All information below comes from
Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: the
Operation Reinhard Death Camps,
by Yitzhak Arad, published by Indiana University Press, 1987,
Copyright © 1987 by Yitzhak Arad
Reproduced with permission of the publisher,
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.
Belzec was the first camp devoted exclusively to extermination and therefore the model for all subsequent such camps. The gassings conducted there were intended as experiments that would establish which methods might be most efficient for killing large numbers of human beings. As Zyklon B had not yet been developed, the gas used at Belzec was carbon monoxide engine exhaust. The Nazis attempted, however, to keep the Jews (who were arriving in packed boxcars) unaware of their fate until the moment it overtook them. Deceit was the order of the day, with an elaborate masquerade devised to fool the victims. Arad offers the following testimony by SS Scharfuhrer Erich Fuchs, from the trial of SS Oberscharfuhrer Josef Oberhauser, the officer who was in charge of the construction of Belzec:. . . barracks were built as gas chambers. I installed shower heads in
heard with my own ears how Wirth, in a quite convincing voice,
explained to the Jews that they would be deported further and before
that, for hygienic reasons, they must bathe themselves and their
clothes would have to be disinfected. Inside the undressing barrack
was a counter for the deposit of valuables. It was made clear to the
Jews that after the bath their valuables would be returned to them. I
can still hear, until today, how the Jews applauded Wirth after his
speech. This behavior of the Jews convinces me that the Jews believed
Wirth . . .
The following account of a gassing at Belzec is from Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein, who visited the camps to advise on how to disinfect the clothes of murdered Jews.
. . . the march began. To the left and right, barbed
two dozen Ukrainians, guns in hand.
They approached. Wirth and I were standing on the ramp in
front of the death chambers. Completely nude men, women, young
girls, children, babies, cripples, filed by. At the corner stood a heavy
SS man, who told the poor people, in a pastoral voice: 'No harm will
come to you. You just have to breathe very deeply, that strengthens
the lungs, inhaling is a means of preventing contagious diseases. It's
a good disinfection!' They asked what was going to happen to them.
He told them: 'The men will have to work, building roads and houses.
But the women won't be obliged to do so; they'll do housework,
cooking.' For some of these poor creatures, this was a last small hope,
enough to carry them, unresisting, as far as the death chambers. . . .
. . . Unterscharfuhrer Hackenholt was making great efforts to get
the engine running. But it doesn't go. Captain Wirth comes up. I can
see he is afraid because I am present at a disaster. Yes, I see it all
and I wait. My stopwatch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and
the diesel did not start. The people wait inside the gas chambers. In
vain. They can be heard weeping. . . . Furious, Captain Wirth lashes
the Ukrainian assisting Hackenholt twelve, thirteen times, in the face.
After 2 hours and 49 minutes--the stopwatch recorded it all--the diesel
started. Up to that moment, the people shut up in those four crowded
chambers were still alive, four times 750 persons in four times 45 cubic
meters. Another 25 minutes elapsed. Many were already dead, that
could be seen through the small window because an electric lamp
inside lit up the chamber for a few moments. After 28 minutes, only a
few were still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead. . . .
. . . Two dozen workers were busy checking the mouths of the
dead, which they opened with iron hooks. "Gold to the left, without
gold to the right!' . . . Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and
crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. He was in his
element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: 'See for
yourself the weight of that gold! It's only from yesterday and the day
before. You can't imagine what we find every day--dollars, diamonds,
gold. You'll see for yourself! . . .'
In the epilogue to his book, Arad makes the point that although the victims deported to Belzec--as well as Sobibor and Treblinka-- were unaware of the fate that awaited them, information about what was happening in the extermination camps did reach the governments of Great Britain and the United States and probably also the Soviet Union. "No action followed this information," writes Arad on page 379:
steps were taken to warn the victims, to call on the local
and Underground to help the victims, to bomb the railways, or even the
camps, to disturb the smooth implementation of the deportations and
extermination. The Jewish people were left to their fate.
All art in this section and in the preceding one on the Holocaust
is the work of the artist known as Gideon and has been reproduced
with the permission of Gideon's grandson Richter Gideon, Jr.
Copyright © 1999 M S Rosenfeld