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Belzec: The Forgotten Camp

Belzec: The Forgotten Camp

Not much is known about Belzec, where as many as one million Jews perished. No one survived to tell.


I wanted to go to Belzec (pronounced Biwzhets) because no one really does. One million Jews died there in the span of nine months – and hardly anyone knows about it. I felt it was a pilgrimage to a holy site: the second largest (after Treblinka) Jewish graveyard in history.

Mike Tregenza was my guide. He is a non-Jewish, English historian who lectures at Lublin university. According to Sir Martin Gilbert, he is the world expert on Belzec.

Belzec is a sleepy little hamlet in southeast Poland. A few thousand people live there. All seem to be related in some way. We stopped for a drink in a bar and the natives seemed unfriendly enough. All in all, it’s a pretty innocuous place. One would never guess that of the million Jews who arrived there in 1942, only two survived.

Mike told me that he interviewed the station-master who worked at Belzec during the war. On every cattle car that arrived, there was written a number; the number of "pieces" (as the Germans would say) contained therein. He kept a tally. When he reached seven figures, he could no longer continue.

Belzec was a part of "Operation Reinhardt." Its purpose, which was accomplished, was to destroy the Jewish communities of Eastern Poland – specifically the main centers of Warsaw, Lublin, Cracow and Lvov.

Operation Reinhardt began in March 1942 with the construction of Belzec and ended in August 1943 with the destruction of Treblinka. It utilised three camps: Treblinka in the north, Sobibor and Belzec in the south. It was masterminded by Sturmbahnfuhrer Christian Wirth and Belzec was his prototype " his baby.

Most Deadly

Of all the camps in the Holocaust, Belzec was the most deadly. If a person went there, he was not coming back. There are Auschwitz survivors, Mathausen survivors, even Treblinka and Sobibor survivors. One will never meet a Belzec survivor. As such, relatively little is known of what went on inside the camp. Mike, though, with extensive research, can piece together a picture.

The turnover time for getting 3,000 human beings to ashes was about 2-3 hours. It took a little more time to sort the clothes and valuables, clean the trains and send them back loaded with goodies. Six thousand a day was probably its maximum capacity.

As Mike explained, once a person arrived in Belzec, he would have wished he was in Dante’s inferno. Guns and dogs, undress, run naked up a steep hill flanked by Ukranians with whips, sticks and swords, pushed into a small chamber by the weight of people behind, doors closed, gas…

That was if he was lucky.

In many instances, the engines, which produced the gas, broke down. There were times when people waited hours upon hours cramped like sardines into a gas chamber until the engines could be fixed and they could be gassed. Even Rudolf Hoess (the erstwhile criminal who became kommondant of Auschwitz) was horrified by the methods used. It was, in his words, "inhumane."

Mike told me that 12 SS men and some Ukranian auxiliaries staffed Belzec. It was a shocking and horrifying thought: 12 SS men could murder a million Jews.

The Germans destroyed Belzec when they left and planted a forest instead. They wanted to cover up what had happened and, unfortunately, they did an excellent job. To the undiscerning eye, absolutely nothing remains. It is a broken railroad track that ends in a road up to a forest. There is a small, dilapidated memorial containing some bones and ashes (which is regularly vandalised by Poles searching for "Jewish gold"). It is overgrown and unkempt.

On the surface, there is nothing to indicate what happened here less than 60 years ago.

But then Mike bent down and picked up some small white and black fragments from the ground. I thought them to be small stones. I looked more closely and was again horrified: they were human bones. Once we reached the mass burial pits, the fragments were everywhere. When I started to search, I found many complete bones, some from adults and some, quite clearly, from children. I found a whole set of teeth " with holes where the fillings had been.

Auschwitz/Birkenau is a major tourist attraction. Treblikna has a heart-wrenching memorial. But at Belzec, there are only bones. It’s a quiet spot, in a pretty forest. And if you spent a few years there, you might just be able to pick them all up. But what touched me most deeply about Belzec, and continues to do so, was its loneliness. It is a forgotten camp. So few people visit. The first tragedy is that so many died here. But the more immediate tragedy is that nobody really seems to care.

April 29, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 150

(145) Roberta Tankanow, December 10, 2017 2:47 AM

Searching for relatives from Sniatyn

looking for survivors from Sniatyn, surname, Grun or Gruen

(144) Sammish, December 5, 2016 4:03 PM

Lanzmann's Belzec documentary

Claude Lanzmann (beside his masterpiece Shoah) did produced an equally powerful documentary called simply "Belzec". It is a 3 hour film account of the death camp's inception, running and horrors. It also deals with how the SS ran this camp, how they tried to conceal it after it was dismantled. The documentary is set up similarly as Shoah (with actual interviews of those ugly polish farmers who helped build the camp and one surviving girl who hid outside the camp for 2 years (now elderly). Of course, Lanzmann cinematography of the places surrounding the camp with the villages, hamlets, train stations, forests as well as the powerfully railway visuals leave the viewer reflective of the horrors of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, it is masterfully narrated. The first minute narration of an incredible reading of a letter left by one deportee is so sad and incredibly unforgettable moment with film shots of empty towns and shtetls. I would recommend this documentary for a reflection on Yom HaShoah and remembrance of those innocent Jewish lives who were murdered there.

(143) Sharona Ehrlich, December 4, 2016 5:05 PM

Read the book "The Last Jews of Lwow"

My Mother's family perished there. She wrote a thorough account of the history of the Jewish community of Lwow, in particular those harrowing last years, in a book titled "The Last Jews of Lwow" by Tiqva Nathan. There is a description of how the Jews of the time found out about Belzec, where the trains were going, from their own accounts of their experiences. And how hard it was for them to accept such a place existed.

(142) becci, November 8, 2016 10:34 AM


hi there i really want to visit the forests burial places when i visit next week where are they please

(141) Patrick Dempsey, February 26, 2016 12:25 AM


We cannot do Justice to the memory of those 600,000 Jews Murdered here. Please do not over inflate the account as we attempt o come to terms with the accuracy required for History to acknowledge. I too have been to Belzec. I too am appalled that this could happen to innocent People. But we must know that the atrocity committed cannot be altered by inference of a greater statistical analysis!

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