In late October 1941, SS-Hauptsturmführer Richard Thomalla, 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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.Kozak, who gave evidence to the Polish Commission of Enquiry after the war, also has given a detailed account of the construction of Belzec:
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.
|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.
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.
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.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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Shortly after, on another occasion when he visited the camp, he saw piles of discarded clothes being sorted by Ukrainians and Jews.
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. 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.
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