Reconstruction of Belzec

3.0 - Study Methods and Materials

Aerial Photography as a Primary Source

Belzec existed for only a short time. Construction began in December of 1941, and by October of the following year killing operations ceased. Except for the second gas chamber, all above ground parts of the buildings were wood. A number of buildings seemed to have incorporated small cellars, but most foundations probably consisted only of wooden piers (for example, survivor accounts of the Jewish worker barracks at Treblinka describe the floor as being the local sandy soil). From October 1942 to March of 1943 all efforts were devoted to the attempt to erase evidence of the great crimes committed: graves were opened and the corpses burned; buildings were torn down and also burned; and less destructible materials, such as bricks and mortar were broken up and buried in the graves along with the ashes of the victims. Fences were taken down and the wire disposed of. One could suppose that from the air little would remain visible that could allow a reconstruction of the camp but it would be a mistake to assume that foundationless structures left no clues after their demolition. In fact there existed many clear signs of the former existence of fences, barracks, and roads.
Figure 3.0.0 shows a number of the signatures left at Belzec after its liquidation. In 3.0.0 A and B are the typical scars left by the fenceposts (annotation 1). The shadow of a fence which was not pulled down is visible as annotation 2 in 3.0.0 B. In 3.0.0 C, the rectilinear light toned area is the footprint of a number of large barracks buildings and fence lines. In 3.0. D, the light tones surrounding darker interiors are the sites of former barracks.

Part of the reason for the persistence of these clues was that the SS did not make an effort to erase the evidence of their crimes which might be visible from the air. The Germanís did not bulldoze the grounds, nor did they undertake any other measures to disguise or hide the signs which are invariably left when man made activity takes place. No cropping, no pastures, and no other agricultural or forestry activity can be seen on the aerial photographs. The SS Razed the above ground structures, disposed of the wreckage and then decamped, taking their Ukrainian auxiliaries. In the silence, there still was left the scars of the extermination camp. At Belzec, as at Treblinka, many structures razed months before the coverage was flown could still be detected in the pictures. When the buildings at Belzec were pulled down, the debris was evidently often burned in place, leaving a scar composed of the light toned sandy soils with a carbonized, black stain in the middle. This signature pattern was particularly visible in the Ukrainian guards camp (see Figure 3.0.0 D). Elsewhere in the camp, when the debris was hauled off and burned somewhere else, the ground retained the traces of its former use, many times very clearly expressed, because vegetation takes time to restore itself fully, particularly if the construction required leveling which would bring to the surface subsoils bereft of organic enrichment See Figure 3.0.0 C).

At Belzec, as at the other Reinhard camps, the sandy soils retained signs of fencing particularly well. The digging of the holes in which to place posts brought up sterile subsoils. After the posts were dug up and disposed of, what remained was a barren spot where grasses and other plants had difficulty in re-establishing themselves. On the aerial photography, this phenomena was seen as a series of evenly spaced white dots (Figure 3.0.0 A and B). Just the differential use of the grounds left clearly visible traces. Along fence lines which enclosed holding pens, the compaction of the soil by the feet of thousands of victims left perceptible signs. The fence line soil itself would have been relatively uncompressed, so it added to a differential in plant growth and in a resultant linear pattern.

The analysis of the aerial photography availed of comparative cover. The Luftwaffe flew missions from May to December 1944. The differential seasonal cover was a great help, particularly as the advancing seasons decreased the sunís elevation allowing the accenting of small heights because of long shadows, and of roads and fence lines because of vegetation differences after stressing in the drier summer months.

Stereoscopic Viewing

The single most useful analytical tool in this reconstruction of Belzec was the stereoscopic viewing of the aerial photography. The careful use of this standard photo interpretation technique is invaluable when one is attempting to make an exhaustive determination about objects or activity imaged from the air. Not only does it provide the obvious advantage of seeing the terrain in all three dimensions, but subtle details are brought out because of the integrative effect of seeing two images simultaneously. A summary of the photography which was used for the overall study, and the imagery used for stereoscopic analysis are listed in Table 3.0.1.

In the case of Belzec, there is a lot of coverage flown in 1944, but much of it is of poor quality or, very small scale. The missions which captured the site at reasonable scales and resolutions were a handful, and of these, stereo coverage was not optimum for several reasons. The best mission which covered the camp at a reasonably large scale was GX8095. On 8095, Belzec was imaged twice: once at 1100 hours and again at 1110 hours. Unfortunately, The earlier frames are both underexposed and one of the overlapping frames misses much of the site. On the later coverage, one of the frames has been damaged: the backing from an adjacent paper print became glued to the emulsion, leaving a mass of paper fibers covering the image in the middle of the camp. However, in the undamaged regions, the stereo image is excellent, and one can discriminate much of the micro-relief (elevation differences of a half meter or more), especially in the region of the receiving area, but the area where the new gas chamber was located cannot be seen in stereo due to the aforesaid damage.

Some luck was encountered in using frames from different mission which accidentally acquired overlapping coverage which could be viewed stereoscopically. Two missions which, by themselves, only provided only a single frame over Belzec could be studied jointly in stereo. This capability proved invaluable because it was possible to draw form lines (relative elevation iso-contours) in the area of the second gas chamber. This allowed a more definitive placement of that building.

A stereogram made from two frames out of mission GX8095 is shown in Figure 3.0.1 below. In the figure, the site
of the damaged print is indicated and its effect on studying the gas chamber site is obvious. The area indicate by the white circle ďAĒ is where a number of buildings were located. Within the circle are a couple of clearly expressed building scars. An enlargement of the same photography is presented in Figure 3.0.2. The white arrows point to the footprints of several structures. The colored regions on the left have been drawn to clarify the extent of the area . It was problematic to reconstruct individual buildings with any confidence from just this photograph, other than to say that the area held several large buildings. However, examination of the site in stereo revealed a number of shallow leveling excavations made for buildings which had been removed by the time of the aerial photography was flown. These clues in conjunction with witness descriptions (see Stanilasw Kolzecís Testimony See References: Internet Resources - I2) allowed the deducing of the number, size and orientation of the former buildings at this site. This analytical process is portrayed graphically in Figure 3.0.3. in which relative relief is shown through form lines which, again, were drawn by stereoscopic viewing of the imagery.

In Figure 3.0.4, The aerial photograph has been rotated 90 degrees and enlarged to allow one to see the detail in greater clarity. The hatched lines indicate where stereo examination showed abrupt relief changes. The spot elevations were taken from a large scale topographic map and are reliable, as is the 270 meter form line which corresponds closely to the map. The basin between the sidings and the hill rising to the east is shown on the map to be level to gently undulating, averaging about 266 meters. The range of elevations alongside the sidings are marked based on control points surveyed along the adjacent main rail line (transferred from a Polish topographic map). The gas chambers were located in the north eastern opening of the little wooded copse at the top of the figure. It is significant that this wood lies in a shallow valley in the slope of a hill which comprises part of the camp site. This fact determined how far into the hill the building could be placed.

Figure 3.0.5 is a frame image transformed geometrically so as to show is in an oblique perspective. The cuts into the slopes denoted by the hatched lines have been shaded to clearly afford the impression of relief and obliquity. Note that that the cuts are all inside the region taking into consideration the footprints left when an overlying structure was taken down, The cuts into the slopes, when viewed in stereo clearly show that they were made to provide level sites for the buildings erected.

All possible ways of obtaining stereo coverage was investigated. As Table 3.0.1 shows, some missions only had one frame covering the camp, but stereo is still afforded by using the frame from another, separate mission. Pictures from mission GX8095 was used in this way to obtain stereoscopic coverage using frames 131 and 155. These two pictures afforded some of the better overall views of the camp,
despite distortions caused by the different headings of the flight lines. Figure 3.0.6 presents this imagery. For those who have high quality printers and can obtain a pocket stereoscope, downloading the high resolution version of this pair of images for viewing is suggested. The image is duplicated in two scales. The smallest scale image provides the most pronounced impression of three dimensions, but is lacking in the resolution of the larger scaled pair.


Last modified: January 30, 2004
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