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).
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 IdentifiedKola 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
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 ChamberKola’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).
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,
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
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
The System of FencingBelzec’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
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
Evidence of Machine ExcavationsThere 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
In Figure 4.6.11, The mass grave sites discovered by Kola have been overlaid to the photography.
Figure 4.6.12 presents a view of almost the entire burial area. This imagery when viewed
In Figure 4.6.13, the graves sites as mapped by Kola are overlaid to the aerial photograph. It is notable that none
In support of this conclusion, Figure 4.6.14 is presented. The areas, annotated A through D have been added to
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