Belzecan extermination camp located outside of the small town of the same name in southeastern Poland. Approximately 600,000 Jews and a few hundred Roma (Gypsies) were murdered there.
On November 1, 1941, as part of Aktion Reinhard, the Germans began construction of the death camp. The Belzec site had good rail connections and was located in the center of the large Jewish populations of Lvov, Cracow and Lublin. The commandant of Belzec was Christian Wirth. His former experience was in the Euthanasia Program, which was code named T-4 by the Nazis. He commanded 30 SS guards and 120 Ukrainian volunteers who had been Soviet prisoners-of-war.
The physical dimensions of the camp were small; it was 886 feet square. The victims arrived by trains, each consisting of 40 to 60 boxcars packed with 100 to 130 Jews per car. The conditions in the boxcars were horrible with no water or toilet facilities. Twenty of the freight cars at a time were shunted into the camp. The Jews were told that they were at a transit camp and that they would be sent for distribution to labor camps after they had been disinfected and washed. The men were separated from the women and small children and both groups forced to strip. The women were shorn of their hair, which was to made into felt footwear.
The victims were driven by blows into the "showers," the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide gas produced by a diesel engine outside caused death in 20 to 30 minutes. The corpses were lying in all directions, and the gas gave their lips a bluish tint. A group of Jewish prisoners took out the bodies, a "dentist" removed gold teeth, and the bodies were thrown into ditches and buried. After the camp had been shut down, the bodies were dug up and cremated. Then the ashes were buried in the same ditches. After the camp was dismantled, farmers in the area swarmed over the site looking for money and gold that the Jews were rumored to have hidden in the ground. To stop this the Germans had the area plowed over and sown, and trees were planted.
Belzec was liberated by the Soviet army and is now a national shrine. Christian Wirth was killed by partisans during the war. Only a few individuals succeeded in escaping from Belzec. One, Rudolf Reder escaped in November 1942 and wrote a booklet about his experiences. Another, Chaim Hirschmann, was killed in Lublin after the war on March 19, 1946.
Sources: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; USHMM, Historical Atlas of the Holocaust; Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust.