To carry out the mass murder of Europe's Jews, the SS established death camps devoted exclusively or primarily to the destruction of human beings in gas chambers. Belzec was one of three death camps linked to Operation Reinhard, the SS plan to murder almost two million Jews living in the German-administered territory of occupied Poland called the General Government. At the start of November 1941 and under the supervision of the camp’s first commandant, Christian Wirth, Polish civilian workers begin construction of a killing centre on the outskirts of Belzec in southeastern Poland. The site is located along a major rail line. Belzec is the first Operation Reinhard death camp to become operational. The gas chambers are constructed in a wooden building. They operate using carbon monoxide gas from the exhaust fumes of a motor vehicle engine. In February 1942, SS and police personnel and Trawniki-trained guards murder small groups of Jews deported from towns near Belzec. They carry out these killings to test the efficacy and capacity of the gas chambers. By March 1942, the camp is ready for mass killing operations. The subsequent liquidation of Belzec also contributes to the mass escape from Sobibor, when the prisoners find notes in the clothing of the final Belzec Jews to be killed there, forewarning of what is to come. In this week's blog, Joan Salter MBE reflects on her own family connection to Operation Reinhard and the important return journey she made to these sites in Poland. This also led Joan to further research the experiences of Jews from the town of Tarnow, which she shares with us here:
Most people with even the remotest knowledge of the Holocaust will have heard of Auschwitz. Yet the name of the Reinhard camps: Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor remain to this day virtually unknown. I, whose virtually all members of my extended family had died in the first two of these camps, only heard the names, Belzec and Treblinka in 2005 when I first visited Tarnow in Southwest Poland, the large town 50 miles Southwest of Cracow. This had been my father’s home until he had emigrated to France in the early 1920s leaving behind his parents and siblings. My mother had also emigrated from Warsaw to France at that time and they had met and married in Paris in the mid-1930s. While as Polish Jews living in France under Nazi occupation, we had been the targets for deportation, we had survived and been reunited in the UK in 1947.
When post-war my traumatised parents spoke of the complete extermination of both their extended families, the names of these camps were never mentioned. So secret was the viciousness of the Reinhard camps that they remained virtually out-of-sight for decades. So, my assumption at that time was that all my family had died in Auschwitz. When my father died in1990, Auschwitz was the name I inscribed on his memorial headstone as the place where my grandparents and their descendants had perished. It was not until I was in my 60s when I visited Poland that I first heard about the death camps Belzec and Treblinka.
The plan for the final solution to the Jewish question was formulated at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. This involved in the slaughter of all Jews from the tiniest new-born through to the eldest. At that time, after more than 2 years of German occupation, there were still 2,284,000 Jews living on Polish soil in the central regions known as the so-called Generalgovernment. The decision to begin work on the first stationary gas chamber proceeded the actual Wannsee Conference by three months. On 13 October 1941, Himmler gave the order for the extermination of all the Jews in the Zamosc region of Poland. To achieve this, three camps were built specifically as “efficient” killing centres with stationary gas chambers.
Operation Reinhard was so secretive that at the time of Wannsee, the leading proponents of the gassing were unaware of Belzec’s existence. The use of carbon monoxide as a killing method had been perfected during the Aktion T4 euthanasia program in which German handicapped had been euthanised. Unlike this program which had used bottled gas, it was decided to use exhaust gas and stationary units at Belzec as the method of mobile units would not be efficient enough to deal with the large numbers intended to be murdered. However, the use of carbon monoxide from exhaust gas did not proceed as quickly as anticipated and inflicted horrific suffering on the victims.
Belzec was the first of the Reinhard Operation. Construction began on1st November 1941. It took five months to complete Its structures included: gas chambers where about 2,000 people at a time could be murdered, the pits in which the corpses were buried and living quarters for the camp crews. It is important to record that none of the guards in Belzec were Poles. The S.S. command was augmented by 60 to 80 Ukrainian guards known as askars. According to the testimony of one of only five survivors of the camp, Rudolf Reder:” It was nothing more than a slaughterhouse containing only the technical equipment required for the mass murder of Jews. The people shipped there had no chance of living and could not survive at any price. Only the death crews stayed on. They too were deprived of the right to live”.
The killing centre at Belzec functioned from mid-March to December 1942. The execution procedure was as follows: mass transportations of Jews were brought in trains, shunted through the Belzec stations to a spur inside the camp. After being forced from the wagons, the people were told that they had to have a bath and disinfection after which they were herded into gas chambers fitted to look like baths. Women were shorn of their hair in a special room before being led to the gas chambers. The people were poisoned from exhaust gas produced by an engine specially installed for this purpose. The day-to-day work of herding the victims and buying the corpses was carried out by ever changing crews of Jews chosen from each transport; beaten and starved into submission to carry out these horrific tasks. They were continually exchanged, the sickly and weak were then gassed, and the same number of new arrivals chosen to replace them. It is estimated that 600,000 Jews were killed there. In June 1943 the Nazis attempted to obliterate, all traces of this camp even grinding the bones into dust. After completing this task, the Jewish crews were used to eliminate all traces of the crimes after which they were transferred to and murdered at Sobibor. The site is now marked by a huge mound of volcanic rock, surrounded by steps each of which marks the date of a specific transport from individual towns and villages.
MY PERSONAL TRIBUTE TO MY FAMILY
In 2005 I visited two of the Reinhard camps: Belzec. Here, over a period of a few weeks in June 1942 10,000 Jews from my father’s hometown, Tarnow were transported and taken straight from the trains to the ‘showers’. In the Jewish tradition, it is only the men who recite the prayer for the dead. But I am not an orthodox Jew and as the only one left of my family, I decide to recite the Kaddish as my memorial. From my father’s memories I know his family was one of strong women. I feel their presence and their approval as I light my memorial candle and pray for their souls at the memorial wall of names.
Afterwards I travelled to my mother’s home city, Warsaw and onwards to Treblinka, the death camp situated on its outskirts where those who survived the ghetto were transported to their deaths. It is estimated that up to 900,000 Jews were murdered here. There, alone, I walk through the monuments commemorating the murdered Jews. Again, there are no records of individuals names, only the places they came from. I light a candle at the Warsaw stone and say Kaddish for my mother’s family.
MY JOURNEY’S END
In England I visit the graves of my mother and father and tell them I have honoured our past and my heritage. I scatter the earth gathered from Poland over their graves. The souls of my ancestors are now united.
MY JOURNEY CONTINUES
At the time, I felt an emotional closure. Having honoured my heritage, I felt able to move on. To return to my persona, the middle-aged British lady. However as interest in the Holocaust grew in the UK, I was drawn more and more into educational and commemoration programmes. My concern grew that the experience of the Polish Jews was relegated to a secondary position to the voices of the German and Austrian Jews: Kristallnacht was widely commemorated as the “turning point” of the Holocaust, the British acceptance of German Jewish refugees seen as the norm while in fact its doors had remained closed to the Eastern Jews. The derogatory term "Ost Juden" still had its echoes in contemporary memory of the Holocaust. I felt a duty that through me, the silenced voices of my family should be heard. I turned my focus beyond my own Holocaust experience in France to incorporating the history of my family in Poland to challenge some of prejudices and attitudes which some hold about the fate of the Eastern Jews during the Holocaust.
Using first-hand testimony published within the Tarnow Book of Remembrance I have research extensively the situation for the Jews under occupation and include a section below of this research in order to enlighten the reader as to the degradation and humiliation suffered by the Tarnovian Jews.
“THE FIRST OPERATION” [AKTSIA] JUNE 1942
On the 10th June notices appeared on the walls of house, announcing the deportation of those of the Jewish Population unfit to work. Everyone who appeared on the list was informed by emissaries of the Judenrat to appear on the 11th of June at six o’clock in the morning at the gate of the Jewish residencies… they were permitted to bring with them 25 kilos of baggage… On the 11th of June, all other Jews who had not received such demands, were forbidden to leave their residences. The Jews on the list were herded to the marketplace, forced to kneel with their heads on the ground. There they were whipped and beaten with the butts of rifles Babies and children were dragged from their mothers, their heads banged against the cobblestones. Those who appeared incapable of work, the infirm, the elderly, children were shot on the spot. Or taken by trucks to the mass graves at the Tarnow cemetery or at the nearby Zbylitowska forest. The Jews who remained in the Rynek were taken to the train station and loaded 80 to 90 people into one wagon and then locked in. Then transported to Belzec. One survivor recalls:
“However, no-one had any idea of what Belzec meant. We thought they were being taken to work in the east, and everyone asked before separating that they write immediately they arrived on the spot.”
The Gestapo had not fulfilled the quota for the Gas ovens at Belzec. They demanded another list of the remaining Jews from the Judenrat. When their request was refused, they stormed the building and shot all remaining members of the Judenrat.
They continued their bloody rampage through the city, shooting Jews and rounding them up for deportation to Belzec. The sum total number of Jews deported to the annihilation camp reached over 12,000 Jews during that period. The surviving Jews were set to work cleaning the streets and erasing the signs of the bloody slaughter. Konila was assigned to work loading the dead Jews into peasant wagons that were pulled to the cemetery:
...corpses were placed right near the gates… we removed the clothing from the dead bodies. The naked bodies were thrown into the prepared open pits. We often found among these bodies seriously wounded Jews who were still breathing. The Gestapo did a “favour” for these dying Jews and shot them to death.
“As soon as the mass graves at the Jewish cemetery were filled, they forced the old and the children to the Zbylitow Mountains outside Tarnow… where divisions of the Polish construction service under the supervision of the S.S. had to dig pits for the Jewish corpses… One shot had to be enough… A bullet for each one – and straight into the mass grave… The Hitlerist beasts were stingy with bullets for a child in most cases and threw them alive into the pit.”
In 1946 at a tribunal in Krakow against the S.S. commander of this blood bath, Amon Goeth, it was established that approximately 10,000 corpses were buried in the mass graves at the cemeteries, Zbylitow Mountain and the Skrzszow forest during the first days of the aktsia. 10,000 were taken to Belzec. “At the time of the creation of the ghetto in Tarnow in 1942, there were around 40,000 people there … After the Aktsia approximately 20,000 of the 40,000 Jews remained.”
12th September, 1942:
The bloody wounds from the first death AKTSIA had barely begun to heal; the tears that resulted from the deaths of those close to them had not yet dried when a new registration on the first day of Rosh Hashanah was suddenly ordered.
At dawn, the ghetto was surrounded by the Gestapo and Granata [the Polish police]. Jews were dragged from their hiding places and bunkers. Some brutalised and shot on the spot. When the murderers realised they did not have enough to fill their quota, “they appealed to the lowest instinct of the unfortunate ones: ordered them to reveal the bunkers and hiding places… For this vile deed the men were promised the return of their wives and children who were kneeling on another part of the square”.
Some were separated for deportation to Belzec. Others executed on the spot. Old people marched to the cemetery. There, naked near the wall, they were shot and thrown into prepared pits. On Friday 13th June, 3500 Jews were sent to Belzec. “For the last time they went through the streets of the city where they grew up and worked. The tortured, tired figures were urged on by the Hitlerist hangmen. They went to a martyr’s death.”
The entire night trained dogs led by the Gestapo hunted for hiding places where women and children, old people and the young were located. Poor Jewish children! Torn from their parents, they did not cry nor ask about anything. They understood what the fear and desperation on their parents’ faces meant.
This massacre lasted for two days. Around 7,000 were deported to the crematoria in Belzec. Hundreds of Jews and children were brought to mass graves in the cemetery. Yet 12,000 Jew remained in the ghetto. Even more Jews were brought in from the surrounding area. Some were led to believe they would survive in they had work papers. While some 20,000 Jews remained hidden in bunkers, over the next few months and years, periodically, they were hunted down and shot. The Jews who did not have work knew that they were under threat. Some managed to obtain work papers or baptismal certificates and identity cards through bribery. Some of the younger people organised a resistance movement and contacted the Polish underground. Komet recalls the non-Jewish environment as being indifferent, often hostile to the suffering Jews. “There also were a few exceptions when Poles made it possible for Jews to hide in bunkers. There were individual cases when Poles a full heart and understanding… and they came to help. There also were cases where peasants hid Jewish families who had escaped from the ghetto.” Yet, more Jews from the surrounding area were brought into the ghetto. The conditions deteriorated, with starvation and disease spread. More and more took to suicide as their only way out. This went on for a full year until August and September 1943.
THE CLEARANCE OF THE GHETTO. September 1943
… the bloody hangman Amon Goeth captain of the S.S. came to Tarnow. He strolled round the ghetto, probably working out the precise plan of how to annihilate the ghetto with the help of the black-uniformed Ukrainians, Latvian fascists, members of the S.S. and other scoundrels. who were not lacking in Tarnow itself [...] A tumult, distress arose in the ghetto. Trembling, they waited for the incoming storm. But the bloodthirsty Goeth did not deceive them with his plans. This time the annihilation was to be complete and final.
Some parents who refused to be separated from their children were shot outside the trains delivering them to the Death Camps. One little boy who ran away was coaxed back by Goeth, ‘Come, come, do not be afraid!” The child took a mirror and other trifles out of his pocket. With a smile, Goth took the child’s things in one hand and with the other shot the child”. Goeth himself shot 54 people, mainly women and children. When he left, he was brought a bowl of water. He washed his hands and his comrades ended the lives of the others. Konila recalls the last few months of Tarnow Jewry. The work of cleaning the ghetto and taking away the stolen Jewish possessions was almost finished. …on the 3rd of November 1943, several trucks arrived in the ghetto with S.S. members led by the camp commandant Grzimek and took 150 people from our liquidation group.At the end of 1943, when the liquidations had finished, the Gestapo turned on the few remaining members of the Judenrat.
…the German murderers finished in a pitiless manner with the members of the Judenrat who had served them so loyally throughout the entire time. They too were beaten and shot. Another member, Lerhaupt was shot at Auschwitz right before the end of the war… When the ghetto was cleared, when they gathered the stolen possessions taken to the German warehouses, the last group also was annihilated
Do we have the right to condemn the members of Judenrat who traded the lives of their fellow Jews in return for false promises that their families would be spared? Who amongst ourselves finding ourselves in hell would not trade with the devil? To save our children. On 9th February,1944, Yoseph Kanila was amongst 115 Jews from the “cleaning group” taken, under guard to Plaszow camp. Tarnow became Judenrein [free of Jews] in February 1944
© October 2021 Joan Salter MBE, BSc (Hons), MA (Research)
Joan (nee Fanny Zimetbaum) was born in Belgium to Polish Jewish parents. She was three months old when it was occupied. Her mother escaped with her two daughters down through France and finally crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. The sisters were taken into the care of the Red Cross and finally evacuated to the USA. The family were reunited in the UK in 1947.
 Tarnow: The life and Decline of a Jewish City [aka Tarnow Memorial Book, Tarnow 1954 -1968] Vol I p.169  Komet, Dr.A., ibid p.831  Konila,Y., Ibid, pp.170-172  Kalit, Y., Ibid p. 173  Konet, Dr. A., Ibid p.836.  Komet, Dr. A., Ibid p. 836.  Komet, Ibid p.846.  Komet, ibid, p.847  Komet, Dr., A. Ibid pp 848-9.,  Ibid. p. 853.  Komet, Dr. A., Ibid p.860.  Komet Ibid p. 866-7.  Konila, Ibid p.194  Kanila, Y.,. Ibid, p.194