Reconstruction of Belzec: Introduction

This is the second study of an Aktion Reinhard camp. The first study dealt with Treblinka. That document was published several months ago and also appears on this web site. These reports represent several months of work stretched out over several years.

Embarking on this work, one finds that reconstructing events and the physical descriptors of a site purposely destroyed over 60 years ago is a tedious and difficult project. Of the tragedies that played out at the three Action Reinhard camps, Belzec is the most mute. There are only two known survivors of Belzec to describe what they saw and experienced. One of the men, R. Reder, wrote a book published in Crakow in 1946. the second, named Chaim Herszman, was a witness before a Polish commission set up to investigate German war crimes. Herszmen had escaped from a train transporting him and last Jewish workers to Sobibor for execution Thet were being carried from from Belzec after the demolition of that camp. Hirszman lived to see the end of Nazism and had completed part of his deposition beore the Polish commission when it adjourned. He was to return the next day to complete his testimony. He never made it; he was murdered by Polish anti-Semites. Other first hand testimony exists from Polish and German Sources. The former were very restricted in the time and place they had to observe. The latter suffer from the obvious interest they had had in limiting their culpability. Much of the first hand material available - verbal testaments by victims and perpetrators are conflicting, terse, and suffer from memory lapses due either to the passage of time or the need for self protection. Some just due to the number of years that had passed after the events they witnessed. There are great gaps in the narratives, and there is no possibility of amplification because in the passage of time, memories fade, or the witnesses die. The most reliable sources, photographs, are few and scattered. At Belzec, there were a number of Luftwaffe reconnaissance missions flown over the camp. All but one were flown after it was liquidated and all clustered in the period of May through September 1944. The single exception is photography flown in 1940 before the camp was built. Each member of the SS at the camps signed a secrecy oath which explicitly prohibited photographs. This stricture was violated at Treblinka by The Deputy Commandant, Kurt Franz. Franz took perhaps three dozen snapshots, most of which were only peripheral to the real functions of the camp. Nevertheless, at Treblinka, the pictures Franz took served to substantiate much of the testimonies about the death camp. At Belzec hand held camera pictures are even scarcer, and none were taken in the death camp area as happened at Treblinkla. Those few are not particularly compromising. Thus, the reconstruction required a dependence on the aerial photos, which, while objective sources, require experience and knowledge for proper interpretation, and the judicious use of the collateral testaments.

Offsetting the difficulties described above, is the fact that Belzec, is the only camp where an extensive archeological study has been performed. At Belzec there has been no need to speculate on the location or size of the mass graves. This aspect of the reconstruction was done using established methodology by a trained scientist. This study by Andrezej Kola, Professor of Archeology and Ethnology at the University of Torun, established the number, size, and location of the burial pits. In all, some 33 graves were mapped and the condition of the remains described. These passages by Kola are particularly horrific because of their scientific detachment. For example, regarding grave pit number 1 Kola's report stated (and here the quotation has been edited for clarity):

The bottom plan view of the grave most probably had the shape of an irregular rectangle with a size of 40 x 12 meters and a depth of 4.8 meters. The bottom of the pit was filled with bodies in wax-fat transformation. Above a depth of 2 meters to about 20-30 centimeters from the surface, the contents were mixed burnt human bones and charcoal. Burnt human bones and charcoal were also found in core samples drilled in the area around the pit.(Reference 16, p22)

Discoveries by Kola were correlated with observations made on the aerial photography and led to the identification of a number of structures that otherwise would not have been possible.

The guiding principle for the study was thus one of convergence of evidence. Events of structures described by witnesses would guide the search for corroboration on the aerial photos. Maps drawn by former SS guards assigned to Belzec, or by Poles who lived nearby, were then studied to see if these offered any independent, further support. Finally the Kola work was reviewed to see if his findings were useful. In one case, all these sources served to identify the location of the primary buildings erected in the early stage of Belzec's history (see Reconstruction of the Receiving Area), with the result that the part of the camp in its earliest phase can be considered as well known as its later evolutions.

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