Belzec, one of the Nazis death camps associated with Action Reinhard, was opened in November 1941. Belzec was in the southeast corner of Poland, and like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor, was in a remote sight, away from prying eyes. Belzec began its murders in March 1942 and it closed in December 1942. Belzec was responsible for up to 600,000 deaths in the Holocaust.
The original camp at Belzec has been a labour camp and had been opened in 1940. Labourers held here and local Jews were used to convert the camp into a death camp. The first commander of Belzec death camp was Christian Wirth, a SS officer.
Initially at Belzec there were three gas chambers in use. This was later increased to six to cope with the increased human traffic that was being sent to the camp. Unlike Auschwitz, which covered a large area, Belzec was reasonably small. A rail spur led directly to the camp. One part of the camp was used to store the clothes and valuables taken from the victims sent there. Another separate part of the camp held the gas chambers and burial pits. The two sections were connected by what was known as “The Tube” – a narrow passageway topped with barbed wire. Branches, taken off nearby trees, were interwoven into the barbed wire to screen it off from the camp’s other section.
Wirth ensured that the guards there worked effectively. When a train arrived at Belzec, it would usually have 2000 to 2,500 Jews in the trucks. When they had disembarked from the trucks, the Jews were split into two to three groups. They were then made to enter the camp. Having been told that they needed to shower before starting labour duties, the Jews were forced through “The Tube” and then to the gas chambers. The process of mass murder took about 30 minutes – Belzec used carbon monoxide gas piped in from a diesel engine. Other Jewish prisoners – the Sonderkommando – were made to clear the gas chamber of bodies and to extract gold teeth etc. Other teams of Jews were used to tidy and sort the huts where the victims had taken off their clothes etc. It took about three hours to kill and then clean up one trainload of Jews.
When the number of gas chambers at Belzec was doubled, a whole trainload of Jews could be split in two and then “processed” (Wirth). The six gas chambers could take 1,200 Jews; the three-hour process was greatly reduced in time. However, as more were being murdered at one time, the SS needed more Jews to work as Sonderkommandos. At Belzec, in the second stage of its existence with six gas chambers, there were 1000 Sonderkommado. Those still alive when the camp stopped being used were sent to Sobibor to be murdered.
As with all the death camps, exact figures of deaths are impossible to acquire. Many documents of what went on at Belzec were either destroyed at the camp or sent to Berlin where they were also lost. It is thought that 600,000 Jews were murdered at Belzec along with 12,000 gypsies.
When it stopped operating in December 1942, the area where Belzec had been was ploughed over and turned into a farm.