Reconstruction of Belzec

5.0 Epilogue

The Dismantling of the Camp, the Establishment of a Caretaker, and the Arrival of the Red Army: Spring 1943 to September 1944

The final transport and murder of Jews occurred on December 11, 1942. At that time, the exhumation and burning of corpses from the burial pits began. This activity was finished by the spring of 1943 and the dismantling of the camp began and was completed by the end of June that same year. A check on the state of the site by SS Scharfuhrer Dubois was then made shortly thereafter. Dubois reported back to Wirth in Lublin that local Poles were seeking gold and other valuables and had been digging up the camp looking for the supposed treasures. A resident of Belzec testified (at the 1965 trial of SS-Untersturmfuehrer Josef Oberhauser) in Munich that:

"...the whole area was picked to pieces by the neighboring population............That's why the whole surface of the camp was covered with human bones, hairs, ashes from cremated corpses, dentures, pots, and other objects.” (see Arad p 371 Reference 1).

Globotnik (head of Reinhard), directed that a group of Ukrainians and Germans was to be sent back to Belzec to restore the camp, and to build a "small farm" occupied by a guard, and to reforest the ravaged grounds. SS Scharfuhrer Unverhau directed the reforestation which was completed in October, 1943. SS Unterscharfuhrer Schiffer was in charge of a second group which built a “farm house” for the use of a Ukrainian farmer who was to serve as a caretaker. The house was built by the winter of 1943 (Footnote p 371-372 Arad, Belzec, Sobibor..). As will be shown below, the caretaker site consisted of two buildings, one built in late 1943, and a second in the spring of 1944.In none of the photographs were there any evidence of farming, nor of reforestation. In ground photographs taken in October 1945 which covered most of the camp, on only one were there to be seen seedling trees. Either (see Photo Composite 2 - Figure 5.0.8) SS Scharfuhrer Unverhau was dilatory in carrying out his mission of planting, or the restoration of the whole camp was never really attempted.

The Wehrmacht had suffered the disaster at Stalingrad in 1942-43, and a futile massive expenditure of men and resources at Kurst. In the summer of 1943. In 1944 the Wehrmacht was everywhere in retreat and the Red Army had reoccupied much of the Ukraine and was nearing the former borders of Poland. By April 1944, the front lines between the German and Soviet armies was only about 100 kilometers from Belzec (see Figure 5.0.1).
The Luftwaffe was flying reconnaissance missions over parts of Poland and the Ukraine, including areas that were still in German hands. The coverage over regions where the German Army still was in control was probably done to acquire “baseline cover” in the event those parts became enemy held. Belzec, being on an important main rail line was photographed as early as May 13th on Mission GX8095 yielding good quality photographs This imagery recorded the state of the extermination camp just 16 months after killing had ceased and only 4 months after the camp had been turned over to a Ukrainian caretaker. This photography showed several puzzling structures and the presence of possible vehicles.This can be illustrated by Figures 5.0.2, 5.03 and 5.0.4. Figure 5.0.2, contains two enlargements from frames of the
May 13 Mission. They cover the site of a garage used to service SS camp vehicles. This building was razed the previous year when Belzec Camp was demolished (See Kola, page 55). The long building on the left of the photograph was built on the foundations of the earlier garage, but this building is significantly smaller than the structure it replaced: 5.5 x 18.3 m versus 12 x 26 meters. There is some sort of structure - or possibly a truck - alongside the building. The dimensions of the object are the same the 3 ton Opal Blitz, which was one of the standard Wehrmacht vehicles of WW II. The new building’s area measures about 100 square meters - enough to house a family. This structure may be the dweling erected to house the Ukrainian recruited to guard the former camp. To the right of the building are what seem to be four rectangular objects. These were thought at first to be vehicles. A later cover of the Camp, Mission GX8084 (see Figure 5.03), shows
that the objects in question most likely were a building under construction, probably only partially roofed. The date Mission GX8084 was flown was not recorded, but a comparison of the agricultural field patterns with GX8195 shows that, despite the mission number, it was flown later, probably in June. Although of poor quality, the photograph shows the shadow cast by what appears to be a gable roofed structure with a short ell (see inset in Figure 5.03). However, of great interest, is the fact that there are two railcars present on one of the old sidings. This observation shows that at least a portion of the rails were left in place after the rest of the Belzec camp was razed. This conclusion has been verified by ground photographs taken in the fall of 1945 (See Photo Composite 2 - Figure 5.0.8 and Photo Composite 4 - Figure 5.0.8 below).

The testimonies cited above indicate that a single building was built to house the caretaker/farmer. However, it appears that at least two structures were erected: one in the period preceding the May aerial photography, and a second which was being erected in May and was completed by the time Belzec was imaged again sometime in June. One source (see Internet Resources: states that the building assigned to the Ukrainian caretaker was “a large Jewish house from the other end of Belzec Village” which had been taken down and then rebuilt at the camp for the use of the custodian, and that it had been demolished again in turn after the occupation by the Red Army. Part of those assertions appear correct: when Belzec was covered again in August both structures were gone. This can be seen
in Figure 5.0.4 in which the coverage of the Camp shows the sequence from first sighting to demolition. The frames acquired in August and September reveal that the structures had been removed leaving only a light toned sandy area.

The arrival of the Red Army

By May 1944 the front lines between the German and Soviet forces was less than 110 kilometers (Figure 5.01) away, and the Soviet forces were about to launch Operation Bagration. This operation jumped off on June 23. Along the Lublin-Prezemyl axis, which included Belzec, the Germans defences consisted of the North Ukraine Army Group with the 4th Panzer Army attached. Bagration was a massive attack which destroyed the German Army Group Center - a bigger disaster than at Stalingrad, and the Wehrmacht suffered enormous losses. The map shows the situation in relation to Belzec. In a single month starting June 22, the Red Army swept past Belzec and Lublin. . On July 5th an air attack by the Red Air Force caught a German ammunition train on the tracks in front of the Belzec Station. The resulting explosion leveled the station house. Sometime between the 16th and the 27th of July, the 1st Guards Tank Army overran Belzec. But there, the world at large remained largely ignorant of the crimes which had been committed there for several years, even though the terrible events had been known to the Polish partisans and had been reported by the Polish government in exile. Figure 5.0.5 was
taken in September, 1944 when the area around Belzec was firmly under Soviet control. One can see the bomb craters left by the attack on the rail yard and trains July 5th.. Also visible is an Soviet armored company parked across the highway from the ruins of the station. None of the extermination camp’s facilities were damaged. In the Figure, the SS compound, the roundhouse area and the camp itself are unmarked.

By the third week in July the Soviets captured Lublin, the former headquarters of Globotnik’s Aktion Reinhard. In Lublin, the Russians discovered the Majdanek death and concentration camp. Bagration had been so overwhelmingly successful that the Germans had had no time to destroy the evidence of the crimes committed and so the camp was almost intact. The gas chambers were intact as were the cremation ovens, although the wooden building housing them had been burnt to hide the execution of Polish prisoners executed at the last moment. Thousands of starved victims were rescued. The Soviets recognized the propaganda value of Majdanek and by October 1944 pictures and film taken there were being published in the West (the Soviets very soon converted this camp into a concentration camp, where resistance fighters of the Polish non-communist underground were imprisoned).

The Investigation and Documentation of the Nazi Crimes

Following the defest of Germany, the new Polish regime, backed by the Soviet civil authorities, opened a series of investigations into the crimes committed by the Germans in Poland. Two commisions were formed, one in 1945 and a second in 1946. The commissions set up boards of enquiry before which testimony was taken from local residents. The boards also conducted on site investigations, including the opening of graves to verify that they contained human remains.

It is a supreme irony that the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, rivaling those of Hitler, were yet to be fully acknowledged by much of the world.

First Investigation: The Polish War Crimes Commission of the Zamosc District Court. 1945-46

An investigation was lead by Judge Czeslaw Godzieszewski from the District Court in Zamosc.On October 10, 1945 day, Judge Godzieszewski and his team of investigators entered Belzec camp and began their investigations. Nine pits were opened up which confirmed the existence of mass graves, some still containing human remains, and the fact that thousands of corpses had been cremated and the bones crushed into small pieces. The human remains unearthed were re-interred in a specially built concrete crypt near the NE corner of the camp. A special report was issued dated 11 April, 1946.

Photographs from the First Commission's Investigations in 1945

A number of photographs of the camp were taken in October, 1945, probably as a part of the investigation. These investigations, although conducted under the heavy hand of the Soviet occupation authorities, constitute an objective record of Belzec. They constitute a unique record of this terrible site and document its appearance before time and nature further masked the tragedy which befell the Jewish people here. From the photyographs one is struck by the resemblance of the camp to a desolate wasteland. The coverage of the ground shots were correlated to the aerial pictures and the camera cone angle plotted on the latter to provide composites of the two image sources. These and enlargements are presented in Figures 5.06 through 5.21. Many significant conclusions were derived from a thorough study of these pictures. The results of this analysis is presented in the following sections.

Photo Composite 1 - Figure 5.06 The ground photos shown here appear to be taken from an elevated vantage point. The only place this could have been would be a roof top or upper story window of one of the buildings in a farmstead located across from the camp on the other side of
the rail tracks (Annotation A in Figure 5.0.6). This demonstrates that portions of Belzec could have been observed from outside the fences. Although the wires were woven with evergreen branches, with some effort (and risk) one could have peered over these barriers from places such as those farm buildings. The higher parts within the camp may also have been visible to outside observers, particularly activity around the burial sites. However, the 3 meters fences woven with evergreen branches must have been fairly effective (see the discussion under Composite 2) to passersby on the railroad and highway. The effectiveness of the small remnant trees copses can also be seen in Figure 5.0.7, an enlargement of the previous figure.There, the gas chamber (Annotation A) would have been largely hidden so that seeing the killing process would have been difficult or impossible.

Photo Composite 2 - Figure 5.0.8 The ground photo was taken looking from the death camp across the top of a low scarp. The view is in the opposite direction from that presented in Figure 5.0.6
In the immediate foreground is a sandy area where one of the largest mass graves was situated. The scarp formed a part of the boundary between the death and receiving camp, and it overlooked a flat area across which the tube to the gas chamber crossed and on which were situated several barracks, including one, just behind the lip of the scarp, housing the slave labor contingent. The small copse which sheltered the first gas chamber is in the mid ground, screened by the trees in the foreground.

The large burial pit is characterized by the barren sandy soil. The grassy vegetation, dotted with small seedling pines, occupies relatively undisturbed ground. The seedlings are most likely some of those planted by Scharfuhrer Unverhau in 1943. This area near the site of the gas chambers is the only one where these small trees can be seen.

In the enlargement presented in Figure 5.0.9 one can see the roofs (Annotation “C“) of a number of buildings. The photograph of Figure 5.06 was probably was probably taken from one of the roofs or out of a window. Annotation “B” indicates the highway and “ A” the rail sidings and associated ramp. The rails branched off the main line and entered the camp just off the photograph (see discussion of these features under Composite Number 9 below). The main line is invisible. It was at a lower grade than the sidings. Annotation “D” points to a railroad signal tower. The significance of this feature as a metric is discussed below. The gate through which the convoys pased into the camp was located at about the same position as the signal tower. A contemporary German account of passing Belzec was recorded in a diary by On 30 August 1942 by a German non-commissioned officer, Wilhelm Cornides:

“6.20 pm. We passed camp Belzec. Before then, we traveled for some time through a tall pine forest. When the woman called, 'Now it comes,' one could see a high hedge of fir trees.

A strong sweetish odor could be made out distinctly. 'But they are stinking already,' says the woman. 'Oh nonsense, it is only the gas,' the railway policeman said laughing. Meanwhile - we had gone on about 200 meters - the sweetish odor was transformed into a strong smell of something burning. 'That is from the crematory,' says the policeman. A short distance farther the fence stopped. In front of it, one could see a guard house with an SS post. A double track led into the camp.” ( See Gilbert, Martin. Final Journey P211-212 ).

The “high hedge of fir trees” mentioned by Cornides above was the 3 meter fence with greenery woven into the wire to screen the camp. In Figure 5.09, The aforementioned railroad tower is 6 meters high, as indicated by the black and white portions painted on the post. One can readily appreciate that a 3 meter fence would hide all but the very tops of the building roofs, and thus hide the site from which the photograph was taken, which was above almost all the camp’s buildings, including the greater part of the burial sites, thus no observations by Cornides were made about the camp’s interior. In Figure 5.0.10, the inversion of viewpoint can also show the visibility of the camp interior from the north where one can see buildings in the village
of Belzec (Annotation “A“). These structures were across the highway from the SS compound. The sand hill which remained from the antitank ditch is indicated by “B”. One can appreciate that nothing would have prevented someone from looking into the higher parts of the camp from this direction. A three meter fence, even positioned atop the hill, would not have screened the camp entirely effectively. However, the camera position is about 600 meters from the nearest building, and closer parts of the camp containing the burial grounds abutted the screening fence so that they could not be seen as they would be lying below the line of sight from the village to the top of the sand hill.

Photo Composite 3 - Figure 5.0.11 This view Was taken very close to the rail sidings. In the background can be seen a slight escarpment, atop which are five or six small pines . These trees are the same ones visible in Figure 5.08 from the opposite side. The scarp formed the demarcation between the burial ground of the death camp and the receiving area. Two very large barracks buildings were situated on the rubble and rock strewn flats immediately in front of the camera.

In Figure 5.0.12, an enlargement of 5.0.11, the figure of what appears to be a man stands on the slope above the escarpment. The latter feature is indicated by the annotation “A“. The pines alluded to above are directly above the scarp, which shows as the white linear scar. The man’s figure serves to give a sense of scale to the scene. The scarp appears to be about half as high as the figure. Just in front of the scarp was the probable location of a barracks for the Jewish slave workers assigned to the Receiving Camp. The Kola excavations unearthed traces of a small building and artifacts related to medical uses from a location very close to the pines, below the scarp (See Kola, page 58).

Photo Composite 4 - Figure 5.013 The ground photo in the composite is the only picture discovered which was taken close to where the gas chamber had been located. That structure had been situated about 80 meters uphill from where the photographer was standing. The pine boughs framing the shot were on trees forming a part of the screening of the chamber. In the background one can clearly see the embankment and a profile of one of the rails of the siding which carried the victims into the camp. This feature is annotated in the enlargement in
Figure 5.14. The grade level of the sidings was significantly above the mainline running parallel on the other, and so cannot be seen. Thus, Cornides looking in this direction while on a passing train would have been looking up at a 9 meter high, screening fence.

Photo Composite 5 - Figure 5.0.15 This Composite Encompasses the section of Belzec which had the greatest density of mass burial pits. In the foreground are probable test excavations - one is marked with “X” (Arrow annotations, Figure 5.16) with transparent ink on the negative.
The section just to the left of the sand hill, and to the rear of the photographer’s station was formerly occupied by barracks and other buildings used to house and support the Ukrainian guard contingent. Note the undisturbed state of the ground around the test diggings, and the absence of any seedling trees or of signs of farming.

Composite 6 - Figure 5.0.17 Shown here again is section having the greatest concentration of burial pits. The scene imaged in the ground was taken in the opposite direction as the picture in Composite 5. The farmstead discussed previously is in the middle ground, just behind the rail line. In the enlargement presented in Figure 5.18, four probable test excavation are indicated by Annotation “A”.


Photo Composite 7 - Figure 5.19 The ground photograph encompasses a small part of the death camp which evinced the maximum ground disturbance. Close stereoscopic inspection of this area on the aerial photos showed that there were a number of shallow gullies, hummocks and pits throughout. The gas chambers building was located about 100 meters to the west Annotation A). The site of the camera station with
respect to the aerial photo is considered accurate to within 25 meters . The opening in the trees seen at the top of the ground photo is due to a strip of trees cleared from the forest before 1941. The piled up low ridges of sand may be the result of the spoil left by the drag line excavator (See Figure 8.10 in the section on the Treblinka death camp). after opening the graves identified by Kola in 1997-1999, or they may be the result of gold and treasure hunters which reportedly scavenged the camp after its dismantlement in 1943. However, the latter explanation seems unlikely, since the stereoscopic examination included coverage flown in May and September 1943 and the site appears unchanged during this period.

Composite 8 - Figure 5.20: The Clothing Warehouse in the Round House

A locomotive roundhouse was used by the SS to store the belongings of the murdered people (Figure 5.20).
This building was outside the camp proper, inside the arms of a turnaroound wye (the construction of which was started before 1940, but never completed). Of interest is the fact that the storage activity was not hidden, and belongings kept inside the building could be seen through the locomotive bays when they were opened. The railroad main line was only 50 meters from the roundhouse and pasengers on trains going by could see inside. This lack of secrecy may have been because Belzec, being the first extermination center, was where procedures and the physical plant was developed. At Sobibor and Treblinka, the clothing and other belongings were stored in large warehouse-like buildings specially constructed for the purpose.

A well known description of the storage facility was made August 30, 1942 by Wilhelm Cornides, a Wehrmach NCO traveling by passenger train from Rzeszow to Cholm, past Belzec. Just south of Belzec, the voyage took him past a large forested region, and then past the outer perimeter fence of the camp. An powerful impression was made on him on this trip by what he observed and by conversations he had with other passengers and with a railway policemen. As a result he made several diary entries on the day he passed by the death camp: ­

6.20 pm. We passed camp Belzec. Before then, we traveled for some time through a tall pine forest. When the woman called, 'Now it comes,' one could see a high hedge of fir trees. A strong sweetish odor could be made out distinctly. 'But they are stinking already,' says the woman. 'Oh nonsense, it is only the gas,' the railway policeman said laughing. Meanwhile - we had gone on about 200 meters - the sweetish odor was transformed into a strong smell of something burning. 'That is from the crematory,' says the policeman. A short distance farther the fence stopped. In front of it, one could see a guard house with an SS post. A double track led into the camp. One track branched off from the main line, the other ran over a turntable from the camp to a row of sheds some 250 meters away.

Here one must look to the aerial photography in Figure 5.021 and one can see how accurate Cornides remarks were. The main line (Annotation A) he refers too passes close by the outer perimeter fence, in which was woven pine branches (the “high hedge of fir
trees” - Annotation B). The double track leading into the camp and a guard shack then was reported (annotation C). The track leading into the camp was a branch from the main line Annotation D) and from one passing past the roundhouse and over a turntable (Annotation E and F). Of great interest is the fact that Cornides mentions two siding tracks:

A freight car happened to stand on the table. Several Jews were busy turning the disc. SS guards, rifle under the arm, stood by. One of the sheds was open; one could distinctly see that it was filled with bundles of clothes to the ceiling. As we went on, I looked back one more time. The fence was too high to see anything at all. The woman says that sometimes, while going by, one could see smoke rising from the camp, but I could notice nothing of the sort. My estimate is that the camp measures about 800 by 400 meters." (See: reference 13, pp92-95).

Cornides states that he could see bundles of clothes " the cieling". In the Figure, one can see that the main line is only about 50 meters from the roundhouse so that one could eailly see into the open shed from a rail carriage.

The Second Investigating Commission

In April of 1946, a second commission was formed. This body established more completely the history of all the Reinhhard camps, and their precursor at Chelmno. The commission described the steps to mass murder: the ghettoization of the Jewish population, and the transport of these peoples to the various death camps. One of the witnesses before the commission was Chaim Herszman. Herszmen had escaped from the transport taking the last Jewish workers from Belzec to Sobibór where they were to be shot. Hirszman had completed part of his deposition and was to return the next day to complete his testimony. He never made it. He was murdered by Polish anti-Semites before he could.

The second Commission had verified that a final inspection by the SS had occurred at Belzec to ensure that the evidence of the heinous crimes committed at Belzec had been removed. The several investigations at Belzec since 1945 have shown that the SS commission failed. The original investigations at Belzec unequivocally showed what the nature of the camp had been. Kola’s excavations in the period from 1998 to 1999 provided a scientific measure of the magnitude of the crimes. It is also a great irony that the German WW II Luftwaffe proved to be another agent providing an invaluable source of information for delimiting of the scope of the murders.

The several investigations at Belzec since 1945 have shown that the SS commission failed. The original investigations at Belzec unequivocally showed what the nature of the camp had been. All the Aktion Reinhard staff was transferred as a group to duty in Trieste. They were formed into three SS/Police units with Wirth as commanding officer whose headquarters was an old rice mill in San Sabba, a suburb of Trieste. The Wirth Einsatz was an extension of the work carried out in Poland with the additional task of combating the partisans, which in Trieste were particularly effective. Several of the T-4 personnel were killed in action against them. Wirth was killed at Erpelle on the 26th May 1944. Franz Stangl, Treblinka’s Commandant told Sereny: I saw him dead They said partisans killed him but we thought his own men had taken care of him. (Sereny)

In the 1960s, the Federal Republic of Germany brought to trial a number of the Belzec SS contingent who survived the war. Some of them were convicted and sentenced to various terms in prison. Lorenz Hackenholt, who ran the gas chambers and designed the improved installations at all three Reinard camps, was never found. Although he was suspected of being alive and had been seen alive in the years immediately after the war ended. He was the object of a search by the German Police. But it was to no avail and he may have escaped being brought to justice (for a comprehensive account of this see (see Internet Resources - Tregenza)

The Archeological Excavations of Andres Kola

In 1997 a competition was held for a Belzec memorial to be constructed on the site of the camp. The work selected was by a team led by Andrzej Kola (Kola). Before work began, an archeological/topographic investigation had to be completed so as to exclude all burial sites from the proposed constructions This effort began in 1997 Andrzej Kola, Professor at the Unversity of Torun was in charge of the explorations. The procedures used was to take boring cores on a five meter grid. The core data collected was examined, recorded and then the sample replaced. Each sample position was recorded on a special large scale map. The samples were drilled as deep as 6 meters and the cores constituted a cross section of the soils penetrated. Disturbed and undisturbed layers were differentiated. When disturbed horizans containing human remains or other artifacts were encountered, excavations or a denser set of corings were taken. These procedures allowed the invesigators to delineate grave sites. Building remains detected could also then be excavated and mapped out.

Some 2,000 drillings were made and these resulted in the definitave location and mapping of 33 mass graves. They were of many sizes, shapes, and depths. The contents were also various. Some contained naked bodies in a mummified fat-wax form, others graves contains the burnt remains of bones and ashes, some ashes lime used to speed decomposition. (see Figure 5.022)
There was no way from the data to estimate how many victimes the remains represented, but the number and area occupied by the burial sites was immense. The number of mass graves was unexpected and was a most significant discovery - pointing indisputably to a huge number of murdered individuals. The large number of camp structures found was also a surprise. Particularly since the buildings were almost all of wood construction, many being built over small cellars.

Figure 5.022 preents a summary of Kola's findings, as well as features mapped out after interpreting the aerial photographs. The archeological map was matched and overlaid to the photograph. By itself, this illustration confirms reports made by Reder and the drawing made based on his testimony. As crude and out of scale as was this map, it is clearly shows correctly that the gas chambers were centrally located; the burial pits arranged to each side; and a recieving courtyard positioned below the gas chambers, connected to it by a short "tube". The distribution of graves is also correct: The largest number to the left (west) and a smaller number to the right (east)
If one then compares a map prepared from Reder's testimony to one made from aerial photography (see Section on Recieving, Figure 4.6.7 to 4.6.9), a more remarkable correlation can be made. Reder's map shows three and courtyards preceding the gas chamber building's entrance. Figure 5.024 shows Reder's map of the Camp on the leff, the aerial photo map on the right. On the aerial photo, he areas identified as courtyards can be compared to the aerial photo interpretations.


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