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By Robin O'Neil

My estimates of those killed in Belzec is 800,000, but we will never know the exact numbers. For sure, in my opinion Belzec was perhaps the worst of all camps (including Auschwitz). The general notion that Auschwitz had the central role in the killings, is in my view, only true with regard to Western perceptions, and would be even less significant were it not for the Hungarian transports of 1944. Auschwitz has become the symbol of utter inhumanity in historical terms. That role would be more accurately assigned to the `Reinhard` camps, particularly Belzec.

Belzec was the laboratory for murder which was carried out in the main by civilians and German police officers drafted into the euthanasia program (T4) who were then dressed up in SS uniforms. They were not SS as we know the term. They were bogus SS-Scharfuhrers given the rank and uniform by default.

Escapes from Belzec

Very few Jews escaped from Belzec. Only two lived to tell the tale in court (Rudolf Reder and Chaim Herszman). After the war Reder went to live in Canada but came back to Germany to give evidence in the Belzec trial. Out of the nine SS, only one (Oberhauser), was convicted of crimes committed at Belzec (in Lanzmann`s film `Shoah`, Lanzmann interviews Oberhauser in a Munich beer hall.

Reder is the author of the best account and the most important of what happened in Belzec. His book, "Belzec," was published 1946 in Krakow (in Polish).

Those others that managed to escape were very often caught shortly after and immediately shot. If they were more fortunate and managed to return to their communities, they were either caught-up in the next round- up and found themselves back in Belzec, or befell some other action.

The first recorded escape from inside the camp was by a young lad, about 17 years old, who came into Belzec on a road transport from Lubycza Krolewska in February, 1942. He was one of a group of Jews rounded-up to work in the final construction of the camp. After his escape, the boy met the village blacksmith and related his story:

One Jew from this group told me that he had been employed for a few days in the camp cutting down trees. A few days later, these Jews were taken into a barrack while the boy hid himself and later escaped. While he was in hiding he heard how the Jews locked inside the barrack had cried out for several seconds. I heard that this Jew who escaped was later re-captured by the Germans and shot.

The second recorded escape from Belzec, as it happened, was from one of the first transports that arrived from the town of Zolkiew in March, 1942: two women, Mina Astman and Malka Talenfeld, had taken advantage of the inexperience and confusion in the early transports and secreted themselves in a ditch and waited. During the night they crept through the perimeter wire and made their way back home to Zolkiew where they reported what they had seen.

Another escape that didn't quite succeed was by a Jew fromPiaski who arrived in March, 1942, and was part of the Sondokommando in the gas chamber area. This Jew, no doubt horrified at the scene around him, suddenly broke away and forced himself through the surrounding barbed-wire fencing and ran off. He was quickly hunted down, brought back to the camp and shot.

On the 11 April, 1942, in Zamosc, the Welsztein family, including their 18 year-old daughter and 13 year-old son were transported to Belzec. 2 days later, on 13 April, 1942, the boy returned to Zamosc where he told the Judenrat what he had seen:

The journey in the terribly overcrowded wagons to Belzec - 44 km. from Zamosc - lasted the whole night. On Sunday morning they arrived. After unloading they were arranged in 4 rows - men and women separated -whereupon some sort of SS officer gave a speech that they were to be resettled in the east and because of this they had to take a bath and be disinfected. It was necessary for them to undress and then they were requested to hand over their valuables before being taken to the barracks. At this moment, the boy had the idea of hiding in the communal latrines, where he sat in the pit until evening. He then fled from the camp and hid with a local peasant who helped him and showed him the way to Zamosc. During the few hours he was hiding in the camp he saw how the doors in another barrack opened onto a ramp and SS-men as well as 50-60 young Jews who had probably been chosen earlier, took away naked corpses on dumper trucks.

Another escape was from the latrine in Belzec by a dentist from Krakow in June, 1942. Bachner was part of a large transport from Krakow of several thousand Jews. At the assembly point, Bachner hid in the latrine waste pit. Up to his eyes in human waste and flies, he remained there for two days before escaping from the camp. After two weeks he returned to the Krakow 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 (Commandant of Plaszow) was the shooting of the family Bachner in Plaszow in 1943.

Three other escapes which have already been discussed were of course, Rudolf Reder, who escaped by stealth when he was taken to Lvov to collect building materials, and Chaim Hirszman, one of the last prisoners in Belzec, who with over 300 other work-Jews were taken to Sobibor where they were shot on arrival. Hirszman broke out of the transport wagon and survived the war. On 19 March 1946, the day after Hirszman had given evidence to the Jewish Historical Commission in Lublin he was shot down by anti-semites believed to be the AKW (Armia Krakowa).

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 kommando. After a few days he attached himself to the escort that was taking a train load 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 recognised by other Jews who protected him. Rabbi Spira survived Janowska and subsequent deportations to Belzec. His wife, Pearl, was murdered in Belzec 18 October, 1942.

The only other known escape was again by stealth: the 4 year-old child of Sara Ritterbrand who was spirited away in a bread basket by her uncle (Sarah's brother living in Belzec as an aryan) from the camp. Hewas later caught and shot in the presence of Sarah. The child survived in the care of local Ukrainians until after the war. Sarah survived and returned to Belzec after the war and was re-united with her daughter , The child grew up, married, and now lives in Israel with children of her own.

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