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.
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. 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.
Throughout February and March 1942, before the main onslaught of mass gassings got underway, 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.)
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. On other occasions when he was supervising young boys and one became tired, he would send him to the 'hospital' for a bullet. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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 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. On April 2, 1942, the head of the Sipo-SD office in Kolomyja, SS-Hauptsturmführer Peter Leideritz,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. 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.
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.
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), where 100 fit Jews were off-loaded and replaced by 100 naked, unemployable Jews. 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.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. 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.
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. 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.
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