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Memorializing Those Murdered at Belzec
Preserving the camp sites and memorializing those murdered in them is extremely important. We must never forget what happened.
From Alan Elsner
Reuters correspondent writing in a private capacity: Copyright 1995 All RightsReserved.
One of the most important aspects of remembering the Holocaust ispreserving the sites of death camps in Eastern Europe. Some of them are inappalling condition, none more so than the site of Belzec in Eastern Polandwhere 600,000 Jews were gassed to death in 1942. Your readers might beinterested to read this account of a recent visit.
Belzec By Alan Elsner
Tel: 202-898-8440 (work)
Set in a remote corner of eastern Poland near a grubby little town is the site of the Nazi extermination center of Belzec where 600,000 Jews were murdered between March and November, 1942. I visited the site with my father last summer to see the place where his parents, my grandparents, reached met their deaths.
The first unpleasant surprise was that the camp proved difficult to find. There was not a single signpost in the village pointing to it. We stopped a local resident and my father asked him in Polish where the museum was. He shook his head. “Then where is the memorial?” my father persisted. The man shrugged blankly. He was an elderly man and it crossed my mind that he could well have been here when the daily transports of Jews were arriving. “The place where they killed the Jews,” my father finally asked. A look of comprehension dawned on the man’s face. “Go to the crossroads and turn right. It’s two kilometers down, next to the railway line,” he said.
As we pulled in, we saw a rusty sign, half hidden by trees, next to another larger placard advertising agricultural vehicles. There was no car park. We pulled up next to the gate, outside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. A child was puttering around in the back yard. We were the only visitors.
Small signs in English and Polish said a monument to commemorate children killed in Poland from 1939 to 1945 would be built here and gave a bank account number for contributions. Later inquiries revealed that nobody knew anything about such a monument or who controlled the bank account and other visitors have told me the sign was removed some time in 1994.
As we got out of the car, a woman came out of the house to talk to us. “It’s not true they killed children here,” she told us. “They just put up that sign to get people to give money.” To be confronted by a Holocaust denier actually living beside a death camp is a highly disconcerting experience. But when she saw the flowers in our hands, she went into the house and brought us two vases with water to put them in.
My father’s family had come from a small town in southern Poland called Nowy Sacz, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Before the war, around a third of the town’s population of 35,000 had been Jewish. On August 23, 1942, all the Jews were told to gather in a central square wearing their best clothes and carrying personal possessions up to a weight of 15 kilograms. About 800 of the youngest and strongest were selected for labor camps. The rest were squeezed into a narrow area where there was no food or water and told to wait. Finally, in three batches between August 25-28, they were marched to the railway station, loaded on cattle trucks and transported to Belzec.
There is little to see at Belzec. The Nazis removed most of the evidence when they evacuated the camp and the Poles have made little effort to maintain the site. A block of granite near the entrance, engraved in Polish, notes that 600,000 Jews and 1,500 Poles who helped Jews died horrible deaths here. A few yards behind is another memorial, a statue of an emaciated figure supporting another skeletal figure. The Polish inscription here reads: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror murdered from 1942 to 1943.”
Behind that, birch trees have grown up. Among them have been placed a row of concrete blocks, perhaps intended to symbolize the gas chambers. Adjacent to that, one comes upon a row of giant urns. The overwhelming effect is of neglect. There is not a single Jewish emblem — not a Hebrew word, not a Star of David, although there is a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees. The place is overgrown with weeds and the symbolic structures, such as they are, are crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a short cut home through the camp.
These are the facts about Belzec. Forty-seven miles north of the major city of Lvov on the railway line to Lublin, the gas chambers were installed in the winter of 1941 and the camp received its first shipment of Jews March 13, 1942. Although poisoned gas was first used to kill Jews at the camp in Chelmno, Belzec was second and seemed to get up to industrial speed quicker. Within a week or two of coming on line, it was handling 5,000 victims a day.
A report by a German officer written in mid-September 1942 describes how Jews rounded up in their villages were packed 200 to each cattle car. The journey to the camp sometimes took more than a day but no food or water was provided. Throughout the passage, Jews constantly tried to break out through the walls and ceiling of the train cars. Many succeeded but were shot by soldiers guarding the train or hunted down by police units. On several occasions, the train guards used up all their ammunition shooting escaping Jews before the train reached Belzec and had to resort to stones and bayonets.
“The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars and stink of dead bodies — when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train — made the transport almost unworkable,” the German officer complained. He demanded more guards and more train cars for future shipments.
Many of the transports to Belzec passed through Lvov where the deportees were “processed” for death at the Janowska concentration camp in the town. Jews were marched into the camp assembly ground, ordered to strip naked and marched back to the same transports. Still, many tried to escape on the final leg of the journey to Belzec. It was said that the track all along the way was littered with the bleached remains of unsuccessful “jumpers”.
There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas from diesel engines was pumped in to kill the victims. An SS officer, one Lieutenant Gerstein left a rare description of conditions in Belzec. He described how the Jews were packed into the gas chamber so tight they could not move. When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers — four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic metres. Another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead,” Gerstein wrote. “Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall.”
On the specific point of whether or not children died at Belzec, we have the testimony of one Edward Luczynski from a 1964 trial of German officers: “After the doors were opened, it was often ascertained that some of the children and adults were still alive. Children on the floor and adults with their faces pressed against cracks sometimes managed to survive. The survivors were killed by the Ukrainians,” he said.
Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans liquidated Belzec early in 1943. One problem was the lack of efficient facilities for the disposal of bodies, which were dumped in nearby anti-tank ditches. By then, a much more sophisticated killing facility was available at Auschwitz to take up the slack. When they closed Belzec, the Germans tried to erase all telltale signs. Bodies were removed from their mass graves, their bones were crushed with a special machine, the remains were burnt and the ashes scattered. Ethnic Germans were settled on a farm established on the site. Only two Jews survived Belzec and one of them, Chaim Hirszman, was killed by Polish anti-semites March 19, 1945 in Lublin, while he was giving testimony to a committee of inquiry. The second died in 1954. Few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified or brought to justice. One of them, Kurt Franz, who had later gone on to serve as deputy commander of Treblinka, was released from jail in Germany in May 1994, despite having been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1965.
Toward the end of the war, anxious to disguise the evidence of their crime, the Germans tried to clean out the graves and burn the corpses. They didn’t have time to complete the job. That means that underneath the ground that visitors tread on today lie the twisted remains of countless thousands of Jews. On October 10, 1945, a Polish court visited the site and found bones, women’s hair, false teeth, hands and children’s body parts still lying on the surface. Apparently, local people had been desecrating the dead by digging for gold in the area. Another visitor from Washington DC, whose grandparents also died at Belzec, told me that on a 1991 visit, he found a human jawbone lying on the ground. He put it in a jar and took it to Israel for burial. Another visitor, Richard Bikales, brought home a jar of earth from Belzec to bury in the United States. When he examined it, he found it was full of bone fragments.
Is it important to preserve sites like Belzec? I believe it is, for religious, historical, political and what could be called emotional reasons.
Religiously, the place is a huge graveyard. If for no other reason than respect for the dead, the place should be kept in a decent state of repair. Historically, it is important to realize that the Final Solution didn’t just happen. It evolved through a complex process, reaching its culmination in the supreme industrial efficiency of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Thus, for a complete historical record of the Final Solution, one should preserve each of the sites that played a role in the evolution of the techniques of mass murder. Before Auschwitz came Belzec, the first place in human history to use permanent gas chambers.
The state of Holocaust memorials in Europe varies from country to country. Some sites — Auschwitz, Dachau — have emerged as major tourist destinations. Others have already disappeared. But historically, preserving a few choice sites is not enough. Holocaust deniers are still trying to pretend that the greatest crime in history never took place. Their activities will only intensify as the generation of camp survivors dies out. The more original sites are preserved, the better our ability will be to defeat these libels.
Politically, I also feel there is good reason to try to preserve Holocaust sites. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe has opened new opportunities. As is well known, the former rulers of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland and other countries were at pains to deny the Jewishness of the Holocaust. They are now gone, replaced by governments presumably more amenable, anxious to forge good relations not only with the United States but with Israel as well. It is important these governments know and understand the centrality of the genocide to our concerns. It is important that they feel constrained to take responsibility for the decent upkeep of the sites on their territory. After all, if we don’t care, why should they? We must impress upon them the fact that we do care. It is not for the Polish government to erect a suitable Jewish memorial at Belzec. That’s a job for concerned Jews. But it is Poland’s responsibility to maintain the site in a proper condition.
Finally, I put forward an emotional argument for keeping Holocaust sites in good condition. This is purely selfish perhaps, but many people who are still bereaved in a deep sense visit these sites. They deserve better than they get.
For my father, our visit to Belzec was clearly overwhelming. As soon as we entered he was overcome with great, shuddering sobs. “My mother, my poor mother,” he kept saying. Yet there was nothing there to give a sense of comfort or consolation. Instead, one had the sense of people that had been blotted out, leaving nothing, not even a simple Magen David, to memorialize their existence and their suffering. In that sense, museums in Washington and Los Angeles, or in Jerusalem, or Berlin, or anywhere else for that matter, are not enough. The children and grandchildren of victims who visit the places where their relatives died so cruelly need a place to pray, to reflect, to come to terms with what happened. My own visit left me with a sense of anger. As the months have passed since my trip, this wound has only deepened. I can’t get it out of my mind. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of my grandparents as people who had loved and been loved and whose loss had been deeply felt. Their final hours had been unbelievably cruel and humiliating, their sufferings protracted and unimaginable. But the place where they died is overgrown with weeds and invaded by pop music. A few crumbling concrete blocks of questionable symbolism are all they have for gravestones. For them and the other victims, there is no remembrance and no honor. As long as that remains the case, the hurt will remain.
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