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The Holocaust History Project.
The Holocaust History Project.

Reconstruction of Belzec: Appendix A

Grade Beam System of construction of the New Gas Chamber

One of the unanswered questions of Belzec that of the second Gas Chamber. It waas constructed of brick, but no trace has been found of a foundation needed to support such a structure. Kola's excavations (see Reference 16). revealed the presence of a small structure in the place where the building was known to have been sited, although brick rubble was unearthed in nearby graves. We have posited a theory which accounts for Kola's failure to find any substancial soil disturbances which one could expect to find as a result of digging for footings. The construction method wouold have resulted in only scattered excavations needed to place load bearing posts in the ground, and Kola's exploratory methods (sounding borings on five meter grid interval) would have only accidentally revealed their presence.

A grade beam construction system is proposed because it meets the requirements for a cheap foundation made of readily available, local materials, for which permanence is of little concern. Certainly the SS would not be overly interested in building a structure for the ages, and rather knew that everything they built would be razed within a short span of months. In addition, time was a driving factor; the camp had been closed down when the inadequacy of the original gas chambers became evident. A new and improved enlarged version was built between March and Early June 1943.

The grade beam method of construction is illustrated in Figure A-1**. Grade beams are usually used for frame structures:

Most light-frame construction projects follow a similar sequence of events: the perimeter of the planned structure is marked with stakes, soil within the defined area is excavated to a depth that is safely below the frost line (4'0" minimum in my area), foundation walls are formed, concrete is poured, and then a wood-frame structure is erected on top of the poured foundation. Excavations live a short life. They are dug only to be filled, with thousands of dollars worth of concrete. This building practice is at times a necessary. But often, filling an excavated trench with concrete is nothing more than a bad habit. There are less costly alternatives. Using a wooden grade beam is one option that saves time, money, labor and resources.*

The advantages enumerated above must have been clear to Hackenholt, the SS jack-of-all-trades who was a skilled mason and who was intimately involved in the design and construction of the gas chambers at all three Reinhard death camps. It would also have been apparent to him that such a system would be quicker to complete than a conventional foundation of poured concrete or mortared brick, and in the event of tearing down the structure, there would not be any refractory, deep foundation requiring excavation and demolition before it could be disposed of.

The major question facing one in implementing a grade beam footing is that of the size of the timber needed to support a masonry wall without deflection.
Figure A2 presents a graph of the weight of an 8 inch thick brick wall, 6 feet high. The weights are plotted against varying lengths of wall. Each length represents a span of grade beam between piers (as illustrated previously in Figure A1). From Figure A2**, a span of 6 or 7 feet weighs in the neighborhood of 1500 kilograms.

The soils at Belzec were sandy and this type of soil has excellent load bearing characteristics: It will not expand when wetted and it has good friction and compression characteristics. All that is needed in building is a strong beam, and a safe span interval between the posts so that beam flexing is minimized when loaded with a wall. This can be achieved with squared logs of large cross section, a building material in abundant supply at Belzec.

In Figure A3**, one can readily see that it is possible to support an 8 inch thick brick wall, 6 feet high over a span of 6 or 7 feet if tripled fir or spruce headers with dimensions of 6 x 16 or 6 x 18 are used. At Belzec the construction of the new gas chamber could proceed quickly without the need for digging and making a concrete or brick footing. This would mean that after the building was torn down, all that would remain would be the small areas of disturbed soils where the posts had been.

* Paul Fisette - © 1997, Director Building Materials and Wood Technology 126 Holdsworth Natural Resources Center University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003

**Graphs from Tables by Tech Notes, No. 6 September 1998. Western Wood Products Association, 522 S.W. Fifth Avenue, Portland Oregon 97204


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