One of the most fundamental and controversial issues in the history of the Belzec death camp is the imprecise number of its victims. The exact numbers of Jews who were killed in Belzec will never be fully established because the decisions and facts relating to the extermination were rarely committed to paper. History has not been served because of the obliteration of all traces of the camp in 1943 and in addition, standing orders from the Reichsführer SS for evidential destruction.
The catchment area for deportations to Belzec was extensive. Deportation trains to the camp arrived from the towns and villages of Chrzanów and Zywiec in the west to Tarnopol in the east; from Kraków and Bochnia in the west to Kolomyja and Stanislawów in the south; from the environs of Lublin and cities of Western Europe. Belzec engulfed entire communities and was the beginning of the final chapter in the 1,000 years of Jewish history in Europe.
Although focus has been directed on Belzec, I have also touched on resettlement transports to Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, and Auschwitz. Sobibor is of particular interest, being geographically close to Belzec and often used as the main back-up murder site.
In view of the genocide perpetrated in the death camps, it is not surprising that the Nazis made extraordinary efforts to cover-up their crimes and destroy the evidence. Aside from the destruction of corpses in the mass graves, the Reichsführer-SS, Himmler, also ordered the destruction of all documentation that might become a source of information concerning Reinhardt and the RSHA. The 'destruction order' was no doubt issued to evade all legal or moral accountability in the event of Germany losing the war. According to Rudolf Hoess, reassigned in the meantime from Auschwitz to head Amt D1 of the RSHA, orders went out to senior police commanders and Globocnik for the destruction of all records connected with the activities of Reinhardt.
Nevertheless, despite the attempted cover-ups, some documentary evidence did survive, if only of secondary importance. No Nazi documents of significance survived with regard to Belzec, except, that is, a recently discovered German Police Decodes declassified by the British government in 1997. This intercepted radio telegram ('the document') is in two parts marked 'Geheime Reichssache' ('Secret State Matter), radio messages from Lublin, General Government, dated, January 11, 1943. The communication, sent by the executive head of Reinhardt, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, from the Reinhardt headquarters in Lublin, gives in the first part a statistical return of the 'total' number of victims received in Reinhardt camps for a two-week period and, the second part of the communication, gives the total number of victims who entered the individual death camps, including Majdanek. This importance of this 'document' should not be underestimated. In the absence of any other German documentary evidence, it must be considered of some historical importance and taken into consideration in any future reassessment of the numbers of victims.
The post-war investigations carried out by the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland had much difficulty in establishing the Belzec chronology due to this absence of documentation. The only other Nazi statistical documentation dealing with numbers and appearing reasonably reliable is the Korherr Report of 1943 specifically dealing with Reinhardt and the Katzmann Report (referred to previously) to HSSPF Krüger on June 30, 1943, in which he mentions the census of 1931. This census counted 502,000 Jews in Galicia (Lvov alone had a population of 160,000 Jews). SSPF Katzmann also took great pride in and boasted about the murder of 434,329 Jews. He emphasized the mood and spirit of his men and the great burden they had to endure during these extraordinary 'operations', which were commendable. ("Er herausstrich mit dem Mord von 434, 329 Juden, und betonte die Stimmung und Geist seiner Männer, und der Last, den seine Männer während dieser aussergewöhnlichen Handlungen aushalten mussten, war empfehlenswert.)
These statistics, however, do not focus on Belzec per se; the best source of evidence comes from employees of the railway network at the time when the transports were flowing into Belzec. From their testimonies, the numbers of transports and their frequency into Belzec created a pattern of systematic destruction. It is from the Polish rail employees, particularly the locomotive drivers who drove the trains into the death camps, that assessments have been drawn. Although German train crews took over the transports for the final entry into the camp, Polish railway men were able to observe from the periphery, and very occasionally gained access to the camp where they noted numbers and procedures. Railway freight listings of the Ostbahn were an essential record whereby the railway authorities claimed payment for the transports from the SS. The railway authorities were concerned that payments for these 'special transports' were not being made according to the SS contract and consequently admonished their staff and instructed them to record independently all movements of 'special freight.'
The railway authorities, therefore, became an important source for reconstructing a picture of the deportations. Evidence from the perpetrators, T4 and guard personnel, who were indicted and prosecuted after the war was also useful but should be assessed with great care.
Jews from the Galician District deported to the Reinhardt camps were not registered but were killed en-mass immediately after arrival and, as far as can be established, no lists or camp correspondence have survived. It is improbable that no records were kept of the deportations, as normally a weekly return of numbers was sent to the HHE. The Witte/Tyas 'New Document' suggests just this. Thus, although numbers were indeed counted-off at the place of departure, e.g., Kolomyja 8,205, there is no evidence to show that on entry into Belzec a further calculation was made apart from the records kept during the exhumation and cremation operation. Even then, the uncertainty of true calculations has been demonstrated by the archaeological investigations during which some of the mass graves located contained bodies in wax fat transformation (usually at the bottom part of the ditches), over which there are layers of human ashes and charcoal. Some complete bodies were, therefore, overlooked by the burning brigade.
The only certainty is that Jews entering the camps were not afforded the luxury of a personal identity or selection, as practiced in Auschwitz and elsewhere. We are on much firmer ground when assessing numbers deported from European cities, as lists compiled by convoy commanders at embarkation were sent to the camp political division at the RSHA. Outside of the General Government, death transports were not usually designated to a particular death camp but to transit camps (Izbica and Piaski, etc), before joining the queue for Belzec, Sobibor, or Treblinka. In the main, Jewry from the Galician District went directly to Belzec; it was only later that some transports were directed to the transit camps.
In Majdanek it took several days to murder a thousand Jews, in Chelmno, they could murder 1,000 a day; in the Reinhardt death camps, 10,000 on average were murdered every day at each camp!
The pure death camps and their areas of operation for Jewish 'resettlement' transports within the General Government and annexed areas consisted of Chelmno-on-Ner (Warthegau), Belzec (Lublin District and Galicia), Sobibor (Lublin District), Treblinka (Warsaw/Radom Districts), and Maly Trostinets, near Minsk (not a Reinhardt camp). All these camps were located close to major rail communications; to say these camps were all isolated and camouflaged is not strictly correct. Chelmno, Belzec, and Sobibor were very close to village communities; Belzec and Chelmno were adjacent to the local community and the comings and goings of Jewish transports were the topic of local gossip. When this was realized, the Nazis reorganised both the mode of transport and resettlement actions so that they would be out of public view. Belzec was adjacent to the railway station and directly opposite village dwellings. But again, like Chelmno, the camp was the within sight and walking distance of the local population. Treblinka was isolated, tucked away in deep woodland and away from prying eyes but only a kilometer from the village of Wolka Okr¹glik, Chelmno and Maly Trostinets are set apart as individual death camps as they used gas vans for their murderous work.
The hybrid concentration camps, which combined labor and mass murder-- such as Auschwitz and to a lesser extent Majdanek-- had gassing facilities and were used for the same purpose. The camps of Janowska (Lvov), Plaszow (Krakow), Poniatowa and Trawniki (Lublin), although designated concentrations camps, had facilities for mass shootings only. The inclusion of these concentration camps acted as overflow capacity to the pure death camps. When it was decided in July 1942 that all Jews, regardless of labor requirements, were to receive 'special treatment,' every facility available was used for this purpose.
Auschwitz concentration camp became the main center of murder for Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and Soviet citizens throughout the war (1940 - 1945). The Reinhardt death camps were used specifically for solving the 'Jewish Question' and when they closed down, Auschwitz remained the main center where mass extermination by gassing was carried out, mainly for the elimination of the remaining Jews in the General Government as well as Jews destined for 'special treatment' from outside the Reich, particularly Hungary and the Lodz ghetto.
Immediately after the war, the various commissions investigating the number of victims murdered in the death camps could only estimate the numbers, which were based on an average of 100 persons to each wagon. If, for example, we take the Kolomyja transport of September 10,1942, we know that 51 freight wagons were made available and that 8,205 victims were counted-off, with so many to a wagon an average of 165. The Bill of Lading says just this, which is corroborated by the security personnel who loaded and escorted the train from Kolomyja to Belzec. The original reports submitted by the escorting security personnel of the Kolomyja transport have survived for scrutiny. Even so, apart from this written evidence, we have no other documentation from the railway authorities to verify or corroborate this. To add to the difficulties for any analysis, Belzec railway station was blown up and all records destroyed in July 1944, when a lone Soviet aircraft dropped a single bomb on an ammunition train parked in the railway sidings.
The estimation of the Polish War Crimes Investigation Commission of 100 persons per wagon arriving at Belzec is, if anything, not too high but too low. Taking into account all the available evidence from witnesses and from all sides, we arrive at a much higher average of persons per wagon. As Belzec was primarily for Galician Jews, we may perhaps downgrade the importance of the larger western freight wagons. The important factor here, of course, was that other European Jews were brought to Belzec, either in wagons or in passenger coaches, unlike the Galician Jews who only came in wagons crammed to capacity. The higher numbers in these wagons may be attributed to a number of factors: many children clinging close between the knees of their parents and the emaciated condition of the adults, thus making room for more victims. For Galician Jewry, there is no reason to think that other transports did not exceed the nominal average calculated by others.
A final complication when tracing 'special transports' to their ultimate destination was the fact that the transit ghettos (except Piaski and Izbica) were destroyed when the last Jews left. Beyond these transit ghettos in the Lublin District, major towns in Galicia, such as Kolomyja, Stanislawów, etc., were used as central collecting points for surrounding areas. The lack of information regarding smaller communities is mainly due to the Nazi policy of removing populations of less than 500 people to the nearest larger town. Yad Vashem has compounded these difficulties by deciding not to register Jewish communities of less than 500. In my view, for the historian and other interested parties, this was a major historical blunder.
According to the evidence given to the Polish War Crimes Commission by Alojzy Berezowski, the Polish stationmaster at Belzec, the camp opened in mid-March 1942 and ran continuously, except for part of May and June (reconstruction period), until October 1942. From then on, he states there was a gradual reduction in transport activity. During the resettlement period from March to October 1942, one to three transports arrived in Belzec daily, averaging 40 wagons per transport and 100 persons per wagon. From October 1942, the transports were cut to one or two per week until finally they ceased in early December.
Each transport was between 15 and 60 wagons. In the second phase, starting July, there are reports of 70-80 wagons. Some of the wagons had the number of victims transported marked in chalk on the outside, which varied from 100 - 130. The witness Berezowski stated to the Commission that railway deportation documents were handed over by the escorting security supervisor to Rudolf Gockel, the German stationmaster on duty at Belzec. However, it sometimes happened that they were given to a member of the Polish railway staff, so it was occasionally possible to obtain accurate information about the number of people and wagons entering the camp.
Based on this information, the Commission concluded: from March 18 to the beginning of May, and from the beginning of July to the end of September 1942 (for a period of 133 days), one transport of 4,000 people (40 wagons with a 100 people each) arrived at the camp each daythat is, 530,000 people during the period mid-March to December 1942. In the final stage of the murder operation, at least two transports per day entered the camp.
Taking into consideration all the evidence available to them at that time (1945-46), the Commission concluded that the total number of victims murdered in the Belzec death camp was not less than 600,000 people. Other estimates acquired from a number of sources can only be guesses or assumptions and they vary considerably between half a million to two million: the Pole Eustachy Ukrainski concludes 1,800,000; Ludwik Obalak ,1,500,000; the Polish stationmaster, Alojzy Berezowski , 1,000,000; Chaim Hirszman, 800,000 between October and December 1942, all of which, according to Michael Tregenza, are wild exaggerations. It was even claimed that Wirth had received a 'millions medal .Basing his conclusions on his own research and that of the archaeological investigations,Tregenza suggests that possibly a million Jews died in Belzec over a nine-month period. However, Tregenza now amends his conclusions to the more realistic figure of about 534,500. Eugeniusz Szrojt concludes 600,000 victims. Raul Hilberg concludes 550,000. Yitzhak Arad concluded from published sources 414,000, but estimated 600,000 as the actual lowest figure. My own estimates were loosely concluded at 800,000 but eventually, due to the lack of clear evidence, I fell back on the Report of the Polish War Crimes Investigation Commission and abandoned the 'numbers task' as unachievable. My advice: to dabble with specific Holocaust numbers should be avoided at all costs.
The Witte/Tyas analysis is supported by the findings of Wolfgang Scheffler, who estimated 441,442 victims from identified towns and villages in the General Government and Galicia, but did not take into account the 100,000 foreign Jews or other unknown transports. This unknown transports should not be dismissed lightly and may, therefore, come into direct conflict with the definitive numbers in the Hofle telegramm statistics, which specifically refer to transports from the General Government, including Galicia.
When the Polish scholar Franciszek Piper calculated the numbers killed in Auschwitz, he was on much firmer ground; he was able to draw on numerous sources where lists of deportees were made. These were either destined for Auschwitz from elsewhere, or were transferred from Auschwitz. This documentation survived the war and enabled Piper (and researchers before him) to arrive at reasonably accurate conclusions.
An overview of the deportations for Belzec shows that during a matter of selected days, complete geographical pockets of Jewish communities were targeted and transported. For example, we see that Stryj and district were 'actioned' on September 5-6, followed consecutively by Kolomyja and district between the September 7-10,1942. Office-bound bureaucrats had devised a coordinated, systematic method of destruction. There is one indisputable fact: although we may never know the exact numbers, the tragedy of the genocide is not in dispute.
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