Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
A Review By Historians: Robin O’Neil, Salisbury and Michael Tregenza, Lublin.
Acknowledgment to The Torun Team of archaeologists and the cartographer, Billy Rutherford.
Published with the exclusive permission of the author
The investigation carried out at Bełżec by leading archaeologists was historically unique, as no similar investigations had been carried out at the other two designated pure death camps of Sobibór and Treblinka. The magnitude of what occurred in Bełżec has never been fully described in the historical literature until now. According to previous studies, which have always been inhibited by lack of eye-witness evidence, several hundred thousand Jews perished in Bełżec. The archaeological investigations confirm by overwhelming evidence that mass murder was committed here on an unprecedented scale and that there was a determined attempt to conceal the enormity of the crime. In this the Nazis failed. The material unearthed at Bełżec not only confirmed the crime but enabled, by scientific analysis, the historians to re-construct for the first time the probable layout of the camp in the first and second phases.
The 1997 archaeological investigations at Bełżec were initiated by an agreement between the Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom (Rada Ochrony Pamieci Walk I Meczenstwa – ROPWiM) in Warsaw in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. How Bełżec was to be commemorated was the subject of a wide-ranging competition among artists who placed their suggestions before a selecting committee. The successful contributors were a team of architects and artists led by Marcin Roszczyk who intended: ‘To honour the earth that harboured the ashes of the victims’. It is within this definition that the archaeological investigations were commenced to examine the topography of the former camp and locate mass grave areas before the erection of a suitable memorial commemorating the victims murdered in Bełżec.
As a result of the work carried-out by the archaeological team from Toruń University, and an historical assessment of the findings by the author, a clearer picture emerged of how the camp was constructed, organised and functioned in both phases of its existence. Before looking at the most recent survey, some background to previous investigations may be helpful.
The first investigation 1945.
Very shortly after the end of the war, several War Crimes Investigation Commissions were established in Poland by the Soviet-backed civil authorities. At all locations in Eastern Europe where Nazi atrocities had taken place, teams of specialist investigators descended to set up officially constituted boards of enquiry with powers to summon local people to attend and give evidence. On 10 October 1945, an Investigation Commission team lead by Judge Czesław Godzieszewski from the District Court in Zamosc entered Bełżec and commenced investigations. In addition to hearing oral testimony from many inhabitants of Bełżc village and its environs, the team of investigators carried out an on-site investigation at the camp. Nine pits were opened to confirm the existence of mass graves. The evidence found indicated that thousands of corpses had been cremated and any remaining bones crushed into small pieces. The human remains unearthed were re-interred in a specially built concrete crypt near the northeast corner of the camp. Within hours of this simple ceremony to commemorate the victims, local villagers ransacked the grave area looking for treasure. This desecration of mass graves by local inhabitants continues to this day: Immediately after completion of the 1998 excavations, overnight, the excavation sites were penetrated and damaged by searches for Jewish gold. Similar acts of malicious damage have been recorded at Sobibór and Treblinka.
The second investigation 1946.
This was a continuation of the earlier investigation during which certain witnesses were re-interrogated. In view of the findings at Bełżec, the Investigation Commission published a report on 11 April 1946, which concluded that Bełżec was the second death camp to have been built or adapted by the Nazis for the specific purpose of murdering Jews. The report cites the first camp in which the mass murder took place was at Chełmno, which operated between December 1941 and early 1943. The Investigation Commission relied on the testimonies of eyewitness who had been employed in the construction of these camps, or who lived locally and had observed what was taking place.One of the Bełżc witnesses, Chaim Herszman (mentioned earlier), had escaped from the transport taking the last few members of Jewish ‘death brigade’ from Bełżec to Sobibór where they were shot. He testified before a Lublin Court on 19 March 1946 and was due to continue his testimony in court the following day, but was murdered either by Polish antisemites or because of his connections with the NKVD before he could do so.
The Investigation Commission drew attention to the systematic destruction of the ghettos and the ‘resettlement’ transports to the transit ghettos in Izbica and Piaski from towns within the Nazi-occupied territory of Poland then known as the General Government. The Commission further noted ‘resettlement’ transports from Western Europe to Bełżec, and the inclusion in these transports of Polish Christians who had been engaged either in anti-Nazi activities or accused of assisting or hiding Jews. The Commission concluded that 1,000-1,500 Polish Christians were murdered in Bełżec. The final part of the Report by the Bełżec Investigation Commission dealt with winding-down activities: cremations, destruction of evidence, dismantling of the gas chambers, removal of fences, ground being ploughed-up and planted with fir trees and lupines. The Commission verified from the evidence that a final inspection had been carried out at Bełżec by a special SS Commission to ensure that everything had been done to cover up the enormity of the crimes perpetrated in the name of Reinhardt.
The third investigation 1961
The Council declared that the former death camp at Bełżec should be commemorated as a place of remembrance. In order to preserve the site as a memorial, extensive excavations were carried out. Approximately six hectares were levelled and fenced off (a reduction in the actual size of the original camp area) and marked out as the memorial site. A monument was erected above the crypt where the human remains found in the first investigation in 1945 had been interred. Immediately behind the monument, four symbolic tombs cast in concrete were placed where the mass graves were believed (incorrectly) to be located. On the north side of the camp, six large urns intended for eternal flames were positioned on a series of elevated terraces. Over the years, further landscaping has been carried out on parts of the former camp area adjoining the timber yard.
The fourth investigation 1997-2000.
The phases of this most recent investigation were directed by Professor Andrzej Kola, director of the Archaeological at the Nicholas Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. The principal Investigating officers on site were: Dr Mieczysław Gora, Senior Curator of the Museum of Ethnology in Łódż, Poland, assisted by Dr Wojciech Szulta and Dr. Ryszard Każmierczak. Unemployed males from Bełżec village were engaged in all three investigations to assist with the labour-intensive drilling.
The most recent investigations
The methodology of all four investigations was similar: marking out the area to be examined to a fixed grid system at 5 m. intervals (knots). Exploratory boreholes to depth of 6 m were made, obtaining core samples of the geological strata.A total of 2,001 archaeological exploratory drillings were carried out and were instrumental in locating 33 mass graves of varying sizes.
From these exploratory drillings, many graves were found to contain naked bodies in wax-fat transformation (complete) and carbonized human remains and ashes were identified The investigating personnel were divided into three teams, each working at a table to record data as soil samples were withdrawn and examined. Using a map of the area to a scale of 1: 1,000, prepared by the District Cartographic Office in Zamosc, a Central Bench Mark (BM 2007) was utilized as the reference point from which the archaeologists worked. Positive data and negative findings were recorded before replacing the soil samples in the boreholes.
Area of Mass Graves.
During its first phase, Bełżec was a temporary and experimental camp in which the procedures and logistics of mass extermination by gas and the burial of corpses were tried and tested. The camp structures and mass graves of the first phase in Bełżec were concentrated along the northern fence, leaving the majority of the camp area unused but ready for utilisation and expansion at a later date.
The two phases of the gassing operations may be identified by the arrangement of the mass graves and camp structures between the graves. Thus, the apparent proliferation of small wooden structures between the graves of the first phase may have been temporary barracks for the Jews of the ‘death brigade’ employed in digging the mass graves, and shelters for the guards. Three of the smallest wooden structures arranged at intervals around the west and south part of the grave field from the first period suggest watchtowers overlooking the grave-digging area. The structures in the southern half of the camp area date from the second period.
The mass graves are numbered as they appear on the plan above are located looking into the camp from the main gate, with the forester’s property on the right. On the right, the graves marked 1-6 are grouped together. These were the graves located by investigators in the first phase (1997), and believed to be the last series of graves dug in late 1942.
Graves 12 and 14 – 20, situated along the north fence, are in accordance with statements by witness’s statements for the period February‑May 1942. These graves probably contain the remains of the Jews from the Lublin and Lwów Districts deported to Bełżec camp between mid-March and mid-April 1942, and the remains of early transports from the Lwów ghetto and transit ghettos at Izbica and Piaski. It is also very probable that the remains of German Jews deported from the Reich in April - May 1942 are located here.
Graves 10, 25, 27, 28, 32, and 33, all contain a layer of lime covering decomposed human remains. It is probable that these graves also date from these early transports when the local authorities complained about the health hazard caused by smell of decomposing corpses in open graves. Chloride of lime was spread over the six still open mass graves identified above in an effort to avoid epidemics breaking out. Evidence of the subsequent failed attempt at cremating corpses in graves may be found in the small graves near the north fence: 27, 28 and 32, in each of which a layer of burnt human remains and pieces of carbonised wood were found. The bottom of each of these graves is lined with a layer of burnt human fat.
The preparation and digging of these graves would appear to have been made on an ad hoc basis with the early graves located in the north eastern part of the camp. Many graves were close together and when the exhumation and cremation work commenced, the sides of the graves would have collapsed, thereby rendering any accurate record of grave sizes difficult. This suggests a hurried sealing of the ground, destruction of any identifiable border which in turn made the archaeologist’s work more difficult and their findings less precise. In addition, a mechanical excavator was used to remove the top layer of soil and remove the corpses, and then refill the pits with the cremated human remains and ash.
It has been suggested that some of the smallest graves (e.g. Nos.: 13, 27, 28, 32 and 33) could have been the execution pits in which the old, sick and infirm Jews were shot during the first phase, while graves 2, 21 and 23 could be the execution pits from the second phase. The smaller graves correspond with sketches and written descriptions of the camp layout during the second phase (July‑December 1942) by members of the former SS‑garrison.
From the evidence uncovered by the 1997-98 investigations, the camp SS could not possibly have destroyed all traces of the extermination camp. Their purpose was to disguise the enormity of the numbers buried in Bełżec. In the clear-up operation after burning the corpses, the cremated human remains, as well as the remnants of the burnt-down wooden barracks and demolished solid structures, were simply dumped into the pits and covered over. Solidly constructed cellars beneath certain buildings were also used as refuse pits into which were thrown items of glass and metal objects, which could not be completely destroyed by fire. The cellars, just like the graves, were simply filled-in with soil.
Mass graves are numbered 1-33 are in the order of discovery.
Location and first period 1997: Graves 1- 6.
Grave pit No. 1: Located in north-western part of the camp. Dimensions of the grave was determined as 40 m x 12 m and over 4.80 m deep, filled with bodies in wax-fat transformation, and a mixture of burnt human bones and charcoal. Beneath this deep strata lay a several-centimetres-thick layer of foul-smelling water beneath which were found unburnt corpses compressed by the weight of soil to a layer 20 cm thick. The drill core brought to the surface putrid pieces of human remains, including pieces of skull with skin and tufts of hair attached, and unidentifiable lumps of greyish, fatty, human tissue. The bottom of the grave was lined with a layer of evil smelling black (burnt) human fat, resembling black soap. As no evidence of fabric was brought to the surface, it may be assumed that the corpses are naked. The conclusion was drawn that the preservation of the corpses was due to the fact that they lay virtually hermetically sealed between the layer of the water above and the layer of solidified fat below, underneath which the natural, dry and compressed sand through which no air could penetrate, resulted in their partial mummification. Area: 1,500 sq m.
Grave pit No. 2: Located in north-eastern part of the camp. Dimensions of the grave were determined as 14 m x 6 m x 2 m deep, containing a layer of unburnt corpses and a mixture of cremated substances. Area: 170 sq m.
Grave pit No. 3: Located in southern part of the camp. This was the first mass grave, the location of which was positively identified from a Luftwaffe aerial photograph taken in 1944. It appears as a T-shaped white patch and has the appearances of being the biggest grave in the camp. Dimensions of the grave were determined as 16 m x 15 m x 5 m deep. Contained a mixture of carbonised wood, fragments of burnt human bones, pieces of skulls with skin and tufts of hair still attached, lumps of greyish human fat, and fragments of unburned human bones. The bottom layer consisted of putrid, waxy human fat. Area: 960 sq m.
Grave pit No. 4: Located immediately to the south of the camp. Dimensions of the grave determined as 16 m x 6 m. At a depth of 2.30 m drilling was suspended due to contact with bodies in wax-fat transformation. Contained cremated remains. From below the water layer, the drill core brought to the surface pieces of unburned human bones, including pieces of skulls with skin and hair still adhering and lumps of foul smelling greasy fat, indicating the presence of unburned corpses. Area: 250 sq m.
Grave pit No. 5: Located in the south-western part of the camp and formed from the left-hand bar of the T-shaped arrangement of graves 3, 5 and 6. Dimensions of he grave determined as 32 m x 10 m x 4.50 m deep. Contained pieces of burnt human bones so densely packed together that the drill could not penetrate further. Area: 1,350 sq m.
Grave pit No. 6: Located in south-central part of the camp. Dimensions determined as 30 m x 10 m x 4 m deep. Containing carbonised wood and fragments of burnt human bones. At the east end of the grave, the ground is covered with grey sand containing a mixture of crushed pieces of burnt and unburned pieces of human bones. Area: 1,200 sq m.
Investigations at the Ramp.
The focus of the investigation moved away from the grave area to where the ‘resettlement transports had terminated inside the camp - the ‘Ramp’. Here, the Jews disembarked from the wagons to be addressed by the camp command before moving on to the undressing barracks and the gas chambers. The archaeological team carried out four excavations and located what is believed to be the end of the railway spur line. The investigating team selected a 75 m. long section at the south-western end where the former railway siding(s) emerged between two earth banks 8 – 10 m. apart. The terrain at this location is forested and uneven, rising steeply to the east.
Four excavations were carried out:
1. At right angles to the line of the ramp, which concluded that the rail-link did not extend this far.
2. Located 15 m north-west of excavation No. 1, measured 14 m. x 1 m. and 1 m. deep. There were positive findings: traces of a standard gauge railway track-bed; and a layer of crushed brick and cinders (ballast) covered with black grease. A second track-bed was found running parallel and to the east of the first. Six samples of oil were taken for analysis.
3. Excavations were carried out parallel to excavations 1 and 2, and 30 m north-west of excavation 2. Further indications of track-beds in parallel were found. (These findings are crucial to out understanding to the modus operandi during the second phase of the camp (from August 1942).
4. The fourth excavation was located 15 m north-west of excavation 3 and measured 8.5 m. x 1 m. x 2 m. deep. Further evidence of the twin track system was found.
Investigations with Metal Detector:
With the use of a metal detector, a sweep was made of the Ramp area which produced important results. The most significant find was the lid of a silver cigarette case bearing on the inside the inscription: Max Munk, Wien 27. In all probability, the cigarette case belonged to a Max Munk, born in Vienna in 1892, and deported to Theresienstadt via Prague on 17 December 1941 on transport ‘N’. From Theresienstadt, a Max Munk was deported on transport ‘Ag’ to the transit ghetto in Piaski, near Lublin, on 1 April 1942. Max Munk would have been one of the early victims of Bełżec. This cigarette case is the first evidence that Jews from Vienna had ended up in Bełżec.
Second period 1998 and location of Mass Graves 7 - 33
The second archaeological investigation at Bełżec to locate mass graves commenced on 28 April 1998, and continued without interruption until 4 June 1998. The author was present throughout and carried out daily a video and photographic record of proceedings and findings. The procedures during the survey were the same as in the October investigation. During the period April-June 1998, further exploratory boreholes were made which located twenty-seven mass graves; whose dimensions and contents were determined. A number of camp structures were also located, recorded and excavated.
The location and number of graves found corroborate both the testimonies and plans made by Rudolf Reder in 1945, Chaim Hirszman in 1946 and the Report of the Polish War Crimes Investigation Commission of 1945-46
The author interviewed in Tel-Aviv a survivor from the Plaszów KZ, Joseph Bau. At the time, Bełżec was of secondary interest, but during the interview, Bau related how he had met Rudolf Reder in Kraków in 1945, and, with the information given by Reder, drafted plans of Bełżec showing the location of mass graves, gas chambers and other buildings. Bau produced for the author the original sketches of Bełżec made by Reder
Even before work commenced, a cursory examination beyond the outer perimeter of the north-eastern part of the camp, showed the presence of human bone fragments on an exposed sand escarpment.
At the conclusion of the investigations, it was established that the camp was one large patchwork of mass graves and camp structures. By determining the size, position and soil content of these graves, the investigators were able to establish the probable configuration of the camp buildings in both phases of the camps’ operations. Graves numbered (12 and 14), which appear to be the largest, and probably those identified by the Polish War Crimes Investigation Commission in 1945 enabled the historians to pinpoint details of the early transports into the camp during phase one.
There is no way of determining with certainty exactly where the first victims had come from, only that they were probably from the transit ghettos in Piaski, Izbica, Lwów and Lublin . It was also difficult to determine where exactly the first graves were dug in the first phase of the camp’s existence, only that they were in the north- western part of the camp. Max Munk from Vienna probably lays here.
The finding of lime in the sample soil cores extracted from graves 9, 12, 14, 15, 17, 22, 24, 25, 29, 31, 32 and 33, located towards the top left corner (i.e. NW corner) may corroborate the description by Franz Stangl when the pits were overflowing with corpses. The unusually warm spring of 1942, necessitated lorry loads of lime being brought into the camp to avoid a possible epidemic.
The sizes of graves, particularly in the north-western corner, indicate hurriedly excavated pits to deal with dug-up corpses during the second phase where extensive attempts were made to destroy the evidence. In graves 13, 27, 28, 32 and 33 this was particularly evident It was also seen that some graves had not been opened and the contents burnt. Here, the team found evidence of unburnt, mummified bodies. It was established that six graves, probably from the first phase, and three graves probably from the second phase, had not been emptied. It was concluded that the nature of this task was so gruesome, and had become so unacceptable, that collusion to cover-up and not to complete the task as ordered was probably (without authorisation) agreed between the SS and members of the Jewish ‘death brigade’ engaged in this task.
Mass Grave locations 7 – 33
Grave pit No. 7: initially located in October 1997 is located in the vicinity of symbolic tomb No. 4 at the eastern-central part of the camp. Dimension of the grave (in a shape closely resembling a trapezoid) was determined as 13 m x 14 m., and a height of 27m.at a depth of 4. 50m. the symbolic tomb lay just to the right (south) of the grave. It contained carbonised pieces of wood and fragments of burnt human bones mixed with dark grey ash. Area: 1,600 sq m.
Grave pit No. 8: located at the south-western part of the camp. Dimensions were determined as 28 m x 10 m x 4 m. and contained burnt pieces of human bones and fragments of carbonised wood. Area: 850 sq m.
Grave pit No. 9: located immediately behind symbolic tomb No. 1, next to the northeast fence. Dimensions determined as 10 m x 8 m x 3, 80 m. and contained burnt human remains and pieces of carbonised wood mixed with grey sand. Area: 280 sq m.
(Surface soil/sand in the vicinity of graves 7, 8 and 9 was grey in colour suggesting large quantities of crushed pieces of human bone).
Grave pit No. 10: one of the biggest graves; located in the northern-central part of the camp. Dimension determined as 24 m x 18 m x 5 m. Contained a thick layer of human fat, unburned human remains, and pieces of unburned large human bones. The drill core brought to the surface several lumps of foul smelling fatty tissue still in a state of decomposition, mixed with greasy lime. Area: 2,100 sq m.
Grave pit No. 11: located at north-eastern corner of the camp. Dimension determined as 9 m x 5 m x 1 90 m. and contained a few fragments of burnt human bones mixed with innumerable small pieces of carbonised wood. Area: 80 sq m.
Grave pit No. 12: located immediately to the north of grave No. 10; an L-shaped grave with the foot measuring 20 m, lying to the west. The stem was 28 m in length, pointing north. A small number of pieces of unburned human bones were found at a depth of 3 m, mixed with grey sand and innumerable small fragments of carbonised wood. This layer extended to a depth of 4.40 m. Area: 400 sq m
Grave pit No. 13: located next to the western fence. Dimensions of the grave (trapezoid in shape), was determined as 12.50 m x 11.00 m x at a height of 17 m., (?) 4.80 m. deep. Contained a mixture of burnt human remains and pieces of carbonised wood mixed with grey sand. Area: 920 sq m.
Grave pit No. 14: the largest grave basin in the camp that extended beyond the north fence into the area of the adjacent timber yard. The section within the fence is an irregular zigzag on the south side, measuring 37 m x 10 m at its widest point east to west, and 8 m at its narrowest, and 5 m deep. It contained burnt pieces of human bones and fragments of carbonised wood mixed with grey, sandy soil to a depth of 5 m. originally; grave No. 14 could have measured ca. 70 m. x 30 m. Area: 1,850 sq m.
(According to witnesses: the first and largest mass grave [No. 14] was dug by members of the Soviet guard unit while the camp was under construction. It took six weeks to complete the task.)
Grave pit No. 15: another small grave measuring 13.50 m x 6.50 m, with a depth of 4.50 m, was situated adjacent to the south side of grave No. 14, and containing a mixture of pieces of burnt human bones fragments of carbonised wood and grey sand. Area: 400 sq m.
Grave pit No. 16: located adjacent to grave No. 14 and immediately east of grave No. 15. Measuring 18.50 m x 9.50 m, it contained a mixture of burnt fragments of human bones and carbonised wood to a depth of 4.00 m. Area: 700 sq m.
Grave pit No. 17: situated next to and south of graves 12 and 16, measures 17 m x 7 m 50 m x 4 m. Contained a mixture of pieces of burnt human bones, carbonised wood and grey sand. Area: 500 sq m.
Grave pit No. 18: situated next to the southern edge of grave No. 15 and measuring 16 m x 9 m x 4 m. Contained the same mixture of burnt pieces of human bones, carbonised wood and grey sand. Area: 570 sq m.
Grave pit No. 19: located within the area formed by graves 14, 15, 18 and 20, and close to the south-western corner of grave 14, measuring 12 m x 12 m and containing a mixture of grey sand, burnt pieces of human bones and carbonised wood to a depth of 4 m. Area: 500 sq m.
Grave pit No. 20: in the form of a long trench at the western end of grave No. 14, and is the last one at the northern end of the group of 18 graves along the north fence. In the same manner as its neighbour, grave No. 14, it also extends beyond the north fence into the area of the adjacent timber yard. The section within the fence measures 26 m. x 11 m x 5 m. At a depth of 4 m. there was found a dental bridge with four false teeth. Area: 1,150 sq m.
Grave pit No. 21: located centrally. Dimensions determined as 5 m sq and situated in the forested southern part of the memorial area, midway between graves 5 and 7. It is also unexpectedly shallow, being only 1.70 m deep and containing pieces of burnt human bones and fragments of carbonised wood mixed with grey sand. Area: 35 sq m.
Grave pit No. 22: located in the eastern part of the camp in the shape of an inverted 'L', close to grave No. 6. Measuring 27 m on the long (east) side and 10 m on the south side, containing pieces of burnt human bones and fragments of carbonised wood mixed with grey sand to a depth of 3.50 m. Area: 200 sq m.
Grave pit No. 23: one of the smaller graves, measuring 16 m x 8 50 m x 4 20 m and located between graves 6 and 21. Contained burnt human remains. Area: 550 sq m.
Grave pit No. 24: a narrow trench measuring 20 m x 5 50 m x 5 m., located at the north fence and next to the eastern corner of grave No. 14. Contained burnt human remains. Area: 520 sq m.
Grave pit No. 25: located immediately to the east of graves 12 and 14. Dimension determined as 12 m x 5 m. Contained a mixture of burnt human remains, including corpses and skeletons, to a depth of 4 m. Below this level, there was a 1 m deep layer of waxy fat and greasy lime. A foul odour was released when the drill penetrated the layer of corpses and the drill core withdrew lumps of decaying fatty tissue and large pieces of bone. Area: 250 sq m.
Grave pit No. 26: another small grave, measuring 13 m x 7 m x 4.20 m, and located immediately next to the eastern edge of grave No. 25. Contained a mixture of burnt human remains. Area: 320 sq m.
(Note: The soil above and around graves 25 and 26 is covered with a layer of
innumerable small fragments of burnt human bones and small pieces of carbonised wood)
Grave pit No. 27: measuring 18.50 m x 6 m x 6 m, and situated close to the north end of grave No. 25. Contained burnt and unburned human remain: the top layer consists of burnt human bones and carbonised wood beneath which there is a layer of grey, waxy lime. The bottom of the grave contains completely decomposed human remains mixed with putrid smelling greasy human fat. Area: 450 sq m.
Grave pit No. 28: one of the smallest graves measuring 6 m x 6 m x 5 m, located between grave 27 and the north fence. Containing burnt human remains beneath which there is a layer of grey greasy lime. The bottom of the grave is lined with putrid smelling, greasy human fat. Area: 70 sq m.
Grave pit No. 29: measuring 25 m x 9 m x 4.50 in the form of a long trench and located just to the north- east of grave 26; its eastern corner is immediately in front of symbolic tomb No. 1. Contained pieces of burnt human bones mixed with fragments of carbonised wood and grey sand. Area: 900 sq m.
Grave pit No. 30: located in the north angle between graves 26 and 29 and measured 5 m x 6 m. Contained pieces of burnt human bones and fragments of carbonised wood mixed with grey sand to a depth of 2 70 m. Area: 75 sq m.
Grave pit No. 31: similar in size to grave No. 30, measuring 9 m x 4 m x 2 60 m. Situated next to the north fence between graves 28 and 29, this grave also contained a mixture of burnt pieces of human bones, fragments of carbonised wood and grey sand. Area: 90 sq m.
Grave pit No. 32: situated close to the north corner of the memorial site between graves 9, 13, and measures 15 m x 5 m. Contained a mixture of burnt human bones and carbonised wood mixed with grey sand, beneath which there is a layer of grey, greasy lime and a foul smelling layer of human fat containing decomposing human remains. The drill core brought to the surface pieces of skull with skin and tufts of hair still attached. At the bottom of the grave, at a depth of 4.10 m. lay a large number of unburned human bones. The path to the small gate near the north corner of the memorial area passes over the southern end of the grave. Area: 400 sq m.
Grave pit No. 33: a small, shallow grave measuring only 9 m x 5 m x 3 m, located in the extreme north-eastern corner of the memorial site. Contained tiny fragments of burnt human bones mixed with small pieces of carbonised wood and grey sand: 120 sq m.
The total surface of the mass graves is estimated at 21,000 cubic metres. At least a dozen graves still contain today unburnt, partially mummified or decomposing corpses. Exactly why the SS did not empty all the graves and destroy their contents is not known; they were in no hurry to leave the area as the entire SS - garrison was redistributed to other camps in the Lublin District for at least five months after the liquidation of Bełżec.
Further investigations with Metal Detector.
Carried out by the author, produced a miscellaneous collection of enamel kitchenware and assorted scrap metal. Further sweeps of the area located a metal door kitchen to a stove, and assorted pre-war Polish coins. The only item of interest was a (another) silver cigarette case with no inscription.
Continued investigations at the Ramp were carried-over from the 1997 investigation. Analysing the 1940 and 1944 aerial maps the two rail tracks are clearly shown entering the death camp. These tracks were not built specifically for operations within the camp but were there because the area, on which the camp was built, had previously been a logging area pre-war. This was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why the death camp was built at this location. This evidence also confirms that the ‘Otto line’ was built subsequent to May 1940, as there is no photographic evidence to show its existence before that date.
In the first phase of Bełżec, only a limited number of wagons (20) at a time could be accommodated because the uneven ground rises steeply at the southern end, which made any further extension of the tracks impossible. The second Ramp, constructed initially to handle the bigger transports from Kraków which commenced on 3 June, was the same length and could also only accommodate 20 wagons at a time.
Close examination of the 1944 aerial photograph, and the ground scarring, clearly indicates this. . The Luftwaffe aerial photo taken in May 1944 shows that the spur line had been partly removed, probably when the camp was decommissioned and destroyed. The archaeologists corroborate the extent and termination of the rail tracks into the camp but came to their conclusions from a different direction.
Examination of the 1944 aerial photographs indicates the presence of freight wagons on a siding just outside the former camp entrance. Further examination and measurement show that it was possible to accommodate 20 wagons, plus the locomotive on Ramp ‘A’ (first phase) and at least 20 wagons on the second Ramp (constructed for phase 2 in August 1942). This confirms that it was possible to accommodate at least 40 wagons inside the camp: 20 on Ramp A’, with another 20 on Ramp ‘B’, waiting while the victims on Ramp ‘A’ were being dealt with. (See sketch by former SS guard Schluch below).
By August 1942, the handling of ‘goods’ (Jews) was a well-organised killing machine. This, I would suggest, is the reason why Bełżec in its short life span -compared with Treblinka and Sobibór managed to murder so many people: because a maximum number of wagons could be accommodated on the ramps at same time with less shunting back and forth between station and camp, as was the case in the other two death camps. Conclusions were drawn in collaboration with my colleague Michael Tregenza and mainly supported by the findings of the Kola Report:
Conclusions and Analysis by the author.
The most significant and unexpected facts to emerge as a result of the 1997-99 investigations are the large number of mass graves discovered, and the large number of indications of camp structures of various sizes (65) scattered throughout the area of the former extermination camp, and the deep cellars beneath some of the buildings. Several of the camp structures correspond approximately in position with buildings shown on the undressing and barbers' barracks, workshops, warehouse, and bunker for the electricity generator; in Camp II, barracks and kitchen for the Jewish 'death brigade').
The two main phases of the camps s gassing operations may be identified by the arrangement of the mass graves and camp structures between the graves. Thus, the apparent proliferation of small wooden structures between the graves of the first phase may have been temporary barracks for the Jews of the 'death brigade' employed in digging the mass graves, and shelters for the guards. Three of the smallest wooden structures arranged at intervals around the western and southern part of the grave field from the first period suggest watchtowers overlooking the grave digging world. The structures in the southern half of the camp area doubtless date from the second period.
Graves 12 and 14, arranged along the northern fence, correspond to witnesses statements as being the first to be utilised during the period February-May 1942. They undoubtedly contain the remains of the Jews from the Lublin ghetto, deported to Belzec camp between mid-March - mid-April 1942, and the remains of early transports from the Lvov ghetto and the transit ghettos at Izbica and Piaski. In these graves also lie the remains of German Jews deported from the Reich in April-May to Izbica and Piaski, and thence to Belzec.
Graves 10, 25, 27, 28, 32, and 33, which contain traces of lime covering still decomposing human remains, date from the spring of 1942 when the local German civil authorities complained about the health hazard caused by decomposing corpses in open graves. Chloride of lime was spread over the six still open mass graves identified above in an effort to avoid epidemics breaking out.
Evidence of the subsequent failed attempt at cremating corpses in graves may be found in the small graves near the northern fence, Nos.:27, 28 and 32, in which a layer of burnt human remains and pieces of carbonised wood. The bottom of each of these graves is lined with a layer of human fat.
With the exception of grave 14, the comparatively small size of the other graves clustered around it near the northern corner of the camp is indicative of the smaller transports of this period which carried on average 1,500 victims each.
Some of the smallest graves (e.g. Nos.: 31, 27, 28, 32 and 33) could be the execution pits in which the old, sick and infirm Jews were shot during the first phase, while graves 2, 21 and 23 could be the execution pits from the second phase. Such small graves correspond with sketches and written descriptions of the camp layout during the second phase (July‑December 1942) by members of the former SS‑garrison.
According to witnesses, the first and largest mass grave (No. 14) was dug by members of the Soviet guard unit while the camp was under construction. It took six weeks to complete the task. The early transports consisted of 8‑15 wagons with an average of 100 Jews with luggage per wagon.
At least a dozen graves still contain today un-burnt, partially mummified or decomposing corpses. Exactly why the SS did not empty all the graves and destroy their contents is not known; they were in no hurry to leave the area as the entire SS‑garrison was redistributed to other camps in the Lublin District for at least five months after the liquidation of Belzec. However, that all the corpses were not disinterred and destroyed may be due to the following:
a) six of the graves not emptied date from the first phase and contain decomposing corpses under a layer of lime; the corpses would have been in such an appalling state of disintegration that even the SS were reluctant to attempt disinterment;
b) three of the graves not completely emptied date from the second phase and are among the largest in the camp (with the exception of grave 14); removal of their entire decomposing contents presented a daunting task.
Perhaps after five months of supervising day and night the gruesome work of exhuming and cremating the hundreds of thousands of rotting remains the SS had simply had enough, and against orders, abandoned the task The opened and partly emptied graves were refilled with the fragments of burnt human bones and pieces of carbonised wood from the bone mill, mixed with sand.
From the wealth of evidence uncovered by the 1997-98 investigations it is obvious that the camp SS did not by any means erase all traces of the extermination camp, as hitherto believed. The majority of the wooden barracks were burnt down and the carbonised wood broken up into fragments; solid structures were demolished and the bricks, stones and concrete or cement broken into pieces and buried Solidly constructed cellars beneath certain buildings were used as refuse pits into which were thrown items of glass and metal which could not be completely destroyed by fire. The cellars were then simply filled in with soil. Other articles of glass and metal were buried among the remains of burnt down wooden barracks. At the Ramp, the wooden support posts and planks retaining the sandy soil of the two platforms - the negative images of which were uncovered during the 1997 investigation - were also removed and most likely burnt.
It has long been thought that only one railway siding existed at the Ramp and that it was later extended further into the camp to accommodate the longer transports of the second phase. However, the construction of such an extension would not have been possible due to the forested and uneven terrain at the south western end of the camp. Luftwaffe aerial photographs of Belzec taken in 1940 and 1944 clearly show that two parallel tracks existed on the camp area. Witnesses also mention the existence of two tracks during the second phase.
SS‑Oberscharfuhrer Heinrich Gley, who supervised the daytime shift at the cremation pyres, has testified about the cremations: 'The whole procedure during the burning of the exhumed corpses was so inhuman, so un-anaesthetic, and the stench so horrifying that people today who are used to living everyday lives cannot possibly imagine what it was like’.
It was apparent from the large amounts of engine oil and grease found on the track-beds in 1997, that locomotives entered the camp and did not always remain outside the camp gate having shunted the wagons from behind as stated by many witnesses.
The number of watchtowers around the camp perimeter was probably larger than claimed by witnesses. The original number of three towers at the corners (with the exception of the north western corner by the main gate) and one in the camp itself, must have been increased during the reorganisation/rebuilding of the camp in June‑July 1942, prior to the increased extermination activity which began on 1 August, and the employment of 1,000 'work Jews' in the camp. Evidence of three small wooden structures at 55 m. intervals along the eastern fence indicate the probable position of such additional watchtowers.
In the autumn of 1942 there was increased partisan activity in the Belzec area which necessitated extra security precautions by the camp SS and Soviet guard unit. One such measure was the construction of a concrete bunker at the south eastern corner of the camp, on the highest point of the terrain. It would also have been logical and effective to have had a watchtower above the bunker, affording a clear all‑round view and field of fire over the entire camp area and its environs.
Belzec was a temporary, experiments operation where the procedures and logistics of mass extermination by gas and the burial of corpses were tried and tested, initially on the Jews of the Lublin ghetto, before being applied at the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. It can also be seen that the original camp structures and mass graves of the first phase were concentrated along the northern fence, leaving the majority of the camp area empty and unused but ready for utilisation and expansion at a later date. The primitive, experimental gassing barrack and undressing barracks were also temporary structures replaced later by bigger and more solidly constructed buildings to accommodate the increased number of victims.
That the original camp area was much bigger than the present day memorial area is not in doubt, but the exact extent of the camp remains unknown to this day. Determining the exact dimensions, however, presents certain problems:
1. locating the line and direction of the northern boundary has been rendered especially difficult by the complete obliteration of the original terrain;
2. the southern boundary lies in a densely forested area and extends at least 50 m. beyond the present day fence;
3. the south western part of the area of the former camp has been buried beneath a railway embankment, constructed in the late 1960s to a accommodate a set of sidings.
Only the topography of the eastern boundary, along the top of the ridge above the road to the hamlet of Szalenik, has remained virtually unchanged.
a) The main gate was located immediately to the south of the 1940 anti-tank ditch and rampart destroyed in 1970 and within a few metres of the main Lublin-Lvov railway line. With the aid of the Luftwaffe aerial photographs, surveying equipment, and local knowledge, it should be possible to locate its position with accuracy.
b) The concrete foundations, or part thereof, of the original gassing barrack, could still lie beneath the rough grass verge between the forester's field to the left of the entrance gate to the memorial area and the paved road that runs alongside the road, and at a point about half-way between the path to the entrance gate and the north end of the field. As the forester has mentioned to the authors that on occasions he has damaged farm machinery on a concrete structure near the east end of his field, this suggests that such a construction could be the walls of the pit in which the gassing engine was placed - 30 m. from the gassing barrack.
c) The lack of any clear evidence to date locating the second gassing building is intriguing. It may well be the case that the SS deliberately destroyed and removed all evidence of the most incriminating structure in the camp. On examination of the arrangement of all the mass graves and camp structures located during the 1997‑98 investigations, one area stands out as the most likely site of this building: an area devoid of any graves or structures near the north eastern corner of the camp, and today a few metres in front of symbolic tomb No. 2.
d) From the probable position of the second gassing building described above, and the position and angle of the undressing barracks during the second phase, it should be possible to plot the most likely route of 'die Schleuse'.
e) There is much discrepancy about the number of cremation pyres. Witnesses mention 1-4, while the SS at their trial in Munich 1963‑64 admitted to only two being used, each one measuring 5 m x 5 m. The first was constructed in mid-November 1942, and the second during the first week of December, but the SS were not asked where the pyres were located in the camp and they did not offer the information.
According to SS testimonies, at least 500,000 corpses were cremated on these two pyres between November 1942 - March 1943.
It may be possible during future investigations at Belzec to estimate at least an approximate number of corpses once contained in the 33 mass graves, based on the known number of corpses exhumed from mass graves at other sites: Katyn, Kharkhov, Miednoje, etc. and the contents and cubic capacity of these graves.
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