History & Overview
Established November 1, 1941, Belzec extermination
center consisted of two camps divided into three parts: administration
section, barracks and storage for plundered goods, and extermination
section. Initially, there were three gas
chambers using carbon monoxide housed in a wooden building. They
were later replaced by six gas chambers in a brick and concrete building.
Belzec extermination center began operations March 17, 1942,
and ended operations December 1942. The estimated number of deaths is
500-600,000, mainly Jews.
A woman about to be executed in Belzec. The soldier on the left is a SS guard, the soldiers in the background
are Ukrainian guards.
Belzec extermination camp, the model for two others
in the "Aktion Reinhard" murder program, started as a labor camp in April 1940.
Situated in the Lublin district,
it was conveniently between the large Jewish populations of south east Poland and eastern Galicia.
Construction began on November 1st 1941,
using labor from the preexisting labor camp and local Jewish communities. SS Colonel General Christian
Wirth, a former police officer who had played a leading role in implementing
the T4 "euthanasia program," was appointed the first camp commander. He commanded 20-30 SS men, plus
a guard company of 90-120 Ukrainians who were trained at the Trawniki
Belzec extermination camp was
quite small, with a circumference of +- 1,220 yards. It was
divided into two sections, each one surrounded by a barbed wire
fence. There were guard towers all around the main perimeter. The
first camp was split into two parts. The smaller area contained
the administration buildings and the Ukrainians barracks. The
larger part included the spur line which carried rail trucks into
the camp, an expanse where the Jewish deportees were sorted into
groups of men or women and children, the barracks where they were
forced to undress and were shaven, storerooms for their clothes,
personal objects, etc..., and huts for the Jewish workers who were
employed by the SS to carry out the duties associated with the
The second camp housed the gas
chambers and burial pits. It was reached by a long, narrow
passageway with barbed wire fencing on either side, known as 'the
tube'. The extermination site was screened off from the rest of
the camp by leafy branches intertwined with the barbed wire.
A group of Gypsies about to be gassed in Belzec
Camouflage was essential to
the murder process. A transport numbering 40-60 rail trucks,
holding about 2-2,500 Jews, would arrive at Belzec station. It
would be divided into two or three smaller convoys which would be
pushed into the camp. The Jews would then be rapidly disembarked
onto the platform where they were assured that they had arrived at
a transit camp. They were told that before being assigned to labor
duties elsewhere they would be disinfected and showered. Men were
separated from women and children and marched off to large huts
where they undressed. Women had their hair shaven off. They were
then brutally pushed to "the tube" and into the gas chambers which
were disguised as "showers." The brutalized and disoriented Jews,
often weak from hours or days spent in cattle trucks, had barely
any time to evaluate their fate or react defensively.
In the first phase of its
operations, from mid-March 1942 to mid-May 1942, Belzec had three
gas chambers in a wooden barrack with a double wall filled with
sand. The gas chambers were half-lined with tin and equipped with
two airtight doors, one for entry and one through which corpses
were removed. The carbon monoxide gas was piped in from a diesel
engine mounted outside. Once the gas chambers were filled and the
doors shut, the killing process took up to 30 minutes. Teams of
Jewish laborers who had been selected from earlier transports then
removed the corpses and dragged them to burial pits. Other Jewish
workers removed gold teeth from the bodies. Back at the platform,
teams of Jews cleaned up the trucks and tidied the platform. In
the undressing rooms more Jewish work units were busy sorting
clothing, luggage and personal objects. It took up to three hours
to "process" one section of a transport.
The "Sonderkommando" of Belzec (prisoners
employed by the SS as craftsmen). The guard in the background is smiling.
In mid-May the transports
stopped while the system was refined. In mid-June, construction
began on a brick and concrete building housing six gas chambers,
each one 13 by 16 feet. This enabled the SS to kill up to 1,200
Jews at a time, which meant that trains needed to be broken down
into only two parts. Jews could also be moved through all the
stages of undressing and shaving more quickly. During this period,
about 1,000 Jews were kept alive for short periods of time to man
the various work teams. A substantial number were employed by the
SS as craftsmen. All were liquidated after a while. Those
remaining when the camp ceased to function were transported to
Sobibor death camp and murdered. There were only two
survivors of Belzec, neither of whom is still alive [ED].
It is estimated that about 600,000 Jews were murdered
at Belzec and probably dozen thousands of Gypsies.
In the first phase of its operations, 80,000 Jews were killed, having
been brought from the ghettos of Lublin, Lvov and elsewhere in the Lublin
area and Eastern Galicia. The second phase, from mid-July 1942 to the
end of December 1942, saw the arrival and gassing of 130,000 Jews from
the Cracow area, 215,000 from
the Lvov region and smaller numbers from Lublin and Radom.
During the early months of 1943,
the corpses of the murdered Jews were disinterred and burned in open
air pits. The camp was then closed. However, local people excavated
the ground for valuables and had to be driven off by guards. To deter
other scavengers, the area of the camp was ploughed over and turned
into a farm. One of the Ukrainian guards was made the farmer.
Forgotten Camps (USHMM
Photos); Wesley Pruden, “The last living witnesses; they wore the yellow star and remember the Nazi terror,” Washington Times, (December 12, 2013).