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East European Jewish Affairs

ISSN: 1350-1674 (Print) 1743-971X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/feej20

Belzecthe forgotten death camp


Robin O'Neil
To cite this article: Robin O'Neil (1998) Belzecthe forgotten death camp, East European
Jewish Affairs, 28:2, 49-62, DOI: 10.1080/13501679808577880
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13501679808577880

Published online: 19 Jun 2008.

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Date: 26 September 2016, At: 18:36

ROBIN O'NEIL

Belzecthe 'Forgotten' Death Camp

n 12-25 October 1997 and 28 April-4 June 1998 archaeological investigations were carried out at the site of the former Nazi extermination
camp in Belzec. A third investigation is planned for April 1999.
The principal investigators were a team from the Nicholas Copernicus
University of Toruri. The team was led by Professor Andrzej Kola, Director of the Underwater Archaeological Department of the University of
Torun, and Professor Mieczystaw Gora, Senior Curator of the Museum of
Archaeology and Ethnology in Lodz and site supervisor. They were assisted by the surveyors Dr Ryszard Kazmierczak, Wojciech Azuita and
Zbigniew Wieczorkowski, by Michael Tregenza and by the author of this
article. In addition, twelve unemployed men from the village of Belzec were
employed for labour purposes. Essential to the project was the co-operation between the Polish government and the Holocaust Memorial Museum
in Washington DC, represented by its associate director, Jacek Nowakowski.
The aim of the investigations was to upgrade the memorial site, which, having been neglected for many years, was strewn with rubbish and used by
the local populace for all manner of social activity. The protracted investigations of the Betzec extermination camp are by their nature a harrowing
experience. The survey affected each and every one of the investigating team,
and only by mutual consideration and understanding were we able to complete the investigation.
The village of Belzec sits quietly on the main road between the town
of Tomaszow Lubelski, seven kilometres to the north on the road to Zamocs,
and the border crossing at Hrebenna, thirteen kilometres to the south on
the road to Lvov and points east, west to Cracow and points north to Lublin
and Warsaw.
In many ways Belzec is the 'forgotten' death camp. Moreover, it was
unique within Operation Reinhard. It was the first of the three major death
campsthe others were Sobibor and Treblinkato be built on the eastern
/ wish to acknowledge with gratitude the help given to me personally by the Torun team of
investigators; Ben Helfgott for financial assistance; Professor John Klier, University College
London, for financial assistance and supervisory support; and Sir Martin Gilbert for his continuing help and advice throughout this investigation.
EAST EUROPEAN JEWISH AFFAIRS, vol. 28, no. 2,1998-9/1350-1674/49-62

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Betzec Death Camp

borders and very much an experimental camp. Belzec was the catchment
area for the Jewish population of Galicia, reaching out to communities as
far south as Horodenka, west to Skawina and Cracow and north to Lublin.
Jews were transported to Belzec from over 440 towns on a daily basis between March and December 1942.
By the time the first buildings had been erected at Belzec, in Novem-.
ber 1941, the framework of destruction was already in operation on a massive scale in all areas under German control. Lithuanian Jewry had already
been decimated and the Jews of Stanislawow and Dnepropetrovsk were already facing the death pits, 10,000 at a time under the gaze of SSHauptsturmfiihrer Hans Kruger. On 12 October 1942 20,000 Jewish
inhabitants of Stanisfawow were herded into the town's Jewish cemetery,
where two large pits had already been prepared. Shooting continued all day
into the late evening. Having shot between 10-12,000 that day, Kruger sent
the remaining 10,000 home: as darkness fell it was becoming too dangerous
for his own menbullets were flying everywhere. I would argue that this
action marked the beginning of the 'Final Solution' in the
Generalgouvernement, which was at that time under Reich law. In their
twisted sense of 'order', the authorities responsible for the massacres were
sending invoices to thejudenrat for the cost of the bullets which were slaughtering their communities. This was the situation when the first barracks
were constructed at Belzec and the building materials for Sobibor and
Treblinka were cluttering the eastern railway sidings before being transported further up the line to Sobibor and Treblinka.
Belzec extermination camp was operational for the transportation of
Jews from March to December 1942. Between November-1942 and March
1943 the mass graves were exhumed and burnt at a rate of over 2,000 corpses
per day in a frantic attempt to conceal the evidence. For this purpose, a
special 'death brigade' was formed of over 150 Jews who worked from dawn
to dusk closely supervised by the SS. The end of March 1943 saw the removal of all buildings, watchtowers and fences, and every sign of the camp's
existence was obliterated. The final action was the removal of over 300 Jews
used for labour purposes to Sobibor, where they were shot on arrival. Only
one man survived this journeyChaim Herszman.
Today, Belzec camp has changed little since its dismantling in the spring
of 1943 and the area has returned to natural woodland. Photographs of the
site taken in 1945 show a barren hillside dotted with fir trees. The walkway
used by the Belzec villagers since the turn of the century as a short cut to
the village over the hill is clearly visible on the photographs. This is how the
site must have appeared to the Nazis in 1940.
In October 1945 a Polish War Crimes Investigation Committee investigated the crimes committed at Belzec. The Commission excavated nine
mass graves and confirmed the existence of thousands of human remains
that had been cremated and bone particles that had been ground into small
pieces. The conclusion of the Commission, taking into account the evidence

R. O'NEIL

51

at their disposal, was that approximately 535,000 people had died at Belzec.
This figure was later rounded up to 600,000. We will never know the precise
number of Jews murdered in Betzec but recent research indicates a far larger
number were exterminatedpossibly as many as 800,000. The Commission's figures were arrived at according to the formula of 100 per wagon and
forty wagons per resettlement transport. We know now, for example, that
during the height of the transports to Belzec many of the transports contained up to 200 Jews per wagon and a total of fifty-sixty wagons was not
unusual. The Kolomyja transport of 10 September 1942, for instance, comprised fifty-one wagons each containing 180-200 Jews.
In May 1961 the Council for the Protection of Monuments declared
the site a place of martyrdom and remembrance. A monument was erected
and the site was fenced. It is as we see it today.
The on-site investigation of October 1997 corroborated the Commission's 1945 enquiry and prepared the way for the more intensive investigation which was carried out by the same team in April-June 1998.
Documentary source materials utilized by the investigators
(a) 'Belzec extermination camp'two maps by Rudolf Reder. Reder,
a survivor of Belzec, is the author of a number of publications which provide crucial information on the working procedures in the camp. The maps
in Reder's publications were, in fact, drawn by Joseph Bau, a survivor of the
Cracow ghetto, from information supplied by Reder.
(b) Map no. 742, folio 27a plan of the area prepared by the Lublin
Region Surveyor's office in Zamocs.
(c) Luftwaffe aerial photographs dated 1944 (Air Force Library, National Archive, Washington DC).
(d) Documentation obtained in October 1945 by the Main Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against the Polish Nation/Institute of
National Memory, Warsaw.
Methodology of excavations
1. Measuring with surveying instruments at 5-metre intervals was carried out over the entire area of the designated site. Working in accordance
with maps as described, the camp area was progressively covered during
both excavation periods.
2. Each point of measurement received an individual consecutive identification reference. Over 1,700 bore-holes were made during both periods
of excavation and each penetration catalogued, showing the results of soil
analysis either on the spot or by further analysis in the laboratory.

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Betzec Death Camp

3. 18 inch pointed wooden stakes were used as markers for boring


locations.
4. Investigators were divided into three teams, each team recording
data as each soil sample was withdrawn and examined.
5. Positive and negative samples at varying depths were recorded and
replaced or sealed in sample containers for analysis. Rabbinical authorities
advised that it was important to replace the soil samples in the exact drilling
locations.
Drilling procedures
Detachable drill bits made of hard steel were sharpened each morning by
the operating teams. Metal joining rods of 1 metre sections were then attached and drilling commenced at the pre-indicated location point. A turning rod was attached, enabling two operators to drill to a depth of 1 metre.
The drill was withdrawn, the soil sample extracted and the bit attachment
examined. Findings were immediately recorded by the supervisor. An extension rod was then attached and the same procedure commenced to a
depth (when positive) of up to 6 metres. When the rods were withdrawn at
this depth they sometimes extended to the tree tops. The local labour, who
did all the drilling work, became very efficient and, at the conclusion of the
first investigation period, were able to determine between positive and negative findings with some precision.
Observations, 12-25 October 1997
Work commenced on undisturbed land at the south-east section of the camp.
Professor Gora, a highly experienced investigator who had previously investigated similar sites at Katyn and Kharkov, detetermined where operations should commence. He proved to be correct: five mass graves were
located, the largest measuring 36 metres x 18 metres and 6 metres deep. Two
of the graves contained unburned, naked human corpses beneath a layer of
water at 3-4 metres below ground. At varying depths, burnt human ash,
burnt wood, crushed pieces of human bone and skull bone with hair attached were found. At the extremity of the drilling at one grave, several
centimetres of burnt human fat (easily identified when mixed with yellow
sand) were found. Three of the graves contained a mixture of ash, carbonized wood and crushed bone. One grave was so packed that the drill could
not penetrate lower than 3 metres.
A grave measuring 5 metres x 5 metres x 2 metres deep located adjacent to the east boundary fence was found to contain both spent and live
rounds of German and Soviet manufacture. This site is believed to be the
location of the bogus Lazaret (military field hospital), where old and sick
Jews were executed immediately the main transport had arrived at the gas
chambers.

R. O'NEIL

53

We have no precise description of the Beizec Lazaret, but it appears


to have resembled similar facilities in the Sobibor and Treblinka camps. In
Sobibor and Treblinka the Lazaret was surrounded by a tall barbed-wire
fence, camouflaged with brushwood. Within this area, which could be
reached by way of an entrance on the side facing the train platform (at Beizec,
the ramp), there was a large ditch which served as a mass grave. The soil was
excavated from this ditch and piled up to form a mound approximately 1
metre high, directly on the right-hand longitudinal side of the ditch. A flame
burned continuously to destroy the corpses. The Lazaret area also contained a small booth which served as a shelter for the operators in bad
weather. In Sobibor (and there is no reason to think that Beizec differed)
the old and sick Jews were brought to this area where they were killed by
shooting in the back of the neck by the German or Ukrainian executioners.
Kapos, often wearing a doctor's surgical gown or Red Cross arm bands,
were frequently assigned to this area to comfort the victims and conceal
what was about to occur. These devices were, of course, a well-trodden
means of deception.
Preliminary excavations were carried out where, it is believed, locomotives bringing the wagons and human cargo to the ramp area terminated
to off-load and return to bring more wagons into the camp. The ramp area
could accommodate only twenty wagons at a time. For security reasons,
the main camp gate, the location of which has not been determined, was
closed after each transport entered the camp. Four 3 metre-long excavations were made here. Soil samples taken from this location show a high
concentration of engineering oil, which suggests that this was the end of the
track and the location of the ramp. Also found here were traces of heavy
beams and planks which may have been used to support the ramp area. My
colleague Michael Tregenza has drawn a reconstruction of the camp area.
He carried out a similar exercise in regard to the gassing barracks. Although
these were not found, we believe they were located in the first period (MarchJune 1942) at the lower camp adjacent to the railway line and, in the second
period (July-December 1942), at the location of the present monument.
A number of artefacts were found in the lower camp area with the use
of metal detectors. The most interesting item found is a silver cigarette case
bearing the inscription 'Max Munk' and an address in Vienna. This find
points to the first real evidence that Jews from Vienna were transported to
Beizec. When I circulated the basic information via electronic mail (HHolocaust@H-Net.MSU.Edu), I was informed by Peter Witte (p.witte@tonline.de) that Max Munk might be identical to a man born in Vienna in
1882 who was taken from Prague to Theresienstadt on 17 December 1941
on transport 'N', then deported from Theresienstadt to Piaski on transport
'Ag' on 1 April 1942. Peter Witte's information makes sense as we know
that the Piaski transit ghetto was cleared about 11 November 1942, when
transports from Piaski were sent to Sobibor and Beizec. He has since informed me that there were Munks on a transport from Vienna to Izbica on

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Betzec Death Camp

12 June 1942.1 have now traced a rabbi (born in Vienna) within the orthodox community in the Stamford Hill area of north London who knew a
Max Munk in Vienna who was indeed transported to Theresienstadt. In
due course, it may be possible to link the cigarette case in Beizec to a surviving relative.
Second survey period, 28 April-4 June 1998
The second survey period was led by the same team, who adopted the same
methodology and procedures as previously. A total of 1,300 bore-holes were
drilled at 5-metre intervals covering the entire area of the present-day camp
designation. A further twenty-seven mass graves were located and their dimensions and contents recorded. The symbolic memorial tombs located
and numbered 1-4 on the north boundary fence and believed to be sites of
mass graves proved to be such with the exception of memorial no. 2, where
no evidence of a mass grave was found. On the northern location of the
camp we found the majority of the graves, the largest measuring 70 metres
x 20 (possibly 30) metres x 6 metres deep (grave no.14 on the mapsee
Appendix) which extended beyond the fence into an adjacent timber yard.
The graves varied in size from one location to the other. Some were Lshaped, others T-shaped. Most were rectangular. Each bore-hole, as mentioned above, was individually logged and, when placed together, they
showed a distinct individuality. Most sloped inwards due to the nature of
the sandy soil. It has been well documented that a mechanical digger was
used in the excavations. We were also able to determine by the presence of
lime in the soil samples that the graves on the north side (the majority)
dated from the initial period of the camp's existence. In the unusually warm
spring of 1942 the camp administrators experienced difficulties with overflowing and decomposing bodies, the smell of which was reeking havoc
with the local community and civil authorities. Lime was brought into Beizec
in an effort to overcome these complaints.
The grave area surveyed in the first period proved to be the last mass
graves dug. In two of these graves the bodies had not been exhumed and
burnt as per the Himmler directive of 1942. How many bodies remain in
diese two graves is difficult to establish. To be sure, there are many thousands.
Building structures
During our survey, four camp structures were exposed. Three of the sites,
excavated to a depth of 3 metres, revealed burnt structures, possibly at the
location of the 'death brigade' barracks by the gas chambers and grave area
(there was a clear separating line between the day-to-day working and reception areas of Beizec and the killing and grave areas). Outer walls and
wooden support posts were exposed. All three barracks contained a concrete cellar area. The two barracks in the upper camp (killing area) were
constructed of wood. During the investigation period, there were a number
of instances of damage to the exposed sites. The heavy metal door at the

R. O'NEIL

55

side of the monument was forced open and the concrete flooring penetrated,
no doubt in a search for valuables. The exposed building sites which we left
open as an exhibit were also vandalized. Holes were dug into the sides of
the excavation, again presumably in a search for valuables. These acts were
doubtless committed by local peoplenot a good omen for the future upgrading of the memorial site. The barrack exposed in the lower camp was of
a brick construction. It was in this site that a number of human bones, skulls
and similar material were found. These appear to be the remains of several
people who were shot on site and their bodies dumped in the process of
filling in the building plot when the barrack was destroyed. The remains
were preserved, filmed and photographed. On the last day of the survey we
re-buried the remains in mass grave no.l of the first survey period. We did
what we thought was rightwe cleaned the remains before reburial. As it
turns out, we ought to have re-buried the remains untouched. We were
admonished by Rabbi Michael Shudrich from Warsaw, who recited the Jewish prayer for the dead over the burial site. A fourth building was exposed
near the western corner of the camp, suggesting that this building housed
the generator.
When the camp was built, in winter 1941-2, electricity was relayed
from the Belzec railway station. Following the expansion of the camp and
the completion of the second gassing barracks in early June 1942, the camp
became self-sufficient with its own generator. The excavated site is believed
to be that location.
Further traces of wooden barracks located beyond the southern boundary probably indicate the site of the Ukrainian barracks and undressing
buildings. We found no trace of the gassing barracks dating from either the
first or second phase of the camp's construction. This did not surprise us
since every effort would have been made to remove any sign of the camp's
central feature.
Summary
1. Over 300 artefacts considered 'very interesting' were recorded. A further
300 'interesting' artefacts were recorded.
2. The research we conducted revealed the true nature and purpose of the
Belzec extermination camp.
3. Photographic and video recordings of day-to-day activities were made.
The author of this article was responsible for preparing an audio-visual record
of the work and findings of the survey.
4. A (sample) inventory of objects unearthed was made (see below).
5. A map detailing the findings of thirty-three mass graves was drawn.
6. A daily diary (amounting to 20,000 words) of activities was kept.

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Betzec Death Camp

Conclusions
1. The failure to locate the gassing barracks belonging to the first and second phases is not surprising since, as we have said, considerable effort would
have been made to destroy the principal instrument of genocide. The gassing barracks of the first phase (March-June 1942) were of a wooden rectangular structure and measured 12 metres x 8 metres x 2 metres in height
and were built on a raised concrete structure. The roof was pitched and
covered with tar paper. The outer walls were constructed of wooden plank
boards and lined internally with zinc sheeting. Sand filled the cavity between the inner and outer walls. There were no windows. Wooden sliding
doors were located at the rear for unloading purposes. The entrance door
was situated at the front of the building, access being via three raised steps.
The route from the undressing barracks to this entrance was hidden from
view by camouflaged fences made of barbed-wire interwoven with fine gauge
wire and fir branches. Immediately at the entry into the barracks a passageway separated the gas chambers. These chambers measured 8 metres x 6
metres x 2 metres high and were sealed with rubber. Bogus shower-heads
were affixed to the ceiling of these windowless rooms. A Soviet T34 tank
engine was positioned at the end of the barrack with the gas pipes running
underground to outlets in each of the three gas chambers.
The 'improved' gassing barracks built in June 1942 constituted a more
substantial building and were erected in the top half of the camp. They
measured 15 metres x 10 metres x 2 metres high on a raised concrete base.
The flat top concrete building was covered with tar paper. The walls were
red brick with concrete rendering. Entrance to the chambers was by three
steps into a corridor. The gas pipe ran from two T34 tank engines into each
chamber. Outside, there were three unloading doors on each side of the
building, opening out onto raised platforms. Human capacity in the new
chambers was now doubled.
2. The Nazis attempted to burn and bury everything in sight in order to
destroy evidence.
3. The corpses not exhumed and burnt (graves from the first investigation)
may have been the result of a mass panic with insufficient time to destroy
all evidence.
4. Evidence by Rudolf Reder and Chaim Hirszman, by Kirt Gerstein, and
by defendents in war crimes trials confirm the general layout of the camp.
Items of property recorded
Over 300 items of property were listed as 'very interesting' and over 300
items of property as 'interesting'. All items were catalogued before removal
to Torun University for examination. Seventy items are selected for the
purpose of this preliminary report (translation by Michael Tregenza):

R. O'NEIL
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.
19.
20.
21.
22.
23.
24.
25.
26.
27.
28.
29.
30.
31.
32.
33.
34.
35.
36.
37.
38.
39.
40.
41.
42.
43.

57

Coins: gold Russian rouble dated 1889.


x20gr dated 1923.
x5gr dated 1931.
x5gr dated 1938.
x2gr dated 1938.
x lOgr dated 1923.
x5gr dated 1923.
Aluminium backing for thermometer. German inscription on back.
Manufacturer's name 'Kober'.
Aluminium cylinder for medicine pills, label in Polish.
Aluminium lid for army mess tin.
Aluminium military water bottles, one inscribed '35257'.
Aluminium tube for ointment (label in German with Nazi eagle and
swastika emblem).
Aluminium tubes for medical tablets.
Assorted leather footwear.
Assorted nails, screws, nuts, bolts and staples.
Assorted necks of glass bottles with ceramic stoppers.
Assorted tin and enamel cooking utensils.
Assortment of keys and locks for luggage and doors.
Assortment of plastic hair combs.
Assortment of pocket knives with plastic handles.
Broken pieces of pocket mirrors.
Bronze brooch.
Bronze metal inscribed 'Crem'.
Coral beads.
Decorative glass paper-weight.
Dental bridge containing a gold tooth.
Filagree pattern silver ornament.
Fragments of glass bottles of various types and sizes, including medicine bottles.
Fragments of glass test tubes.
Fragments of shell shrapnel.
Fragments of white enamel.
Fragments of window glass.
Glass beer bottle inscribed 'Schultheiss'.
Glass beer bottle inscribed 'Grodzisk'.
Glass bottle inscribed 'Magister Klawa, Warszawa'.
Glass bottle inscribed 'Synerga Warszawa'.
Glass from spectacles.
Glass jar inscribed 'Ochronna'.
Glass medicine phials.
Hypodermic syringe needles.
Leather and plastic fragments.
Lid of silver cigarette case inscribed 'Max Munk, Wien 27'.

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Betzec Death Camp

44. Lid of silver cigarette case.


45. Live ammunition of Russian manufacture.
46. Live and spent rounds of ammunition of Russian and German manufacture.
47. Metal belt buckles.
48. Metal cap for a tube of pills inscribed with the name of a Paris pharmacy.
49. Metal casing of thermos flask.
50. Metal cigar tube.
51. Assorted metal cutlery.
52. Metal fob watch case.
53. Metal fountain pen top.
54. Metal part of gas mask.
55. Nozzle for metal watering can.
56. Pair of metal shoe trees, name of owner illegible inscribed 'Warszawa,
ul. Bielanska 5'.
57. Part of metal cigarette case.
58. Parts of iron stove and radiator.
59. Piece of pocket mirror with a photograph of a female child on the reverse.
60. Plastic coat button inscribed 'For Gentlemen' in English.
61. Plastic tooth brushes.
62. Polish army metal buckle.
63. Sections of barbed-wire, interwoven with assorted gauge wire.
64. Sections of flattened iron pipe, 5 and 10 centimetres diameter respectively.
65. Several plastic dentures.
66. Silver buttons.
67. Silver spoons. (At the Holocaust Museum in Washington D C on 9 July
1998, the Polish Prime Minister presented these two silver spoons to
the Museum chairman, Miles Lerman, whose own family perished in
Belzec.)
68. Solidified bag of cement bearing imprint of rotted hessian sack and remains of label.
69. Surgical scalpel.
70. Parts of two yellow plastic lables bearing the blue Star of David emblem (stencilled) (see Appendix).

R. O'NEIL 59
Appendix (all drawings by Michael Tregenza)
Reconstruction of camp
in first phase (MarchJune 1942). The mass
graves are unshaded.

Mass graves located and


investigated 1997-8 (1-33,
numbered in order discovered)

60

Befzec Death Camp Appendix

(oof eevarad with tar

Unloading platform

Unloading platfora

Above: Reconstruction
of gassing barracks of
both phases (MarchJune 1942 and July-December 1942)

Right: Soil and content


samples taken from
bore-holes

R. O'NEIL

61

Plastic label with Star of David symbol uncovered by investigation

' - 'V:

Some of property items uncovered by investigation

62

Betzec Death Camp Appendix

Some of human bones unearthed

Memorial to victims of camp