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The Holocaust History Project.
The Holocaust History Project.
 Belzec: Reconstruction of the Death Camp

Belzec: Reconstruction of the Death Camp

4.6 - Camp II: The Killing and Graves Area

The previous description of the receiving area in Camp I showed that the boundary between it and the death camp was a fence running from the sand mounds on the east side to the forest remnant on the west. The gas chambers and the mass graves lay north of this line. Also in this terrible place were the barracks and a few associated structures of the Jewish work commando. In this section the description of Camp II is arranged under the headings: The Mass Graves; Structures Identified; The Second Gas Chamber; Evidence of Machine Excavations; and The Fencing System.

The Mass Graves

It is possible to identify precisely where the mass graves are located because, of the three Reinhard camps, Belzec is the only one which has been subjected to scientific archeological study (Figure 4.6.1 shows the locations of these graves superimposed on aerial photography from 1944).
Previous investigations had been conducted but were not wide ranging and thorough from a forensics standpoint. In 1945, a Polish team lead by a judge from the Zamosc District held hearings. Nine sites were excavated and confirmed the existence of mass graves. Other investigations followed in 1946 and in 1961, but no actual archeological studies were done. In 1997-1998 a full scale archeological study was conducted by Andrzej Kola, the Director of the Archaelogical and Ethnological Institute of the Nicholas Copernicus University in Torun, Poland (Reference 16).

The Kola study involved the collection of 2001 core samples taken at five meter intervals over an area of about 6.5 hectares (16 acres). Excavations were conducted when the cores indicated the presence of buried cultural artifacts.

The findings resulting from this study was the discovery of 33 mass graves of varying sizes from very small to quite large. In addition to graves containing only crematory ashes and charcoal, many were discovered to contain unburned remains and layers fat-wax - the transitional results of anaerobic decomposition.

Structures Identified

Kola also identified the remains of several buildings throughout the camp area. The system of sample probes was used to detect disturbed soil and the presence of manmade objects, whereupon excavations were made. Figure 4.6.2 presents the
structures found in the camp. Of the total, A through G, only A, B and G were located in the burial area. The remains of A consisted of fragments of the wooden walls of a small structure buried 2 to 3 meters deep (Reference 16,page 47)).

Kola reported that: “The site was rich in personal belongings” such as combs, tin box covers, Polish coins, and shards or fragments of shoes, glass, and ceramic. Partially burnt human bones were mixed in the soil. Kola believed that the excavated structure could have been the cellar of a larger building.

Building B was similar to A, in that it was a deeply buried (2 meters). However, its remains were brick walls making a structure of about 2.75 by 7 meters. Artifacts recovered included:

“....pieces of medicine bottles, plastic combs, parts of a mess tin, a bronze brooch, a silver cover of a cigarette case, complete spoons and their pieces (sic),..........., Polish coins, 10 rouble gold coin, glass medicine phials,...............” (Kola pp49-52)

The Second Gas Chamber

Kola’s excavation uncovered only the rotted traces of wooden building and tar paper. The remains occupied an area of 3.5 by 15 meters. Its location coincided with the reported site of the second gas chamber and on this basis Kola concluded that it was probably that building. He wrote:

The cultural contents consisted of fragments of tar paper, iron nails coming probably from the overground (sic - aboveground) building construction. Moreover pieces of dentures, female combs and two Polish grosz coins were found. The wooden building served probably as a gas chamber in the second stage of the camp functioning (sic - operation), in (sic - during the) autumn and winter 1942. Such an interpretation could be confirmed by its location in the camp plan. (Kola, pp61)

The gas chamber was described by Reder as follows:

“... The chamber building was made of concrete and covered with a flat roof of tar paper. If stood on a lifted surface, so stairs led to it from a small yard, and on both longer sides if had a kind of lifted unloading platform. .......................................On the opposite side of the building ........................... there was a small room with machinery. I saw personally a petrol engine, which looked very sophisticated. [Quoted (Ibid, pp68) from R. Reder in E. Szroit, Oboz Zaglady W Belzcu (Death Camp in Belzec)].

Kola was skeptical about Reder’s description of the building as being made of concrete. He said::

Reder's information, that the building was made of concrete, does not seem to be convincing, because no traces of concrete objects were spotted (sic - discovered) in the central part. The tar paper mentioned by him, which was to cover the flat gas chamber roof, is archaeologically proved (sic - substanciated) in the relict layers of the building. (Ibid, pp69)

One supposes that if the SS thoroughly razed the building, including footings, nothing should remain except disturbed soil horizons.The fact that Kola’s excavations revealed a small area with traces of rotted wood, and no masonry remains implies that the gas chamber was less substantial in material construction. However, countering the indications that led Kola to doubt that Reder was correct about a masonry gas chamber is Kola’s inventory of nearby gave pits in which he listed four graves excavated that contained brick rubble, and three of the four were within 50 to 60 meters of the chamber site (see Figure 4.6.3).
This is an indication that when the building was torn down, part of it at least was made of brick which was dumped close by. It is possible that the method of construction was responsible for the absence of masonry. A case can be made for the building’s being erected on ephemeral foundations of wood - a system of piers and grade beams - to support brick walls which subsequently are easily pulled down and disposed of. Appendix A contains a description of this construction method.

Aside from the material composition of the gas chamber, the available aerial photography strongly supports the reported dimensions. For example in Figure 4.6.4,
the small copse of woods has an opening cut through it 10 meters wide. The second gas chamber was built just beyond the trees, at the end of this cut. The photography shows distinct traces of fencing in the form of dark lineations (see A, B, D), which are believed to be the traces of fencing. The lines would have been the result of the fall of needles and twigs from the evergreen branches woven into the wire as a screening device. Lines A-B measure to be about 5 meters apart. These are undoubtedly the remains of the tube which funneled the victims to the door of the gas chamber. At Treblinka, this feature was 5 meters wide.

Figure 4.6.5 is a drawing which appeared in Rudolph Reder's book published in Poland in 1945(a late edition is available: Reference 21). Note that the sketch shows that the building housing the chambers was
peaked. This conflicts with Reder’s own description of the building cited above. This is a minor point but is raised for the sake of accuracy. Conceivably, Reder meant that the ceiling of the chambers were flat - in his published sketch, the killing rooms are shown as cubical cells with flat ceilings. The building itself is shown with a peaked roof. This document also shows that the corridor was open to the roof. The apparent conflict may only be that the published account confused ceilings and roof. Reder may have been saying that corridor was open to this peaked roof, but that the gas chambers were flat “roofed”.

It is felt that it is more likely that the building was peaked-roofed simply because this design avoids problems with leakage, particularly if the roofing material is tar paper. In addition, the descriptions of all other gas chamber buildings were that they had peaked roofs.

Figure 4.6.6 presents an artist’s concept of the of chamber. The drawing neither shows all the fencing, nor the system of weaving evergreen branches
into the wire. Since the burial pits were arrayed around the gas chambers, the SS would have gone to great lengths to screen the surrounding sights from the arriving victims.

The System of Fencing

Belzec’s liquidation was completed in July 1943. Aerial photography was flown by the Luftwaffe from May to December 1944. In the beginning of this period, the razed camp site was still in German hands, but by mid July, the Red army had overrun the region as a result of its great summer offensive, Operation Bagration. Despite the lapse of 11 or more months, most of the pattern of fencing that had existed during the camp’s operational period were still visible and were captured on the photography. Unlike Treblinka, where the death camp presented a nearly featureless expanse of sandy wastes, Belzec posed a problem of a different sort: the interpreting of a mass of information contained in the aerial imagery. Figure 4.6.7
shows the approach to analyzing the imagery. The left hand picture is annotated with the lineations noted after stereoscopic examination. They are indicated by arrows on the right. The dashed lines represent possible fencing that requires contextual study to confirm this interpretation. More evident and clearly expressed residues of fencing which were seen as dark lines were annotated with the barbed wire annotation. The thick, solid lines are the outlines of what was determined to be the pipeline. This interpretation derived from the evidence already discussed above and illustrated in Figure 4.6.4, as well as the subtle markings left along its former route.

In Figure 4.6.8, the mappings were aggregated into the May and September coverages and all the diverse linear patterns annotated, including roads or pathways. To provide context, the buildings excavated by
Kola, and other buildings determined from the aerial coverage are also annotated. The sum of this information provided a clear idea of the system of fencing. In Figure 4.6.9, the division between Camp I and II could be seen to include a trapezoidal wedge intruding into Camp I. The linear patterns can be seen to be a system of fenced compounds, some of which contain buildings. From testimony of the former SS staff (see sketch maps in References - Internet Resources - I1), it is possible to identify the northern-most area as the enclosure for the Jewish death commando (annotation 1 in the Figure). The footprint of the larger structure was probably the barracks and the smaller building, found by Kola, a combination of kitchen and sleeping quarters. The areas annotated 2 are almost certainly holding pens for the victims queued up before they would be sent into the gas chambers. The area annotated 3 is an anomaly due to the presence of a building. The function of the building can only be guessed at. A narrow foundation is clearly visible on the aerial photography. It may have been a holding area also, in which case the function of the building remains a puzzle.

Evidence of Machine Excavations

There are a number of reports that two excavators were used at Belzec both to dig the burial pits initially, and subsequently to open them so as to allow burning of the corpses. The machines were subsequently shipped to Treblinka, and in the study on Treblinka they are described in detail (see "The Reconstruction of Treblinka" on this site). In Figure 4.6.10 an aerial photograph
taken early in the fall of 1944 reveal the signs of machine digging. The time of day was such that low sun angles resulted in shadows giving away subtle features not otherwise visible. The boxed regions contain mounds piled up by the excavator(s) while opening and closing the graves. In the drawing at the bottom, the outlined area has been drawn to show an equivalent oblique view. The drawing shows that a system of regular piles of soil separated by shallow ditches result when an excavator first opens, then refills a grave, and then moves to an adjacent patch of ground.

In Figure 4.6.11, The mass grave sites discovered by Kola have been overlaid to the photography.
Added also is information about the local relief derived from stereoscopic study. The mounds discussed above are indicated in white and added to this annotation are a series of toothed lines indicating small escarpments. It becomes clear with this superposition of data, that the excavator began work nearest the gas chambers (the dark area on the lower right), and than worked uphill, leaving behind mounds and the small escarpments. It is assumed this churned moonscape was caused by process of opening and refilling the graves. The machine operators, as they opened a grave and removed the corpses for burning would pile the covering soil down slope, resulting in the escarpments.

Figure 4.6.12 presents a view of almost the entire burial area. This imagery when viewed
stereoscopically, reveals that there were six mounds of sandy soil along the northern boundary of the camp. These are the spoil heaps left after removing the top layer of soil from the graves during the process of opening them. In the left hand image of the figure, mounds 5 and 6 are easy to discriminate, as the sun highlights the southeastern sides. In the three dimensional model, one can detect 4 additional mounds (1,2,3 and 4). For the sake of clarity, the right hand image has been retouched to show what is normally only visible in stereo.

In Figure 4.6.13, the graves sites as mapped by Kola are overlaid to the aerial photograph. It is notable that none
of the mounds numbered 1 through 6 coincide with site Kola identified as containing ashes and charcoal. This is an indication that there were more large graves sites in this area of the camp.

In support of this conclusion, Figure 4.6.14 is presented. The areas, annotated A through D have been added to
the overlay, where Kola found disturbed soils, but found neither human remains or charcoal. It is immediately apparent that there are six roughly equally spaced sites of disturbed soil or where ashes were present 25 to 30 meters apart ( A through D plus the two grave sites) along this northern camp boundary. All are in the same size range - about 25 meters long - the exception being site D whose full size being unknown since Kola coring ceased in that place. However, the region in which bright new soils brought up by excavation extends another 25 to 30 meters further east. The even spacing and uniform sizes suggests that each site of disturbed soil is a grave, and that the lettered sites were those emptied of bodies for burning and whose the ashes were reburied elsewhere. The ordered arrangement of these sites also points to their belonging to the last period of the camp. Furthermore, there is room for two more large grave site in the section to the east that remains archeologically unexplored. If one takes the chaotic and disorderly scatter of the burial sites elsewhere to be symptomatic of the earlier months of the camp's existence, then here, the relatively even spacing and sizes of the graves suggest they belong to the final months. One would expect that the SS’s refinement of the mechanical and procedural techniques of mass murder and corpse disposal to be reflected in more orderly graves. In addition, the use of two large excavators would be reflected by large graves.

It is concluded that in Belzec’s final period, the refinement of the mechanics of mass murder, aided by mechanization, led to the use of uniformly sized mass graves dug in a rough orderly way. Subsequently, the opening of these graves and in the extraction and burning of the corpses, the ashes were dumped only in the empty graves nearest the burning grates. It seems a reasonable conclusion that the disposal of the ashes would be governed mostly by the relative placement of the burning grates. Accordingly, after the corpses were reduced there would be no reason to return the ashes to the pit from which the bodies were originally removed. Rather, they ashes would be dumped in the nearest open pit, along with rubble and other detritus which needed burying so that a number of burial sites would remain empty and partially backfilled with soil. Also, if the victims dated from the last months, they would have been better preserved than elsewhere, so that complete removal of the remains for incineration would be possible.

In this regard, O'Neill (see O'Neill - Reference 20 ) has stated that lime in the soil cored in the northeast corner indicates that they were the ones overflowing in the Spring of 1942 as described by Franz Stangl ( Reference 22. pp111). The quicklime had been brought in an spread in the pits as an antiseptic measure. O'Neill concluded in regard to the graves:

It was apparent that several of the graves had not been emptied. The finding of unburnt, partially mummified or decomposing corpses was evident. That burning of the bodies took place to hide the enormity of the crime. All traces of the camp as an extermination site had not been removed, which suggests a certain amount of collaboration between the SS and the Jewish ‘cremation commando’. In not complying with orders for complete eradication of the evidence, 'out of site, out of mind' had, due to the unsavoury nature of the task, persuaded the SS in taking a chance by disobeying orders for complete erasure of the corpses. Former SS-Oberscharführer Heinrich Gley, who supervised the cremation pyres, testified: ‘The whole procedure during the burning of the exhumed corpses was so inhuman, so unaesthetic, and the stench so horrifying, that people today (1963) who are used to living everyday lives cannot possibly stretch their imaginations far enough to recreate these horrors’. It is the opinion of the investigators that in some graves the layer of corpses reached a thickness of ca 2,00m, which were covered with burnt bone remains mixed with charcoal. In the smaller graves the findings were of crematory remains only. The excavations proved that many layers of body ashes mixed with sand were used in stages, each layer covered with sand in turn. Reference 20


Last modified: February 12, 2008
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