Belzec 1945

The remains of the dismantled Belzec extermination camp as they appeared in 1945, facing northeast. The Schleuse ("tube") ran roughly perpendicular to the railroad spur visible at right, through the area covered with trees to the left of center. The gas chambers were just past this tree area, where there is a patch of bushes. To the left can be seen an anti-tank ditch and berm. Most of the mass graves were located between that ditch and the tube area. Others were scattered around the hill area. In 1940, this entire area had been a thick forest.


Survivors Emerge

Between 325,000 and 350,000 Polish Jews were still alive at the end of the war, about ten percent of the pre-war Jewish population of Poland. The remnants of the Zolynia Jewish community were scattered in Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union. Throughout late 1944, 1945 and 1946, survivors began to emerge.

Survivors in Zolynia

On July 26 and 27, 1944, infantry and tank units of the Soviet Army entered the area around Zolynia. There was some German resistance and fighting at Bialobrzegi and Korniaktow just to the south, but within two days the entire area was secured and the occupation was over.

The remnants of the Zolynia Jewish community began to emerge. A few were still in hiding when the Germans left. At Rakszawa, 16 or 17 Jews emerged from hiding in dugouts and bunkers, where many had received assistance from neighbors or the Underground. There were a handful of others still in the vicinity.

Survivors in the Camps

The Germans tried to keep Jewish slaves under their control as long as possible, often marching them from camp to camp, trying to stay ahead of the Allied armies. Many prisoners were put to work digging futile anti-tank ditches and other defenses. Survivors, realizing that the end of the war could be days or hours away, struggled to endure under brutal conditions, most starving. Executions for the smallest infractions and mass shootings of prisoners continued to the very last days of captivity. In many cases, the Germans simply ran out of time, and SS guard fled before they could exterminate remaining prisoners. Thousands of remaining Jews and other prisoners were left to starve behind barbed wire in camps that were discovered one at a time by stunned Allied troops.

Survivors in the Soviet Union

Most of the surviving Polish Jews were among those who had crossed the San River in 1939 and were deported to labor camps in Central Asia. There were families from Zolynia and surrounding villages among them. After the war, the U.S.S.R. allowed those who wanted to return to Poland to do so. About 180,000, eight in ten, returned to Poland in 1944-1946. Though most of them spent several years in gulags, labor camps and other harsh environments, dozens of Jews from Zolynia survived in the Soviet Union. As late as 1948, a few former Jewish residents of Zolynia wandered back to the town after captivity in the Soviet Union.

Survivors Elsewhere

Wherever they could, Jews had found ways to survive. Thousands, perhaps as many as 20,000, had acquired false papers and with new non-Jewish identities were able to mix in "on the Aryan side" of larger towns and cities. Some had traveled across the countryside to port cities where they could eventually smuggle themselves into Palestine. Escaping and refugee Jews were serving in the various Allied armies. We will never know how many Zholiners were among those in these circumstances. By the time of the German surrender in May 1945, the survivors, many emaciated and ill, had to become healthy, try to get information on possible surviving loved ones and friends and get home or to some other destination.


Poland itself was a different country in 1945, smaller and shifted westward. Almost half its prewar territory was now incorporated into the Soviet Union to the east, including what had been Eastern Galicia. More than a quarter of its new territory was taken from Germany in the west. Zolynia was no longer in the southern portion of central Poland, but in the southeastern corner of the new Poland, not far from the border with the Soviet Union. Most of the surviving Polish Jews were not physically within the new Polish borders in 1945, adding another dimension of confusion over nationalities, destinations and the legal status of refugees.

Actual records and details about Zolynia's Jewish community are scarce. Based on anecdotal evidence and details known about other towns nearby, it is possible that 100 or so Jews from Zolynia survived the war, out of more than 700 who were in the village at the end of July 1942. We will never know the exact number.


Kamm in Italy

Same Nazi, same pose. Here again, at right, is SS Squad Leader Rudolf Kamm, shown in Italy in 1943. After Operation Reinhard ended, much of the SS personnel from Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka were transferred to Italy, assigned to police units rounding up Jews and partisan fighters, and converting the prison camp at San Sabba (in Trieste) into an extermination camp. The officer at left is Unterscharfuhrer (Junior Squad Leader) Ernst Zierke.

Kamm, who had also served for several months at Sobibor, was discharged from an internment camp in 1946 and disappeared. Zierke, who also served at Belzec and Sobibor, was arrested in a POW camp at the end of the war and mistakenly released. Arrested in 1963, he was acquitted of war crimes at the Belzec trials at Munich in 1964 and dismissed for health reasons from the Sobibor trials at Hagen in 1965.


More Information

The Nazis knew that what they were doing would cause revulsion throughout the world, even among many Germans. In July 1943, this order was issued to top Nazi and SS officials throughout German-controlled territory: "Where the Jewish Quesion is brought up in public, there may be no discussion of a future overall solution. It may, however, be mentioned that the Jews are taken in groups for appropriate labor purposes."

During the occupation, hundreds of ethnic Poles from Zolynia were deported to work within Germany. Some went willingly for work and others were taken against their will. The most common assignments were in factories and on farms. Poles worked long hours at low wages and were subject to numerous personal restrictions. For example, in most places they were banned from public transportation. Over 100,000 Poles died in concentration camps, including over 70,000 in the Auschwitz complex. Many Poles were in the camps as Prisoners of War, political prisoners and under suspicion of resistance or insurrection activities.


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