Belzec and Beyond

Belzec sign

An original sign from the Belzec camp, found after the war. It says: "Attention! Undress completely! You will leave all the items brought with you in the designated area, with the exception of currency, valuables, documents, and shoes…Shoes should be tied in pairs and deposited in the designated area. You will approach bathing and inhalation completely undressed."


The Destination

The trains left Pelkinie heading east, toward Lvov, toward the Soviet Union. In fact, the final destination was only a little more than 40 miles away. In as little as four hours, and probably no more than six hours, everyone on the trains that left Pelkinie was dead. Usually a few dozen men from each transport were selected to be part of the work crews that processed and cleared away remains, but they would have been dead within hours, days or perhaps weeks.

Operation Reinhard

The village of Belzec (Bełżec in Polish, pronounced "Byoo-zhetz") is located along the Lublin-Zamosc-Lvov railroad line, which connected with the Krakow-Rzeszow-Lancut-Jaroslaw line. Between October and December 1941, Polish skilled laborers from Belzec and other nearby villages were hired to construct camp watchtowers, barracks and also a wooden hut with special gas transmission lines. Jewish slave workers were then brought in to finish the camp of about 18 acres (about the size of nine soccer fields). The camp was on a railroad siding less than a quarter of a mile (400 m) off the main line, surrounded by by multiple rows of chicken wire and barbed wire fencing, camouflaged by tree branches along the outer edges. By the end of February 1942, several hundred Jewish, Polish and Russian prisoners were brought in the trains as a test run-through for the planned large-scale operations. By March 16, the camp was fully operational, and transports holding 6,000 Jewish deportees were processed on the very first day.

The Belzec camp was one of three camps constructed for Operation Reinhard, the Nazi program to dispose of the estimated 2.2 million Jews in the General-Government, and to complete the task by mid-1943. This would be accomplished primarily at three killing centers: Belzec (victims mainly from Southern Generalgouvernement), Sobibor (near Lublin) and Treblinka II (60 miles or 100 km northeast of Warsaw). Some consider Majdanek, also near Lublin, to be an Operation Reinhard extermination camp, though it was originally built as a labor camp.

This was an operation conducted on a vast scale, requiring incredibly detailed scheduling and sophisticated administrative coordination. Hundreds of local train departures and arrivals at the camp had to be worked out in intricate detail. In addition to the construction and operation of death camps and supporting labor camps and transit centers, there was also the collection and transfer of huge amounts of personal property and valuables confiscated from prisoners. And this was all done in wartime. The materials and personnel needed to conduct the program demonstrate how high a priority this was to the Nazis. They were willing to jeopardize their own war effort to further their racial effort.

Route to Belzec

One of the main railroad routes to Belzec through former Galicia, including Zolynia.



Trains into the Belzec station where rail cars holding prisoners were uncoupled twenty at a time. These cars were moved onto the railroad spur that brought them within the fences of the killing facility. The victims were herded out of the cars by some 200 guards and into a yard, face to face with the SS garrison. The camp commander, or one of his senior assistants, announced through a loudspeaker that the stay here would be brief, and that they would soon be moved to a another camp where there would be work and houses for their families. An attempt was made to keep the group calm and able to follow directions; those showing defiance or likely to cause panic were quickly moved into another part of the camp where they were quickly shot with pistols.

Everything was done quickly, the prisoners kept moving, to minimize realization and reduce the chances of any organized resistance or escape attempts. It was announced that before feeding, all must be bathed and have their clothing disinfected. After feeding, they would be transported to their new settlement (often, an actual location was named). Men and women were separated. The men were marched, five across, into a 300-foot (100 meter) pathway surrounded by camaflouged barbed wire (the Germans called it die Schleuse, meaning "tube"). Along the way, there were several stopping points to the sides where they were to hand over possessions and clothes; they were told that the possessions and their shoes would be returned to them, and the other clothes would be replaced after the showering. At the end of the Schleuse, guards prodded the naked men into what they were told was the shower building. This building was, 75 feet long by 30 feet wide and contained six shower chambers. It had replaced the original wooden hut only three weeks before the arrival of the Zholiners, when the camp was refitted to accomodate larger volumes. The new building could hold up to 1,500 people at one time, about three-fourths of a full trainload.

There had been some experimentation with different gasses, but by August 1942, it was exhaust fumes from automobile engines that was piped out of the shower heads. After about 20 minutes, the chamber was checked through a peephole and if was clear that all were dead, the bodies were rapidly removed. The bodies were cleared by Jewish workers who were kept alive for this purpose (a Sonderkommando or Special Command). Dentists removed gold teeth and bridges. The bodies were buried in a series of 90-foot deep trenches.

Women and any children still with them had been getting their hair cut and now, when the men's bodies had been cleared, they were also led through the Schleuse and into the chambers. The gassing process was repeated.

From late July through October 1942, it was typical for three or four trains to arrive at Belzec every day. Between arrivals, workers went so far as to rake the dirt pathways leading to the shower building in order to hide footprints and any hint that thousands of others may have passed that way only hours before.

Project Completed

By the late fall of 1942, most of the Jews of the surrounding region were now gone, and it was determined that the new, enormous extermination facility at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and other new camps would be able to fill any remaining need. The number of transports to Belzec had slowed significantly and would end completely by December 12. SS Chief Himmler ordered that stricter measures be taken to conceal what had been happening at Belzec and the other extermination camps.

Starting in November, the Jewish Sonderkommando was put to work opening the burial pits and moving the hundreds of thousands of corpses to five huge pyars. The bodies were burned day and night for months. The stench filled the air for miles. Conductors on passing civilian trains rolled up all windows when approaching the area, but the smell was so strong that passengers complained and became ill.

In June 1943, the Belzec camp, including the gas chambers and the surrounding fencing, was dismantled. The last of the Jewish Sonderkommando were transported to Sobibor and executed there. The buildings were plowed under. When the SS realized that local people from the town were digging into the burial pits in search of jewelry, money and other valuables, a work crew was sent to construct a farmhouse, planted some trees and a few crops and turned the property over to one of the Ukrainian camp guards for safekeeping. When the Soviet Army arrived in the summer of 1944, the local residents stripped the farm and demolished the farmhouse.

At Sienawa

Some Jews from Zolynia and some of surrounding towns, totaling several hundred, had been concentrated at a ghetto in Sienawa as slave laborers in late 1942. In May 1943, the remaining residents of the ghetto there were marched to the little town's Jewish cemetery and shot.


The exact number of Polish Jews who died at Belzec is not known. In a telegram dated January 11, 1943, the SS officer supervising deportations, Sturmbannführer (Storm Unit Leader) Herman Hoelfe, reported to superiors in Krakow that 434,508 Jews had been transported to Belzec in 1942 (this telegram was only found among British declassified documents in 2000). Another SS officer on the scene, Sturmbannführer Heinrich Gley, would later put the number at 500,000 to 540,000, based on the capacity of the cremation pyres and the daily rate of cremations. German transport records also indicate that more than 500,000 went to Belzec, and some historians put the number at 600,000 or more. It is also believed that over 1,000 ethnic Poles who were caught assisting Jews were killed there.

At some point, the overall numbers lose impact and meaning.


Hoelfe Telegram

This text from intercepted radio telegrams from SS Sturmbannführer (Storm Unit Leader) Hermann Hoefle to SS leaders in Berlin and Krakow was discovered in 2000 among recently declassified materials in the United Kingdom. It was sent on January 11, 1943 and includes statistics on arrivals at the Operation Reinhard extermination camps for the last two weeks of 1942 and totals for the entire year of 1942. The "B 434508" indicates the number of arrivals at Belzec for the year. The significance of the letters L, B, S and T were apparently missed by British analysts in 1943; today we know that this meant Lublin (the Majdanek camp), Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The total arrivals for 1942 at all camps is 1,274,166. The 434,508 arrivals at Belzec is considered by many historians to be a minimum figure; the date that Hoefle began compiling figures for the year is not known, and the figures may not include thousands who died in transit to the camp.


SS Guard

SS Scharfuhrer (Squad Leader) Rudolf Kamm, standing in the sorting area, 1942.


More Information

Operation Reinhard was named for Reinhard Heydrich, the plan's principal architect and Chief of the SS Security Office. He was killed by partisans in Czechoslovakia in June 1942.

At any given time, there were 300 or more Jews kept alive at Belzec to work as members of the Sonderkommando, the special details which removed and buried bodies, sorted clothing and performed other tasks. All were systematically put to death to avoid witnesses, sometimes within hours of selection for work. Near the end of July 1942, a report by the Polish Resistance described a June 13 revolt at Belzec:

"…a revolt happend in the camp when the Jewish Sonderkommando, who were ordered to remove the bodies of the murdered women and children, saw the horrible scenery of upright standing gassed victims in the gas chambers, embracing themselves in death. The Sonderkommando attacked the guards who then alarmed the whole camp's staff. 4-6 Germans were killed, and almost all Jews."

Although there were at least four dozen known escape attempts from Belzec, only seven are known to be successful and only three Jews who were in the camp at any point are known to have survived to 1945. One was a four-year-old girl who was smuggled out by a relative in the village. Attempts to escape from the train transports on the way to the camp became common, and a small number did get away without being shot. Most would not survive the war.

The Germans did not have enough personnel to run the extermination camps in Poland without recruitment of non-Germans. There was a mix of nationalities and ethnicities among the guards at Belzec, but most were Ukrainian, sometimes called Trawniki, named after the location of the SS camp where non-Germans were trained as auxiliary units. Some of these Ukrainians were prisoners of war desperate to get out of concentration camps, others were committed Ukrainian nationalists who were led to believe that Germany would support creation of a new Ukrainian state.

Reports by Einsatzgruppen killing units operating in the Ukraine frequently mention the cooperation of the Ukrainian militia. More than 100,000 Ukrainians volunteered to serve with the Nazis as camp guards, police officers and soldiers in special army units.

Over time, most Ukrainians began to understand that they were only slightly higher than Poles and Jews in the Nazi racial hierarchy. In the early summer of 1943, Ukrainian guards at Belzec did turn on the Germans, planning to attack the command center. The plan was thwarted and fifty Ukrainian guards were were shot.

A primary objective of the extermination camps was to acquire the last wealth and possessions of Jews under German control. It is estimated that confiscated possessions worth at least $700 million in current U.S. dollars were conficscated from Jews at Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. Most went to Germany as property of the national bank, but some was distributed among guards, police and other locals as rewards.

Kurt Gerstein was a German engineer and SS officer who was brought to Belzec in August 1942 to work out inefficiencies in disinfection operations (he was warned that "anybody who talks about it is shot dead immediately."). Stunned by what he saw, he betrayed the SS and tried to use contacts with foreign diplomats and the Roman Catholic Church to inform the world about the Holocaust. His efforts did not result in worldwide disclosure. Arrested after the war as a high-ranking SS official, he wrote a report in prison about what he had seen, just before his own suicide. Here is an excerpt about his visit to Belzec on August 18, about one week after the arrival of Zolynia's Jews:

"…the first train arrived after some minutes, from the direction of Lemberg. 45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival.…The train comes in: 200 Ukrainians fling open the doors and whip the people out of the wagons with their leather whips.…Then the women and girls to the barber who, with two, three scissor strokes is cutting off all hair and collecting it in potato sacks. "That is for special purposes in the submarines, for seals or the like!" the SS-Unterschafuherer who is on duty there says to me.…Mothers with babies at their breast, they come onward, hesitate, enter the death chambers! At the corner a strong SS man stands who, with a voice like a pastor, says to the poor people: "There is not the least chance that something will happen to you! You must only take a deep breath in the chamber, that widens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the illnesses and epidemics." On the question of what would happen to them he answered: "Yes, of course, the men have to work, building houses and roads but the women don't need to work. Only if they wish they can help in housekeeping or in the kitchen.…"


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