9/19/02 – Part 2
On the way from Sobibor to Belzec, we stop at a roadside pub for refreshments. God I love Poland! We each got huge portions of good real food for like $3-4 each. And of coures more beer. I rarely drink in the States. Just last night (Oct. 16) I had one glass of wine and had a headache and was tired. But in Europe… maybe it’s just different alcohol, or maybe it’s the climate, but alcohol tastes great, doesn’t fuck me up, and just seems to work.
I’ve been psyched about visiting Belzec (pronounced Behw-zhets; the l has a line through it and the z has a dot over it and the c is a ‘ts’ sound in Polish) for awhile. When I first started reading about the camps it most spiked my interest as it’s the most forgotten of the four solely-extermination centers. I had read of one visit by a rabbi who said he saw pieces of bones lying around. Then I read a few more and all reported the same findings. That you could just drag a rake over the topsoil and uncover historical records of the Nazi’s crimes in this area. I had also read a bit about Christian Wirth (pronounced Veert) who ran this camp, and others in the Aktion Reinhard program. He had a really bad reputation, even among other top SS-Men. Franz Suchomel spoke of Wirth with distate in ‘Shoah.’
Wirth’s first venture was the Chelmno camp near Lodz, Poland. (Boy do I wish I could type out how Lodz really looks. It’s actually pronounced between ‘woodge’ and ‘wooch.’) This camp operated in two segments and used 3 mobile gas vans for the killing. The operations began the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 (although some sources say the official operations opening date was December 8). Nowhere else in print or on the web is any significance attributed to the Japanese attack and the first mass gassings. So far it appears I’m the only one drawing any connection here. Maybe there is none. Just interesting is all.
Chelmno’s operations began before the Wannsee Conference (which occurred January 20, 1942) where the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem was delivered to the heads of the Nazi machine. After orchestrating Chelmno, Wirth moved on to Belzec near the Ukraine border and set up the first camp with gas chambers, and becoming the first commandant of Belzec.
Belzec was just total hell. The deportees would arrive at the Belzec station where the cars would be broken into groups of 20, and then shunted into the camp via a rail spur. The doors would open and the Ukrainians would scream at the Jews to get out of the cars. The dead were pulled out by the Sonderkommando, worker Jews.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that these trains were moving very slowly. The trains would sometimes take days to arrive at a death camp. First the Jews were forced into ghettos, deprived of outside food or supplies, and were already weakened. When the ‘promise’ of work and food was offered by the Germans, it was normal for the Jews to accept this belief. Word of ‘death camps’ came very late. And it was hard for anyone to actually believe that the Germans would be exterminating people en masse.
Let me ask you: If I told you that at 69th and Broadway there is a factory and people are going in and not coming out, would you believe me? Even today, after the Germans, after September 11th, it’s just such a bizarre concept to take in.
As the trains were very full with so many people, packed 100 or more to a car, they moved slower than usual. This also assisted in killing the ‘cargo’ off as they had no food or water on the journey, nor a toilet. They were crammed into smelly dirty cars. Sometimes the Nazis would place quicklime in the cars and just let the cars sit, hoping the Jews would die in the cars alone, without the need for gas chambers.
After departing the cars the Jews were lined up, told they would have a shower, and were sent to an undressing area, the women to a haircutting area, and were told to head into the Hackenholt Foundation for disinfection. Lorenz Hackenholt was in charge of the gas chambers. The Germans loved their irony during this period. The gas chambers also had a large Jewish star above the entrance to further deceive their victims.
Well, by the time we got to Belzec this day, there was just plain nothing left at all. This was the first camp dismantled, and there were little traces of its existence even in 1943. The Poles, under Communist rule, erected a simple monument that said nothing of the Jews, just ‘Hitler’s Victims.’ I had seen pictures of this camp. A gate with the dates of its operation, the monument, some large gray slabs covering mass grave sites, and some urns on the edge of the original camp. All gone and hurled at the bottom edge of the camp in one big crumbled mountain of concrete. We saw a sign saying that the Polish government and the United States Holocaust Museum were putting in a new memorial.
Slawek was surprised. He didn’t know this had happened. Only this week (Oct. 13-20) did I learn on the internet that the whole place was gone over in May to prepare for the new monument. We walk up to where the old monument was, and there’s still some foundation there. People had left candles and flowers there. Slawek had a new map of the camp prepared by British historian Mike Tregenza showing the locations of the mass graves, of which they have now found 33. Basically the whole area of land is one mass grave. Belzec was just so far away from everything, and the first gas chamber death camp, that apparently Wirth and his men felt they didn’t need to go too far in covering up their traces. Basically every bit of ground under our feet contained the remains of over 600,000 Jewish, and 1,500 Poles who had assisted Jews. Incredible.
We walked up to where the old slabs were and where the urns were, and threw the woods. All the trees had been planted by Jewish hands upon orders from the Nazis, to cover the traces. The woods are fairly sparse. We retraced the path of the original train spur that came into the camp, then walked over to where some of the excavations had occurred, unearthing the foundations of the original SS barracks and a garage. The original SS living quarters is across the way, now occupied by a family, but we didn’t meet them. This white house can be seen in this photo of the SS-Men of Belzec standing at attention in full uniform and smiling at the camera. Further away from the camp, down the train line, is a large empty brick building that the SS used to store all the belongings of the Jews, taken from them as they disembarked the train. Here they would be sorted by other work Jews and sent back to Germany.
I remember reading about the hair removal and how the hair would be sewn into cloth and sock and used as insulation on submarines and as stuffing for pillows. I thought it strange that a government that declared the Jews to be so inhuman would bother to recycle their hair to put in their pillows to dream on at night, but they did. The German government was so full of lies. Theivery appears to have been as strong an influence as hatred. Ripping out the gold teeth and melting them down into ingots, attempts to create fertilizer, and even fuel from the corpses, show that the Jews were mined for everything they had. The apartments they departed were robbed, their belongs sorted through immediately, and their clothing gone through for hidden valuables. The Jews were told to bring only their most important possession which helped the Nazis to recover them, as the jewels and money and gold would be on them when they arrived.
We wandered over to the new Belzec station. I was somewhat surprised to see that a brand-new building was here, instead of the dilapidated one I had seen briefly in Shoah, and for that matter all over Poland. The stops on my train adventures to pick up other passengers disclosed ‘stations’ there were merely rotting wooded shacks, or just concrete covers. Belzec is right on the edge of the Poland-Ukraine border now, as Poland’s borders were shifted West after the war. I don’t know enough about the area to understand why they would replace this station in particular when so many are in ruins. Maybe this information will come out one day.
So we left Belzec and made our way back to Lublin. As it was my curiousity had disenabled me from catching the last train to Warsaw, so I spent the night at Slawek’s and his mother’s flat, flipping through the hundreds of books Slawek’s father had collected on the destructions of the Jews, and through a small notebook of his father’s, with details I had not read in any of the 30 or so books I had managed to read before my trip. Slawek pulled the couch out into a bed, I stayed up as long as I could ingesting new information, and slept.