Belzec opens for industrial murder
17th March 1942: The first operational use of one of the three mass murder facilities set up under Operation Reinhard to kill the Jews of Poland
The remains of Poland, after the Germans had annexed the western part, were now simply called the ‘General Government’ area. Within this area were some two million Jews. Originally the Nazis had thought that they might create a massive reservation for Jews in this area, possibly as a prelude to deporting them all to some foreign island. They had been gathered into ghettos where starvation and disease were killing many.
As the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ proceeded in the Baltic states and Russia, with some areas being declared ‘Judenfrei’, the authorities in the former Poland looked for ways of killing all their Jews as well. They looked for more ‘efficient’ methods of killing than the mass shootings used by the travelling Einsatzgruppen.
The preparations for 'Operation Reinhard' predated Hitler decision in December 1941 to kill all the Jews in Europe. Belzec was the first of three ‘camps’ to open, each built near transport centres in central Poland. Other concentration camps such as Auschwitz had a ‘selection’ procedure for some prisoners to be diverted their slave labour works. But people were sent to Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka solely to be murdered.
The process worked on deception. Trainloads of victims arriving by cattle trucks were marshalled in the reception side of the ‘camp’ where they were told that they were at a transit camp from where they would be shipped to labour camps. They just needed to have showers first.
They were then moved at great speed and with increasing brutality through the “tube” to the killing side of the facility.
Here they were crammed into gas chambers - sealed rooms disguised with shower heads to look like bath houses. The gas was simply the exhaust fumes from a combustion engine. It is probable that a Russian diesel tank engine was used at first - but it was later determined that a petrol engine was more 'efficient'.
Only around 450 German staff were needed to run Operation Reinhard, many of them experienced operatives from the T4 Euthanasia programme that had killed the handicapped and mentally ill in Germany itself.
One of them was SS-man Karl Alfred Schluch, involved from the beginning:
‘I believe that I eased the way there for the Jews because they must have been convinced by my words or gestures that they really were going to be bathed.’
My location in the tube was in the immediate vicinity of the undressing hut. Wirth had stationed me there because he thought me capable of having a calming effect on the Jews. After the Jews left the undressing hut I had to direct them to the gas chamber. I believe that I eased the way there for the Jews because they must have been convinced by my words or gestures that they really were going to be bathed.
After the Jews had entered the gas chambers the doors were securely locked by Hackenholt himself or by the Ukrainians assigned to him. Thereupon Hackenholt started the engine with which the gassing was carried out.
After 5 - 7 minutes - and I merely estimate this interval of time - someone looked through a peephole into the gas chamber to ascertain whether death had overtaken them all. Only then were the outside gates opened and the gas chambers aired.
‘The bodies were dragged out of the gas chambers and inspected by a dentist, who removed finger-rings and gold teeth. After this procedure, the corpses were thrown into a big pit.’
Who did the checking, that is to say, who looked through the peephole? I can no longer say with any certainty... In my view, probably everyone had occasion to look through the peephole.
After the gas chambers had been aired, a Jewish work commando headed by a Capo, arrived and removed the corpses.
Occasionally I had to supervise at this place, therefore I can describe the whole process which I saw and witnessed personally. The Jews inside the gas chambers were densely packed, this is the reason that the corpses were not lying on the floor but were mixed up in disorder in all directions, some of them kneeling, according to the amount of space they had.
The corpses were besmirched with mud and urine or with spit. I could see that the lips and tips of the noses were a bluish colour. Some of them had their eyes closed, others eyes rolled. The bodies were dragged out of the gas chambers and inspected by a dentist, who removed finger-rings and gold teeth. After this procedure, the corpses were thrown into a big pit.
The process was very efficient. Almost no one survived entry into these camps - the Jewish workers who dealt with the bodies were rotated in groups - and every group was selected to be killed at some stage. There were only two survivors from between 430,000 and 500,000 victims.