A new stage in the industrialisation of the ‘Final Solution’ was marked on the 17th March with the opening of Belzec death camp.
The remains of Poland, after the Germans had annexed the western part, were now simply called the General Government area. Within this area were some two million Jews. Originally the Nazis had thought that they might create a massive reservation for Jews in this area, possibly as a prelude to deporting them all to some foreign island – perhaps Madagascar.
Some time in 1941 the decision had been reached that it would be more expedient to simply kill them all. Belzec became one of four camps to put this decision into practice. Unlike other concentration camps like Auschwitz, which had a slave labour component, people were simply sent to Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka to be killed. This was to become known as ‘Operation Reinhard’.
Belzec marked a new stage in mass killing beyond Chelmno, which had just started operation killing people in gas vans, because now the killings took place in ‘gas chambers’. There was a step change in the numbers of people being killed. The gas was simply the exhaust fumes from a combustion engine. It is probable that a Russian diesel tank engine was used at first – but it was later determined that a petrol engine was more ‘efficient’.
The same deceptions took place. Those arriving by cattle trucks were told that they were at at transit camp from where they would be shipped to labour camps. They just needed to have baths first.
Only around 450 German staff were needed to run Operation Reinhard, many of them experienced operatives from the T4 Euthanasia programme that had killed the handicapped and mentally ill in Germany itself, one of them was SS-man Karl Alfred Schluch, involved from the beginning:
My location in the tube was in the immediate vicinity of the undressing hut. Wirth had stationed me there because he thought me capable of having a calming effect on the Jews. After the Jews left the undressing hut I had to direct them to the gas chamber. I believe that I eased the way there for the Jews because they must have been convinced by my words or gestures that they really were going to be bathed.
After the Jews had entered the gas chambers the doors were securely locked by Hackenholt himself or by the Ukrainians assigned to him. Thereupon Hackenholt started the engine with which the gassing was carried out. After 5 – 7 minutes — and I merely estimate this interval of time — someone looked through a peephole into the gas chamber to ascertain whether death had overtaken them all. Only then were the outside gates opened and the gas chambers aired. Who did the checking, that is to say, who looked through the peephole? I can no longer say with any certainty… In my view, probably everyone had occasion to look through the peephole. After the gas chambers had been aired, a Jewish work commando headed by a Capo, arrived and removed the corpses.
See Nizkor Project for the full statement.
The process was very efficient. Almost no one survived entry into these camps – the Jewish workers who dealt with the bodies were rotated in groups – and every group was selected to be killed at some stage. There were only two survivors from between 430,000 and 500,000 victims.