja.[56] On April 2, 1942, the head of the Sipo-SD office in Kolomyja, SS-Hauptsturmführer Peter Leideritz,[57]organized the first deportation and resettlement transports for Jews in the southern part of East Galicia. Jewish workers on the way to their place of work in the German armament factories were suddenly arrested and assembled in Kasarnik Street to await an SS selection commission. The old and frail were selected for transport and separated; the others were sent back to work.

At 05:00 on April 3, Ghetto 'A' was surrounded by detachments of Schupo, Jewish Police, SD, and Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. Other members of the Sipo-SD, commanded by Peter Leideritz, augmented by additional forces of the Schupo from Tarnopol, entered the ghetto. All Jews were removed forcibly from their dwellings, and the sick, the old, and those considered unfit for transport, were shot on the spot.[58] The remaining Jews were concentrated in the Synagogue, where they underwent further selection. Those deemed fit for labor were released and sent home. Those remaining were taken to the railway station and loaded into boxcars for transportation to Belzec.[59]

On April 4, the same procedure was repeated in Ghetto 'B'. Elderly Jews and those classified as unfit for work were taken to boxcars, where they were kept without food or water. On April 6, Ghetto 'C' was targeted. As many Jews now knew the likely course of events, they went into hiding. Those found were killed on the spot without regard to age, fitness, or sex. Parts of the ghetto were set on fire to prevent any escape of those concealed in their prepared hiding places, while SS and auxiliaries stood guard near the burning houses to shoot anyone trying to escape. During these proceedings, several hundred Jews were killed inside the ghettos; 5,000 were taken to the awaiting transport where they joined the others, including a small shipments of Jews brought in from the surrounding towns and villages.[60]

On April 7,1942, all the Jews held over the past few days were loaded, 140 to a wagon, and the train departed on schedule for Belzec via Janowska (which had become the main transit point for all transports to Belzec)[61], where 100 fit Jews were off-loaded and replaced by 100 naked, unemployable Jews.[62] Some 18 hours later, the Kolomyja transport arrived at Belzec, destined for 'special treatment.' There were no survivors.

On, April11, 1942, the deportation of Jews from Chelm to Belzec took place and it was noticed by the 'transport watchers' that when the empty train returned to Zamosc, it waited there. The following day, 2,500 were evacuated from Zamosæ to Belzec. In the neighbouring towns of Szczebrzeszyn, Bilgoraj, Frampol and Zwierzyniec there was panic.[63]Jewish women fled to the sanctuary of the cemetery, some to the forests, and others even as far as Warsaw, preferring to die there than be killed in the concentration camps or shot down in the street like dogs. There was now a lull in the evacuations for the rest of April, which was probably due to Belzec's limited reception during the reconstruction of the second phase gas chambers.

Between April 22-26, 1942, an additional 4,000 Jews were brought to Kolomyja from smaller towns to replenish the ghetto.[64] Approximately 1,000 were immediately sent to the local prison, prior to 'special treatment' in local forests. This cycle of selection and destruction then recommenced. Jews who managed to avoid deportation fell prey to executions. Not only were they hunted down like animals and shot in the streets, but the Nazi- appointed Jewish Councils were also ordered to pay for the ammunition expended.[65]

Chain of Command in the death camps?

One of the curious aspects to emerge within Reinhardt was the two-way flow of communication between the KdF, HHE and the death camps. Globocnik, as SS-Polizeiführer, held the overall authority for administration and control of Reinhardt, but when the focus centered on anything to do with the death camps, Wirth was in control, and by all accounts was working according to his own agenda. Both Globocnik and Wirth had different power bases, and although on good personal terms, appear to have been commissioned separately to work towards the Final Solution. This fact may explain the idiosyncratic chain of command that existed, particularly at the time of Wirth's hurried exit from Belzec after the experimental phase.

Wirth continued to bypass normal channels and go directly to Hitler's personal office for his instructions. The policy decisions and instructions were sent by special couriers (bypassing Globocnik) direct to Wirth in Belzec.[66] Globocnik, although at times frustrated by Wirth's independent activities, was doing exactly the same in going directly to Himmler in Berlin, ignoring and bypassing his superior in Kraków.

Command structure chart



The above chart discusses the lines of communication in 'Aktion Reinhardt'. Hitler is clearly shown as the pinnacle of power. There are two main information centers from which the Final Solution was organized and carried out to fruition: Reichsführer-SS Himmler and the Führer's Chancellery. Notably, Kriminalkommissar Christian Wirth is shown as the major lynchpin, bypassing his superior Globocnik to gain direct access to Hitler's Chancellery.


  1. TAL/JHIW: Statement of Chaim Hirszman, 19 March 1946. Return

  2. Ibid. Return

  3. TAL/OKBZ: Statement of Stanislaw Kozak, 14 October 1945. Return

  4. TAL/ZStL, Belzec Case: Statements of Heinrich Gley, 10 May 1961; Heinrich Unverhau, 10 July 1961; Hans Girtzig, 18 July 1961; Robert Jührs, 11 October 1961; and Karl Schluch, 11 November 1961. Return

  5. Ibid. Statement of Erich Fuchs, 6 March 1968. See: Tregenza, Belzec, 3, for overview. Return

  6. See: Friedlander, Origins, 103. Return

  7. See: Distel, Dachau, 166. Return

  8. Pohl, Ostgalizien, 185. Return

  9. Ibid. Statement of Robert Juhrs 11 October 1961: Tregenza, Belzec, 7. Return

  10. Ibid. Statement of Josef Oberhauser, 13 December 1962. Return

  11. TAL/OKBZ: Statement of Mieczyslaw Kudyba, 14 October 1945: Tregenza, Belzec, 3. Return

  12. Ibid. The engine, taken from a petrol-fuelled Soviet T34 tank was the first mass murder device used in Belzec. Installed by SS-Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, the engine exhaust pipe was connected with the main pipe under the gassing barrack, and thence into each individual chamber. In the initial stages, Wirth and Hackenholt operated the engine together; Hackenholt then took over with the assistance of Ukrainians. See also: Tregenza, Belzec, 4-5. Return

  13. TAL/ZStL, Belzec Case: Statement Werner Dubois, 16 September 1961. Return

  14. Ibid. Return

  15. Orth, Camps SS, 310. Return

  16. Sereny, Stangl, 82. Return

  17. TAL/ZStL, Belzec Case: Statement of Josef Oberhauser. Return

  18. TAL/ZStL, File No. 208 AR-Z 251/59 (Sobibor Case): Statement by Erich Bauer, 10.12.1962). Sobibor Case: Statement by Erich Fuchs, 8 April 1963. Return

  19. Klee, Dressen, Riess, Days, 230. Return

  20. Ibid., 234: Statement of Oskar Diegelmann, 12 December 1961. Diegelmann was Reichsbsahnober- inspektor (Senior Inspector of the Reich Railways) at Lublin station. See also: TAL/ZStL, 208 AR-Z 80/60: Case Against Rudolf Göckel. Return

  21. Blatt, Sobibor, 52. Return

  22. Ibid. Return

  23. Ibid. Statement of Abraham Margulies. Return

  24. TAL/Novitch, Sobibór: Statements of Moshe Bahir and Eda Lichtman. Return

  25. Ibid. Return

  26. Ibid. Return

  27. Ibid. See also: TAL/ZStL, Sobibór Case: Statement of Erich Bauer. Return

  28. Ibid. Return

  29. Ibid. (Globocnik had sent Oberhauser from Lublin to Belzec to find out about Wirth's apparent absence from the camp.) (* Oberhauser had been in Lublin organizing building materials for the reconstruction of the camp. He discovered Wirth's absence on his return to the camp. Globocnik did not know Wirth had gone until Oberhauser reported back to him). Return

  30. TAL/ZStL, Belzec Case: Statements; Josef Oberhauser, Werner Dubois, Erich Fuchs, Heinrich Gley, Robert Jührs, Karl Schluch, Heinrich Unverhau and Ernst Zierk – all former members of the Belzec death camp garrison. See: Statement of Josef Oberhauser, 12 December 1962, Munich. Return

  31. David Kahane, The Lvóv Ghetto Diary, London, 1990, 16. Return

  32. Ibid. Return

  33. Sandkühler, Endlösung, 179. Return

  34. Bibliography, see: Sandkühler, Endlösung, 439-442. Return

  35. The established selection policy of the SD varied: The old and sick were now being shot in situ as they had enough Jews of all categories to make up the numbers. All the ghettos were now divided and marked A, B, or C. This was the policy in the General Government. Return

  36. Sandkühler, Endlösung, 243. Return

  37. Ibid. Return

  38. Sandküler, Extermination Policies 121. Return

  39. To ease the workload in Belzec many of the transports were emptied at Janowska. Thousands of Jews were stripped naked and all their baggage taken. They were either taken to other camps or shot locally. The remainder loaded naked onto the transport for Belzec. This carefully worked plan saved much time. (* Source? Physically fit Jews were selected at Janowska for labour, the rest were sent on to Belzec). Return

  40. Ibid, 191. Return

  41. This once again demonstrates this well tried procedure occurring all over the occupied territories - fill the ghetto from communities in the immediate vicinity - selection of the weakest for killing - removal from the ghetto - replenish from other localities - repeat and repeat until there were no Jews left. Return

  42. Krakowski, Diary, xi. Return

  43. Ibid. Return

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