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 attempted erasing of evidence of the great crimes committed. Graves were opened and the corpses burned; buildings were torn down and burned; 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 would 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.
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 German's 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 with them. In the silence, there was left the scars of the extermination camp. At Belzec, as at Treblinka, many structures razed months before the aerial 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 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. Often times this was 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 sun's elevation allowing the accenting of small heights due to long shadows and road and fence lines due to vegetation differences after stressing in the drier summer months.
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 it brings out subtle details with 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 was a lot of coverage flown in 1944, but much of it is of poor quality or of very small scale. The missions which captured the site at reasonable scales and resolutions were few, 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 was 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. 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 missions which accidentally acquired overlapping coverage that could be viewed stereoscopically. Two missions which, by themselves, provided only a single frame 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
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 show 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 it 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 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 were 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,
Last modified: February 12, 2008