On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, more than 70 years after the opening of the first Nazi extermination camp for the Jews, we are still learning about the horrors of bureaucratic assembly-line murder as it was then practiced.
The death camp at Bełzec, opened in 1942, was the first site in history designed to kill human beings in an industrial manner and on an unparalleled scale. During the Second World War, the Third Reich deployed gassing and mass-cremation technologies in order to literally turn millions of victims into ash.
In this sense, the Third Reich’s earliest extermination camp at Bełzec remains a low-water mark in human relations. Internecine wars and savagery continue to pock human history. But never before or since had mass murder and modern technology come together to provide a purpose-built, self-contained, assembly-line operation for the destruction of an entire people.
Bełzec was joined later that year by Sobibor and Treblinka. The death camps, collectively known as “Operation Reinhard,” managed this genocidal process brutally, yet bureaucratically.
Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, mass shootings in the east had proven unsatisfactory and difficult to conceal. Expertise and personnel were then engaged from an earlier gassing program, which had used carbon monoxide gas to murder more than 72,000 patients in converted asylum facilities over the preceding two years.1 In a grisly process of trial and error, technicians from the euphemistically entitled “Euthanasia Program” helped to develop mobile gas vans, as well as the first stationary gas chambers for Jews from the Warthegau region, murdered in the converted palace at Chelmno.
By the end of 1941, with the construction of Bełzec about halfway completed, the Nazi leadership had decided upon a process of total destruction – one whereby European Jews would be gassed, pillaged and disposed of, preferably in a secluded place next to a main railway line in Nazi-occupied territory.2
It was this method, built from scratch and refined over the coming months, which was to be first “perfected” at Bełzec. Victims were sometimes murdered at a rate of 10,000 persons a day: in hermetically sealed chambers; the bodies piled into overcrowded trains before reaching their final destination; their corpses pillaged for valuables after being gassed. Later the bodies were burned – these had been buried in mass graves at first, before trial and error made this, too, more efficient – over an enormous human grill, also designed by the overseers of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” Heinrich Himmler’s Schutzstaffel, or SS.3
This uniquely insidious project was directed primarily, although not exclusively, at the Jews of Europe. One of the very few survivors from Bełzec, a Jewish enslaved worker named Rudolf Reder – kept barely alive as a camp handyman prior to escaping – established as early as 1946 that “Bełzec served no other purpose than that of murdering Jews.” After witnessing uncountable thousands of his fellow Jews from Poland sent to their deaths, some he knew well, Reder recalled:
Words are inadequate to describe our state of mind and what we felt when we heard the terrible moans of those people and the cries of the children being murdered. Three times a day we saw people going nearly mad. Nor were we far from madness either. How we survived from one day to the next I cannot say, for we had no illusions. Little by little we too were dying, together with those thousands of people who, for a short while, went through an agony of hope. Apathetic and resigned to our fate, we felt neither hunger nor cold. We all waited our turn to die an inhuman death. Only when we heard the heart-rending cries of small children – “Mummy, mummy, but I have been a good boy,” and “Dark, dark” – did we feel something.4
This inhumanity was meted out to a minimum of 434,508 people at Bełzec, nearly all of them Polish Jews.5 According to a recent debate in the pages of East European Jewish Affairs, the number is likely still higher: Perhaps 600,000 Jews were murdered there, or even 800,000.6 Who knows, for instance, how many unregistered trains, containing some 50 boxcars filled with thousands of terrified Jews were diverted to Bełzec during the height of its activity in summer-autumn of 1942? Affixing a precise number of victims is as impossible as imagining the individual fate of Jews suffocated at one of the chief charnel houses of the Holocaust – and indeed in human history – Bełzec.
Notwithstanding this staggering reality, almost nothing has been written to date on Bełzec by scholars in English. This is borne out by the scattered references to Bełzec in excellent studies on the Holocaust that have been recently published by Christopher Browning, Saul Friedländer and Peter Longerich.7
One reason for this is the comparatively stronger documentation left behind at other extermination camps – like Auschwitz-Birkenau – where more than a million Jews were killed before the SS beat a hasty retreat from the advancing Soviet forces. Another factor is underscored by the extremely small number of survivors from Bełzec. And still another reason is the sheer scale of the Final Solution, involving not only the gassing of Jews by the millions, but extended to millions more deaths through shooting, starvation and overwork. That is to say, even the most detailed and comprehensive accounts of the Holocaust of late have but scratched at the surface of Bełzec’s horrors.
An important exception to the limited Anglophone scholarship on Bełzec is provided by Yitzhak Arad’s groundbreaking work, Bełzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps. Published in 1987, the book added new insight into the day-to-day running of the camps comprising Operation Reinhard (sometimes the camps at Chelmno and Majdanek also are included in this grouping). Like the other two main Reinhard death camps at Sobibor and Treblinka, Bełzec comprised four groups of people: Jewish victims; a contingent of around 100 mass murderers (SS guards, Ukrainian auxiliaries and auxiliary administrative staff on site); Jews taken from transports to help with the extermination process, who only lived a day or two; and so called “Hofjuden” (court Jews), who acted as tailors, carpenters and other skilled workers serving the camp personnel for a period of months before being murdered.
Rudolf Reder was only able to escape because he was in the latter category. For the murderers, in turn, deceit and speed were central to the process in order to blunt resistance and the chances of escape; this also “increased the killing capacity of the camp.” Finally, one particularly chilling feature shared by all three death camps is raised by Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka: songs by orchestral musicians, often played to drown out the screams of those murdered by gas or shooting. “In Bełzec there was a small orchestra,” Arad writes,
which was used primarily during the transports and to entertain the SS men during their nights of drunkenness and debauchery. The orchestra was made up of six musicians and usually played in the area between the gas chamber and the burial pits. The transfer of corpses from the gas chambers to the graves was done to the accompaniment of the orchestra.8
The Holocaust in the Soviet Union is Arad’s most recent and ambitious account, which also sheds new light on the Operation Reinhard camps. He devotes a chapter to Bełzec there, emphasizing that deportations took place largely from the Polish region of Galicia in the General Government – an area first occupied by the USSR between September 1939 and June 1941 – lasting over a period of seven months. Although the Bełzec death camp existed between mid-March and mid-December 1942, a six-week pause was undertaken to expand the killing facilities: Six concrete gassing chambers were installed to murder as many as 2,000 Jews at a time. Thereafter, in the six months comprising the “big deportations” to Bełzec, more than 100,000 transported Jews could be murdered in the course of a single month.9
Yet in spite of Arad’s exceptional contribution to understanding Bełzec, and the history of Operation Reinhard more generally, Dieter Pohl rightly maintained in a pivotal 2004 collection on historical interpretations of the Holocaust that the “three camps of the Aktion Reinhard, Bełzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, became, from the spring of 1942, the murder sites of almost half of Polish Jewry, but no scholarly camp monograph has yet been published.”10
This since has been remedied with English-language studies in the cases of Sobibor and Treblinka,11 but not for the earliest of the Operation Reinhard camps, Bełzec – until, that is, the recent (and privately published) appearance of Chris Webb’s short study earlier this year. His book, Bełzec: The Death Camp Laboratory, coming 70 years after the launch of this nadir in human interrelations, is an overdue and greatly welcomed contribution to Holocaust studies.
In Webb’s short study, intended for a non-specialist audience, both the selection and narrative are intended to give an overview, an impression, of Bełzec’s development and function. Images of the perpetrators are given prominent place: These few orchestrated the murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.
Furthermore, several unexpected details are also provided: a brief history of the area – including a zoo for the perpetrators’ amusement, information on the small “Gypsy camp” at Bełzec, and an important insight into the exhumation and incineration of thousands of corpses after the closure of the camp.
Drawing upon the Holocaust Research Project, the leading Holocaust education web site that he continues to co-direct with Carmelo Lisciotto, Webb provides details of Austro-German SS personnel at Bełzec, in addition to many of the Ukrainian and so-called Volksdeutsche auxiliaries also serving in the extermination center. These and other findings are part of a lifetime’s dedication to making the Holocaust – and specifically the part played by the death camp at Bełzec in this process of genocide – better known to a wider audience. Chris Webb’s private undertakings therefore have a very public-spirited effect that surely bear upon potential perspectives no less heavily than contemporary history – reminding his readers that, at Bełzec, the worst was perpetrated against defenseless Jewish victims, again and again. Taken together, the patchwork of quotations, pictures and testimony comprising this book serves to reinforce the impression that human depravity passed a certain threshold there; then.
For details on the ‘T-4 Operation’ and its relevance to the development of the Holocaust, see Friedlander, Henry, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 1995).
For discussion of the role played by main planning agency behind the Holocaust, the Reich Security Main Office, see Wildt, Michael, An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (University of Wisconsin Press, London: 2009), here 185ff.
Background to some of the leading Nazi functionaries with respect to the Holocaust can be found in Breitman, Richard, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (Pimlico, London: 2004); Cesarani, David, Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (Vintage, London: 2005); and Rieger, Berndt, Creator of Nazi Death Camps: The Life of Odilo Globocnik (Vallentine Mitchell, London: 2007), ch. 2.
This is the figure given in the recently-discovered ‘Höfle Telegram’, a decoded message located in British archives. This document gives the figure of murders at Bełzec in January 1943, a month after the camp ceased functioning, and may be considered a minimum number of those murdered there. For further discussion, see Witte, Peter, and Stephen Tyas, ‘A New Document on the Deportation and Murder of Jews during “Einsatz Reinhardt” 1942’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 15/3 (2001), pp. 468-486.
Three articles debating these figures have been published by the academic journal East European Jewish Affairs: Robin O’Neill’s ‘Bełzec: A Reassessment of the Number of Victims’, 29/1 (1999), pp. 85-118; a response by Deiter Pohl and Peter Witte entitled The Number of Victims of ‘Bełzec Extermination Camp: A Faulty Reassessment’; and O’Neill’s rejoinder, ‘Bełzec: Toward a Constructive Debate’ (both in 31/1, 2001), pp. 15-25.
Browning, Christopher R., The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, 1939-1942 (Arrow Books, London: 2005); Friedländer, Saul, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London: 2007); Longerich, Peter, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2010). By way of example, the respective indices in these valuable texts give ten references to Bełzec for Browning and Friedlander, and fifteen for Longerich.