Approaching Belzec from the direction of Lublin, the 'resettlement' trains stopped at Zwierzyniec, 28 km from Belzec. The same frantic quest for escape also occupied the Jews on these transports. On one transport, Yacov Gurfein, a young boy made the jump. Yacov fell to the ground and waited. When the train finally moved off after a search, Yacov walked to Jaroslaw and took a train to Przemysl. He survived the war.
One evening in late 1942, a transport arrived at Belzec from Tarnòw. The transport waited overnight guarded by the camp guards. From inside the wagons came terrible wailing and cries for water. In wagons waiting in the sidings at Belzec Jews broke through the barred windows and jumped to the ground where they were immediately shot by the guards. In the morning, 34 bodies were counted on one side of the track.
Helen Goldman, a young girl in her teens, was being transported with her family from Jawarów via Lvov to Belzec in August 1942. She, with others, broke out of the train en route; she escaped and survived the war. From the same town in September, Jadzia Beer got her skirt caught in the car window in her attempt to jump the train. She was shot. In each deportation to the death camps, Jews tried to jump from the trains. The stories and accounts are endless.
Once a 'resettlement' train had received clearance from the Belzec station to proceed, the train, carrying thousands of terrified men, women, and children traveled on a single track, taking approximately 30 minutes to reach the extermination camp.
All other personnel, including the escorting and Schupo, were prohibited from entering Belzec camp and were required to patrol the area between the station and the camp gates. After unloading in the camp, Göckel, accompanied by one of the camp SS-NCOs, personally checked each wagon and when all was clear, he waved his flag and returned to bring in the next load.
To the accompaniment of the camp musicians, 20 wagons were shunted through the main gates closely guarded by the SS and Ukrainian guards. Once the wagons were inside the camp proper, the camouflaged main gates were closed until the first intake had been completed. Overlooking the whole process was a centrally located watchtower manned by armed Ukrainians. Everything was now automated to deal with the transports as quickly, and efficiently as possible.
According to the Jewish survivor Rudolf Reder, who had arrived with his wife from Lvov on August 17, the Jews were driven out of the wagons by the Ukrainians and had to jump one meter to the ground, where they were ordered to strip naked. The duty officer supervising this particular transport, SS-Scharführer Fritz Irrmann, gave the usual speech to the Jews that they had come here to work, but first they must bath: Ihr geht jetzt baden, nachher werdet ihr zur Arbeit geschickt! (You are now going to have a bath. Afterwards you will be sent to work). One of the few artifacts that survived the Nazi demolition of the camp is one of the original information boards directing the Jews to the gas chambers:
A short time the men were marched naked towards the 'tube.' The women, after undressing, were driven to the haircutting barrack where a hundred 'barber chairs' beckoned them to have their hair shaved. By the time the haircutting had been completed, the women were also driven along the 'tube' to the gas chambers and by this time, the men were already laying dead in the pits.
To enter the chambers the victims had to climb up several steps to the entrance but could see nothing of what was going on around them as the graves and the density of trees hid all other activities. Even in winter, as the trees were firs, they maintained this camouflage.
During this period, August, the peak of the 'resettlement' operations, three transports per day were arriving in Belzec. The conditions at the ramp even shocked the supervising SS: piles of fly-bitten, putrid-smelling bodies just dumped on the ramp awaiting removal by the Jewish work brigade. Those too ill or too weak to proceed to the gas chambers were left on the ramp until main group had been dealt with. Those who had been left behind were then taken to the nearest open grave and shot.
Shooting the elderly and the sick was normally carried out by a designated SS-NCO at the unloading ramp. SS-Scharführer Robert Jührs was posted to this area about the time the Kolomyja transports were arriving:
On this transport, the wagons were grossly overloaded and there were very many Jews who were not able to move. It could be that Jews had been pushed to the floor and trampled. In any case, there were Jews who in no way were able to go to the undressing barracks. As usual, Hering appeared and gave the order to shoot the Jews, 'Jührs, take these people to Camp II and shoot them.'
Once the chambers were full and the doors sealed tight, Moniek, the Jewish Zugführer, signalled to the gas-engine mechanics to start the engine. During gassing operations, the camp orchestra played continually to drown out the screams and shouts. After the engine had been running for about 20 minutes, Moniek again signalled to the mechanics to switch the engine off.
While this was going on, Rudolf Reder was fully engaged working the excavator, digging graves, and observing the gassing of his fellow man. Reder's assessment that 33 mass graves were located within the designated area of Camp 2 was, incidentally, corroborated by the subsequent investigations in 1997-99. Some of these graves were enormous and it is difficult to imagine how they may have looked. On average, according to Reder, it took gravediggers a week to dig one grave and that was with the assistance of a mechanical earth-removing machine and conveyor belt which took the sandy earth from the bottom of the grave and deposited it at the rim. The investigating team in 1998 examined these graves to depths of five meters. In grave No. 14, which was undoubtedly the biggest and dated from the first phase, it would have been possible to drop two houses into the cavity with room to spare. Others were much smaller but still large enough to contain several thousand corpses.
The gassing operation in Belzec was strictly off-limits to outsiders, even to some of the SS garrison. Throughout the first and second phases of Belzec, the gassing installations and operation were in the hands of just one man, SS-Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, who worked continuously with the assistance of selected Ukrainians and his Jewish Kapos. Present at this part of the post-reception process was a Jewish Zugführer named Moniek, a cab driver from Kraków, who was one of Hackenholt's Jewish assistant-mechanics; he wasn't in charge of anything except starting the engine while Hackenholt was absent or drunk.
When Professor Pfannenstiel, a German visitor to Belzec, wanted to know what was going on inside the gas chambers, he was invited to put his ear to a door and listen. Pfannenstiel did just this and remarked, Just like in a synagogue. Glass peepholes had been inserted into the doors but on this occasion, Pfannenstiel stated, that when he attempted to look inside he could not see anything as the glass was steamed over. After the signal had been given that the gassing was over, the 'death brigade,' led by the Zugführer, immediately went to work, pulling out the corpses with leather straps. The victims lay inside the gas chambers, criss-crossed and intertwined with one another. One by one, the Jewish 'death brigade' dragged the corpses to the open graves. The next task was to clean the gas chambers and prepare them for the women and children who would soon arrive to be dealt with in the same way. The victims' property meanwhile was collected and taken to the locomotive shed for sorting and initial cleaning, then on to Lublin by rail. Cash and valuables were handled separately and collected by a special courier from T4 in Berlin.
At the edge of the grave, the elderly, children, and the sick were waiting with insane expressions in their eyes, staring dully into the grave. They were waiting for death and allowed to see their fill of the corpses, the blood, and the stench of putrefaction before SS-Scharführer Irrmann swept them into the grave with gunshots and the butt of his gun.
Sobibór and Treblinka, Wirth introduced somewhat more 'sophisticated'arrangements. Rather like Dr. Schöngarth in Lvov and Hans Krüger in Stanislawow, Wirth demonstrated to his men how these executions were to be carried out. Many children were liquidated in the pits rather than in the gas chambers. These victims were the toddlers, children with no mothers to undress them and lead them to the gas chambers, and small children of large families whose mothers had their hands full. These children were separated and taken to the graveside to be shot or bludgeoned to death. According to the Belzec survivor Chaim Hirszman, he witnessed on one occasion how many babies and very young children were just thrown alive into a pit and then covered with sand. He was horrified to see the earth moving until they had all suffocated to death. In Treblinka, the duty executioner smashed children's heads against a wall and then threw the bodies into the burning ditch of the 'Lazarett.'The most important considerations were the conservation of bullets or gas. SS-Scharführer August Miete (who was not SS) worked in the reception camp at Treblinka selecting Jews for the 'Lazarett':
I fired at the nape of the neck with a 9 mm. pistol. Those shot would fall into the pit. The number of people shot in this way from each transport varied. Sometimes two or three, and sometimes 20, or even more they included men and women, young and old, and also children.
As the killing progressed in the 'Lazarett, these procedures became more sophisticated. Lessons learned in Belzec were implemented in Sobibór and Treblinka. For example, the sick and disabled Jews were now guided by a selected group of Jewish camp personnel to the 'Lazaret. ' In a small hut in Treblinka, manned by two members of the Jewish 'work brigade,' a white-coated bogus Red Cross official [an SS-NCO] dressed in a white doctor's coat invited the victims into the hut. Once taken behind a screen all became clear to them. Before them was a pit, several meters deep and surrounded by an earth bank. In the pit was a burning mass of decomposed bodies infested with flies. Now resigned to their fate, the victims walked quietly or were carried on a stretcher by the 'work brigade' to the edge of the pit and then shot in the back of the neck by a pre-positioned executioner, usually by the duty SS-Scharführer or Ukrainian auxiliary. This was also the fate of Jewish workers in the camp who had contravened the rules, become ill, or fallen victim to an assault by a guard and sustained serious injuries. Any injury inflicted by a cruel beating, making that person unable to work, was an invitation to attend the 'Lazarett' and qualified the victim for immediate attention by the duty SS-NCO. At the order, Komm, he was then led for disposal in the pit.
We have the eye witness accounts of these procedures by Rudolf Reder, the Ukrainian guard Nikolai Malagon, and members of the SS-garrison who carried out these summary murders. When their work had been completed the SS garrison relaxed and waited for the next transport, expected to arrive within a few hours. Commandant Franz Stangl at Treblinka would have us believe that these disgusting brutal murders were carried out with consideration, especially if you happened to meet in the 'Lazarett' an old acquaintance from times gone by.
friends can expect favors, regardless of position, and when Blau's 80-year-old father arrived in the camp some time later, Blau sought Stangl's help to ease the inevitable by requesting that he take his father to the 'Lazerett' instead of the gas chambers. Blau senior was taken by his son to the execution pit, given a meal and then shot. Blau said to Stangl: Herr Hauptsturmführer, I want to thank you, I gave him a meal before taking him and now it's all over. Thank you very much.
On November 15, 1942, 4,000 naked Jews arrived at Belzec from Zamosæ. The entire Judenrat was on this transport. The men were immediately driven to the gas chambers and the women to the barracks to have their hair shaved off. One male Jew, the deputy President of the Judenrat, was selected to remain behind. The Latvian Schmidt ordered the Jewish band to assemble in the yard. To the accompaniment of Es geht alles vorüber, es geht alles vorbei (Everything passes, everything goes by) and Drei Lilien, Drei Lilien, kommt ein Reiter gefahren, bringt die Lilien and (Three lilies, comes a rider bringing lilies). The Judenrat representative was cruelly beaten with whips about the head and ordered to dance and jump in the process. The torture of this man who had done nothing to provoke his attackers went on for several hours, watched by the SS-garrison who stood about laughing: Das ist eine höhere Person, Präsident des Judenrate. (That is a high-ranking person, President of the Judenrat!) In the evening, Schmidt took him to a grave, shot him in the head, and kicked him onto a pile of gassed corpses.
When the exceptionally large transport of 51 wagons from Kolomyja arrived in September 1942, 2,000 Jews were found dead on arrival, and extra help was needed. Therefore, 100 naked Jews were taken off the next incoming transport to assist. After the work was completed and the emergency was over, the Volksdeutsche, Schmidt, marched the 100 Jews to the open grave and shot them. When Schmidt ran out of ammunition he killed the rest with a pickaxe handle. It was not economical to use the gassing facilities for only 100 victims.
A grave was not considered full until the layer of corpses exceeded one meter above ground level. The 'body placers' had a strict routine, which necessitated their walking over the buried corpses to reach all sides of the grave, even though the presence of body fluids engulfed their feet and ankles. According to Reder, this was the worst practice they had to endure. This practice was tolerated with only their faith to comfort them:
The brigade consisted mostly of men whose wives, children, and parents had been gassed. Many of us managed to get 'Tallesim' and Tefillin' from the storerooms, and when the door was locked we heard the murmur of the 'Kaddish' prayer. We prayed for the dead. Afterwards there was silence. We did not complain as we resigned ourselves to our fate. Maybe those 15 Zugführers were still under some sort of illusion, but not us.
We all moved like people who had lost their will. We became one mass of people. I knew their names, but not many. I know that the doctor was a young general practitioner from Przemysl; his name was Jakubowicz. I also knew a businessman from Kraków called Schlussel, and his son; also a Czech Jew whose name was Ellbogen, he apparently owned a bicycle shop; I knew a man called Goldschmidt who was a well-known chef at the well-known 'Bruder Hanicka' restaurant in Karlovy Vary. We went through this terrible life like robots.
We had to sing songs before lunch and sing before evening coffee. At the same time one could hear the howling of the people being gassed - and the band playing; and opposite the kitchen stood the gallows. The final act of these macabre burials was the closure of the graves. On instructions from the Zugführer, the grave top was sprinkled with lime and covered with sand. It looked like a large mound but after a few days the mound had sunk to ground level.
Working conditions for these numbed souls had no let-up. Forced to work at a hard pace while continually being beaten, carrying or pulling corpses, many found life impossible to endure and collapsed, knowing full well what their own fate would be. Any infraction was met by an immediate 25 lashings with a riding whip. To receive this punishment the victim had to count off the lashes, 125, in German. Failure to keep count resulted in the whole procedure being repeated, but this time it was 50 lashes. Very few Jews were able to withstand such savage treatment and crawled back to the barrack badly injured. There they waited for the inspection and the almost inevitable bullet in the head. Each day after roll call the supervising SS guard recorded a list of the injured, the ill, or those considered 'finished'. These men were quietly taken to the grave edge and shot into the pit. The macabre scene was as described by Berl Freiberg, a body remover in Sobibór: When pulling a dead man by the foot to the pit I sat down for a rest, all of a sudden I saw the 'dead' man sit up and ask 'is it still a long way?' Any attempt by Freiberg to save the man would have been futile.
Because of a number of setbacks in the military sphere and the possible consequences, Himmler directed that all traces of mass killings must be obliterated throughout the occupied areas. The task of coordinating and carrying out these measures was assigned to SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel. Due to his reputation for drunkenness and belligerency, Blobel was regarded by the HHE as a disgraced officer who had attracted the wrath of his superiors. As punishment he was transferred to Amt 1VB4, under the supervision of SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, Eichmann's immediate superior. Blobel had been a successful Einsatzgruppen commander in Kiev where he had butchered 35,000 Jews, men, women and children who had fallen victim to his command at Babi Yar during a three-day period.
Paul Blobel was entering new and untried territory when given the task of pinpointing all the mass graves throughout the eastern territories. With a small team of operators, known as Sonderkommando 1005, Blobel went to Chelmno, where they investigated the mass burial sites of the many thousands of victims murdered in gas vans. Blobel began his experimental burning of corpses by adopting various concoctions of fuel and pyres; even explosives were used in these experiments.
On September 15, 1942, secret German radio messages decoded by British Intelligence referred for the first time to the code designation Aktion Reinhard: WVHA gives Concentration Camp Auschwitz authority for a vehicle to travel to Lódz and inspect 'Aktion Reinhard' research station for field furnaces.
At this time, Blobel was in Chelmno experimenting with the burning of corpses. Depending on the magnitude of the exhumation /cremation task, the groups of Jews assigned for this work consisted on average of 40-80 workers. Among the group employed in Fort IX at Kovno were four doctors, a pharmacist, an engineer, a mechanic, an artist, a lawyer, and various other professional and working men. In the camps, ghettos, the death camps, and any other place of confinement, the composition of personnel was the same. The only thing they had in common was that they were all Jews.
Throughout this grisly process of digging up and burning the bodies, Sonderkommando 1005 were chained when carrying out their task. On completion of the work, they were all shot and a new Kommando was formed to take their place and move on to other designated sites. A special school was set up in the Janowska camp where German camp personnel underwent instruction on how to eradicate mass graves: burn the corpses, grind the bones, and plant trees on the sites of the former grave areas. Twelve officers from each area of occupation where mass graves were located attended the course and 10 groups went through the course at Janowska in five months.
The task was so vast and deemed to be so urgent that camp commanders at other locations where mass killings had taken place organized their own '1005' Kommandos. In Plaszów concentration camp, SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Goeth chained his Jews together, even when they slept. When the work had been completed, they too were all shot and a new team was selected. In Fort IX at Kovno, Stutthof, and Vilna camps, the members of Sonderkommando 1005 were held incommunicado and shackled each day. The chains, weighing two kilos apiece and fastened around both ankles and the waist, were worn permanently for approximately six months. Heavily guarded, the Kommandos were marched to the pits daily where they worked in the most gruesome conditions, which included the common occurrence of exhuming their close relatives who had been shot or gassed several months before. These men became immune to all sensitivity. Caked in mud and body fluids, poisoned, depraved and lost, only their spirit drove them on in the hope that some day vengeance would be possible.
Due to the large number of killing sites, many were overlooked. For example, at the Sipo-SD Academy at Bad Rabka, which had been used as an execution site for that area of southwest Galicia, the mass graves containing over 2,000 corpses were not considered important enough to warrant special attention.
Another secret radio message sent from Lublin on the night of February 24, 1944, intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence, refers to the escape that night of 20 or so 'Geheimnisträger' (bearers of secrets) from an unspecified camp in the Lublin District. The prisoners had removed their shackles and broken out of a tunnel beyond the camp perimeter. These prisoners were undoubtedly Jews from a Sonderkommando 1005 team engaged in removing and cremating corpses.
At Belzec, Commandant Hering delegated this work to SS-Scharführers Fritz Tauscher and Heinrich Gley. Assistance would be provided by SS-Scharführer Lorenz Hackenholt, who had at his disposal the mechanical excavator to dig up the corpses.
The Jewish workers of the 'death brigade' labored to build the pyres and systematically burn and rebury the residue of the corpses back into the emptied pits. A system like a barbeque grill had been devised and other cremation sites, thousands of miles apart, used the same system. Evidence was given by former Oberscharführer Gley, who supervised the construction of the pyres in Belzec. The grates were made by arranging standard gauge railway line sections on top of large stones. Narrow gauge line sections were then placed crossways on top to form a close meshed solid grate. Whether Belzec personnel attended cremation classes in Janowska is not known, but in all probability they received some expert advice.
Preparing and building the pyres before ignition were most important. Great care was taken to ensure that the right materials were available. A narrow ditch was dug around the fire, into which the fat and fuel from the bodies would drip. Now intermingled with wood and fuel, the pyres, each containing 2,000 bodies, gradually rose to a height of several meters.
The number of pyres used in Belzec is not clear as witnesses refer to 2 - 5 pyres. These had been constructed in mid-November 1942 and were in continual use until March 1943. Although there appears to be no effort to count and register victims arriving into the camp, great care was taken to note the number of corpses retrieved from the graves. As the bodies were brought to the pyre, a nominated person registered the number of corpses before they were laid out in selected positions.
The Belzec trial testimonies refer to at least 300,000 bodies being cremated on the first pyre and a further 240,000 on the second pyre; therefore, at least 540, 000 corpses were cremated on pyres in Belzec. In Treblinka, where the burnings did not begin until February 1943 and were completed in July, at least 700,000 corpses were destroyed.
What perhaps may help us reach a conclusion on the number of pyres is a painting by a former railway porter who worked at Belzec station during the war. The paintings of Belzec camp late 1942 show the barracks, watchtowers, rail link into the camp, mechanical excavator in the process of removing corpses and piling them on to five pyres which are burning. There were also other paintings representing activities in Belzec. In paintings of the reception area depicting incoming transports, one shows the arrival and unloading of a transport of Jews at the Ramp being addressed by Irrmann; another shows Wirth and Hering on horse-back riding through the streets of Belzec, chasing a Pole called Panasowiec and beating him with whips. Panasowiec died later from his injuries. There is also a painting of the pre-war railway station in Belzec in summer. The purpose of painting these scenes is not fully known, but the evidential value is immense.
At the school for clearing of extermination sites in Janowska, a clear euphemistic procedure emerged where each task was given a specific name. The excavator would remove the upper layer of the light sandy soil. The 'gravediggers' dug up and removed the 'dolls' (corpses) for burning . The 'drawers' who, with the help of long poles with hooks lifted the bodies from the pits to the surface, followed the 'gravediggers'. 'Checkers' extracted gold teeth and dentures from the mouths. After the 'checkers' came the 'porters' carrying makeshift stretchers, or the 'draggers', who with leather belts dragged or conveyed two 'dolls' at a time to the pyres, where a group of 'fire-fighters' supervised the burning.
SS-Oberscharführer Gley, who arrived at Belzec from T4 towards the end of July 1942 said:
When all the bodies had been removed from the graves, a special search commando sifted through the earth and extracted all the leftovers-- bone, clumps of hair, etc.-- and threw these remains on the fire. An additional mechanical excavator was brought to accelerate the work. One excavator came from Sobibór and the other from the Warsaw district, which were operated by Hackenholt.
It is interesting to note that during the excavations and burnings by Belzec's 'burners,' it was found that some bodies burned better than others. The recently gassed burned better than those from the first transports. Fat women burned better than thin women. Men did not burn well without women, whose fat is better developed than men's. For this reason, the bodies of women were used to build the base of the pyres intermixed with other bodies and combustible material. Blood, too, was found to be a very good combustible material and the young burned even better because of their softer flesh.
Flames leapt into the sky and the stinking smell permeated the area. Smoke from pyres, which could be seen for miles around, but on damp, wet days it would seldom rise above10 meters, clinging to the river as it drifted on the wind. Witnesses were affected with the smell and darkened sky as far away as Susiec (15km). Belzec was engulfed in acrid smoke, so it was not difficult to trace the happenings and relate them to the Polish War Crimes Investigation Commission after the war.
In conclusion, if we examine the findings of the Archeological Investigation at Belzec 1997-2000, we can corroborate that there were indeed mass excavations and cremations. The Belzec 'burners' however, were not as diligent as they should have been, as a number of graves proved. It was proved beyond doubt during the archaeological excavations of 1998 that certain graves contained unburnt,whole corpses which, because of the weight of the sandy soil, had been compressed into slabs only a few centimeters thick. Even after all these years, when the drills penetrated the Belzec soil, gasses were released, giving the first indication that a mass grave containing corpses was below. During the course of the cremations in the very final stages, many thousands of Jews on incoming transports must have been met by the sight of the pyres when entering the camp, and could have been under no illusion that they would not soon join this scene.
Another innovation that emerged to assist in the obliteration of evidence was a specially constructed machine to destroy the burnt human bones. Initially, the SS looked to the Jews in the Lódz ghetto to supply such a machine and it is not surprising that they failed. Blobel eventually found a machine from the Schriever Company in Hamburg and after much use in his gruesome work, recommended it to Hoess at Auschwitz. The Auschwitz commandant declined the offer as he found his Jewish workers were doing an adequate job with hammers and special mortars.
In their efforts to destroy the evidence, in particular any large bone material, the camp command at Belzec sought outside help from the Janowska concentration camp by borrowing their bone crushing machine and an operator, a Hungarian Jew named Szpilke. The machine resembled a cement mixer with heavy iron balls inside the revolving drum; as the drum revolved at high speed, the metal balls crushed the bone material into small fragments. At the base of the bone mill there was a sieve which acted as a filter for the bone material - the fine dust was expelled while larger pieces of still uncrushed bone were retained inside the drum.
The Jews who operated the bone mill were known as the 'Aschkolonne' (ash brigade). Covered completely in thick white dust they must have been a horrific sight. Belzec's efforts to complete the exhumations and destruction were not devoid of problems and it was some time before they fell in line with other murder sites in the process of digging up corpses, crushing their bones to powde,r and burning the corpses to ashes.
The destruction of the corpses was the highest priority. The Jews engaged on this work were subjected to continual bullying and harassment by the guards to work faster. Their only consolation was that the SS realized that to work in these conditions and to complete the task, the Jews had to be cared for and fed adequately. In the unhygienic conditions, unusual consideration was given by the SS supervisors in the supply of clothing and footwear for those engaged in this work. After each day's work, personal clothing was disinfected in Lysol, rinsed, and dried before further use. Their diet also improved. For breakfast, each prisoner received a quarter of a loaf of bread, black coffee, honey substitute, and cheese spread. After work, they received two liters of thick soup with noodles and meat. The better quality food and personal care of the Commando 1005 was one of Blobel's tactics to spur on the workers to finish the work as quickly as possible. Mid-day meals were eaten on-site. In the Stutthof Camp the 'burners' became callous and hardened, cooking their allocation of potatoes on the burning coals of the pyre. In Belzec between December 1942 and January 1943, the 'death brigade' Jews tending the cremation pyres endured a typhus epidemic and starvation. Their numbers were decimated when the sick were shot and there were no more transports to replace those killed. It should be noted that there was a clear difference between Reinhardt operations and those of Sonderkommando 1005, which operated outside of Reinhardt.
The last transports to arrive at Belzec contained the resident survivors from the liquidated ghettos that were being destroyed. On December 4,1942, a small transport of 600 Jews from Krosno was gassed in Belzec; a few days later, 1,250 Jews from the Rohatyn ghetto were gassed; on December 7 and 11, several thousand Jews from Rawa Ruska were gassed. Finally, three transports of survivors from the towns of Bursztyn, Bolszewce, and Bukaczowce were brought to the camp and gassed. On December 12, 1942, Belzec ceased to function as a death camp.
The complete absence of transports also meant that no extra food was brought into the camp by the victims, and the heavy work of digging up the corpses, the unhygienic environment of handling the decomposing corpses, and the burning took its toll. The Jews were near starvation and sick with disease but reluctant to show their situation as they knew the consequences. Typhus does not discriminate between Jew, Ukrainian, or German and when it was diagnosed in the camp, there was panic. Several of the SS and Ukrainians succumbed and were hospitalized until the danger had passed. Jews who could hold off no longer and collapsed were shot and cremated on the pyres. According to the survivor Chaim Hirszman, There were cases when the 'death brigade' were so starved that they ate pieces of flesh from the legs of corpses.
Belzec had now lost its importance as a death camp as the bulk of Galician Jewry had been dealt with. With the enlargement of Auschwitz, the efficiency of Treblinka and Sobibór, Belzec, geographically, had lost its importance and had become redundant.
The decommissioning of Belzec began with landscaping parts of the former camp area with firs and wild lupins. The remaining Jews awaited their fate in the trusting hope of survival. Among this group were Chaim Hirszman and Sylko Herc. We are able to piece together the last moments of the 306 'death brigade' Jews being transported from Belzec to Sobibór from the testimonies of former SS-Scharführers Fritz Tauscher and Heinrich Gley. According to Gley:
The disbandment of the camp presented the leadership with a problem - what was to happen to the work-Jews? Their gassing at Belzec was unthinkable because it would have to be carried out by the camp personnel. There was also the question of the burning of their bodies. The camp leadership decided to transport them in railway wagons to another camp. I heard later that this camp was Sobibór. To avoid panic, Hering spoke to the Jewish Kapos and told them that they were being taken to Lublin. The transport was suitably strongly guarded. I heard later that there were mass breakouts.
Tauscher has testified:
Suddenly, about 14 days before the end, in the grey light of dawn, Wirth turned up without previous warning. At the same time, a train of eight to nine wagons rolled into the camp. Wirth told them that they were now going to their chosen camp and induced all the Jews to board the train and organised their loading and departure.
Leon Feldhendler, a survivor of Sobibór, was in that death camp on the day the Belzec transport arrived. He has testified:
On 30th June 1943, a transport of the last Jews from Belzec arrived under the supervision of SS Unterscharführer Paul Groth at Sobibór, to be liquidated. Sobibór prisoners were suddenly locked in the barracks with strict orders not to look out.
On arrival at the Ramp in Sobibór, the Jews were removed selectively in small groups from the wagons and immediately shot. After the murder of the last Jewish workers from Belzec, a number of final messages written on various scraps of paper were found by a survivor, 14-year-old Tomasz (Tovi) Blatt from Izbica, who was in charge of the camp rubbish incinerator. While sorting their clothing and burning the documents, he found a diary written up to the last minute which revealed that the transport had been made up of workers from the Belzec death camp.
I quote from the diary of an unnamed victim: 'We have worked one year in Belzec. We do not know where they are transporting us. They say to Germany. There are dining tables in the wagons. We have received bread for three days, canned food, and vodka.'
A note on a scrap of paper read:
We know they are killing our comrades. The third wagon has already been opened and we can hear the sound of gunfire. Whoever finds this letter is requested to warn his comrades. Place no trust in the Germans smooth tongues and lies. They will trick you just as they tricked us. Rise up and avenge our blood! Do to the Germans what we meant to do but did not succeed in doing. From a Jew who has spent more than a year in the death camp at Belzec. These are out last moments of our lives. Avenge Us!
In addition to Gley's statement quoted above, the decision to deal with the last remaining Jews away from Belzec may have been to hide their fate from the Ukrainians, who were already edgy and suspicious of what the Germans had in mind for them.
Immediately after the SS left Belzec, the local population descended on the site of the death camp, rummaging in the earth for gold and other valuables, and in doing so, unearthed parts of decomposed bodies. The SS returned and built accommodations for a caretaker to live on site and to prevent further incursions. After the war, a Polish investigator visited the former camp where he found the ground dug-up, property strewn about and body parts exposed, no doubt in the search for valuables.
The second escape was from one of the first transports that arrived from the town of Zólkiew in March 1942. Two women, Mina Astman and Malka Talenfeld, had taken advantage of the inexperience and confusion of the guards in the early transports. The naked women jumped into a ditch, where they remained until dark, when they escaped back to Zólkiew.
Another escape, which did not quite succeed, was by a Jew from Piaski who had arrived in March 1942, and was part of the team in the area of the gas chamber. This Jew, no doubt horrified at the scene around him, suddenly broke away, forced himself through the surrounding barbed-wire fencing, and ran off. Quickly hunted down, he was brought back to the camp and shot.
During the round-up of Jews in Zamosæ on Apri 11, the Welsztein family, including their 18-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, were transported to Belzec. When the welcoming speech had been made, the SS-guard instructed them to undress, whereupon the Zamosæ Jews spat and cursed the camp SS. Fearing a riot, the SS fired into the crowd. Taking advantage of the commotion, the boy fled to the latrine where he hid until darkness and then escaped. Two days later, on April 13, 1942, the boy returned to Zamosæ, where he told the Judenrat what he had seen. During the few hours he was hiding in the camp, he had seen how the gassings were carried out.
Another escape from the latrine in Belzec was by a dentist from Kraków named Bachner. In June 1942, Bachner was part of a large transport of several thousand Jews from Kraków. In the reception yard, Bachner also hid in the latrine cesspit. Immersed up to his neck in human waste swarming with flies, he remained there for two days before escaping from the camp. After two weeks, he returned to the Kraków ghetto where he told the Judenrat of what he had seen. There is no record of what happened to Bachner after his return, but one of the indictments against Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszów camp, was the shooting of the Bachner family in Plaszòw in 1943.
In October 1942, the rabbi of Blazowa, Israel Spira was transported from Janowska to Belzec and was fortunate to be selected for the clothing work brigade at the old locomotive shed. After a few days, he attached himself to the escort taking a trainload of clothing back to the Janowska camp. In Janowska, Rabbi Spira (much like Reder) detached himself from the escort and mingled with the other Jews. When he loitered near a coffee stall, he was recognized by other Jews, who protected him. Rabbi Spira survived Janowska and subsequent deportations to Belzec. His wife, Pearl, was murdered in Belzec on October 18,1942.
There were three other escapes. They included that by Rudolf Reder, who had escaped by stealth while in Lvov under guard collecting building materials; and Chaim Hirszman and Sylko Herc, two members of the last 'death brigade,' who escaped from the transport taking them to Sobibór for execution. Hirszman returned to Lublin, where he joined a Communist partisan unit. He was subsequently recruited by the Soviet NKVD and reappeared in Lublin after the liberation working for the Russians. On March 19, 1946 in Lublin, Hirszman testified before a War Crimes Investigation Commission n the District Court.That same day he was murdered in his home by members of a Polish right-wing anti-Semitic organization. It is not know what happened to Herc.
Two other known escapes, again by stealth, included the five year-old child of Sara Ritterbrand (nee Beer). Sara had arrived in Belzec on an early transport from Lvov. Her brother was a baker living in Belzec under a false Aryan identity and part of his work was delivering bread to the camp. On an unknown date, he removed his niece from the camp in his breadbasket and gave her into the care of a local Ukrainian family, who protected her throughout the war period. He was arrested by the SS and shot in the presence of his sister Sara in the camp. Sara was one of the thirty Jewesses working in the camp laundry and the last to be removed from Belzec. When the war ended, she returned to Belzec village and was reunited with her daughter.
The only other record, not verified, comes from a Jew named Sanio Ferber, who was employed in one of the SS workshops in Lvov. He testified after the war:
Towards the end of December 1942, there came to our workshop a young dentist (not Bachner, above) whose name I do not recall He told us that he had escaped from Belzec. This dentist was in Belzec for three months as part of the work brigade who removed the gold teeth from the victims.
By the end of 1946, only six Jews from the Belzec camp were still alive, of whom four subsequently emigrated to Israel. Rudolf Reder, who changed his name to Roman Robak, went to Canada, via Israel, and was the only witness at the Belzec pretrial hearings in Munich 1963-64; Chaim Hirszman was murdered in Lublin.
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