Escorting a ‘resettlement train’ to Belzec

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942.

As so often in many organisations, not least the military, the records of daily events are often routine returns and statistics with little description. Only when things go exceptionally well or exceptionally badly do we tend to get a fuller record.

So it was with the SS. We have records of train movements connected with the Holocaust and a variety of statistics of Jews that they wanted to kill or had killed. Rarely does an official report describe what happened on a daily basis.

On 10th September Schutzpollzei Zugwachtmeister Josef Jacklein was ordered to take charge of an escort of guards taking a trainload of Jews ‘for deportation’ – in practice to the death camp at Belzec. He was so frustrated with the events that followed that he filed a lengthy report:

At 20.50 [10th September 1942] the train departed from Kolomea [western Ukraine] on schedule. Shortly before its departure I divided up my escort squad, as had been planned beforehand, putting five men at the front and five men at the rear of the train. As the train was, however, very long – fifty-one cars with a total load of 8,200 Jews – this distribution of manpower turned out to be wrong and the next time we stopped I ordered the guards to post themselves right along the length ofthe train.

The guards had to stay on the brake housing for the entire journey. We had only been travelling a short time when the jews attempted to break out of the wagons on both sides and even through the roof. Some of them succeeded in doing so, with the result that five stations before Stanislau (Stanislav) I phoned the stationmaster in Stanislau and asked him to have nails and boards ready so that we could board up the damaged cars temporarily and to put some of his Bahnschutz (track guards) at my disposal to guard the train.

When the train reached Stanislau the workers from Stanislau station as well as the Bahnschutz were at the station waiting for our train. As soon as the train stopped work began.

An hour and a half later I considered it adequately repaired and, ordered its departure.

However, all of this was of very little help, for only a few stations later when the train was stationary I established that a number of very large holes had been made and all the [barbed] wire on the ventilation windows had been ripped out.

The trains had minimal ventilation and thousands died from dehydration and exhaustion during hot weather.

As the train was departing I even established that in one ofthe cars someone was using a hammer and pliers. When these jews were questioned as to why they had these tools in their possession they informed me that they had been told that they might well be of use at their next place of work. I immediately took away the tools.

I then had to have the train boarded up at each station at which it stopped, otherwise it would not have been possible to continue the journey at all.

At 11.15 [11th September 1942] hours the train arrived in Lemberg [Lviv]. As there was no replacement escort squad, my squad had to continue guarding the train until Belzec.

After a short stop at Lemberg station the train went to the suburban station of Kleparow where I handed over nine wagons to SS-Obersturmfuhrer Schulze which had been marked with an ‘L’ and had been designated for Lemberg compulsory labour camp.

SS-Obersturmfiihrer Schulze then loaded on about 1,000 more Jews and at about 13.30 hours the transport departed again.

At Lemberg the engine was replaced and an old engine was attached which was not powerful enough for the weight ofthe train. The train driver never managed to reach top speed with his engine so that the train, particularly when travelling uphill, moved so slowly that the Jews could jump off without any risk of injury.

I ordered the train driver on numerous occasions to drive faster but this was impossible. It was particularly unfortunate that the train frequently stopped in open country.

The escort squad had meanwhile used up all the ammunition that had been brought with us as well as an extra 200 bullets that I had obtained from some soldiers, with the result that we had to rely on stones when the train was moving and fixed bayonets when the train was stationary.

The ever-increasing panic among the jews, caused by the intense heat, the overcrowding in the wagons, the stink of the dead bodies – when the wagons were unloaded there were about 2,000 dead in the train – made the transport almost impossible.

At 18.45 the transport arrived in Belzec and I handed it over to the SS-Obersturmfuhrer and head of the camp at 19.30 hours. Towards 22.00 hours the transport was unloaded. I had to be present during unloading. I was not able to establish the number of jews that had escaped.

See The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders and the Holocaust Research Project.

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