- What was the Holocaust?
- Judaism and Jewish life
- What is antisemitism?
- How did the Nazis gain power?
- Life in Nazi-controlled Europe
- What were camps?
- What was the Final Solution?
- How did people respond?
- Survival and legacy
Located in the Lublin district of South East Poland, Belzec was initially a slave labour camp. The construction of Belzec extermination camp began in November 1941, with the addition of three gas chambers.
Belzec camp was quite small in area. It was the first Nazi camp to have stationary gas chambers. The camp was divided into two sections. One section contained the administration buildings and reception area, the other the gas chambers. The camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and camouflaged to hide the activities from those outside.
During the short existence of the camp, the camp commandant, a maximum of 30 German SS guards and between 90 and 120 Ukrainian guards were responsible for the murder of 600,000 people. These victims were mainly Jews; a few hundred were Roma. In its first few weeks of operation, from April 1942, 80,000 Jews were murdered.
Jews were transported by railway in cattle trucks. The journey often lasted days and the victims were packed into the wagons in extremely poor conditions. Many died on their journey to the camp.
On arrival at Belzec, the victims were told they had arrived at a transit camp. Men and women were separated and ordered to undress for disinfection and showering before entering the main camp. After undressing and handing over their valuables, they were chased to the gas chambers by the Ukrainian guards.
Up to a thousand Jewish men were kept alive to carry out forced labour at the camp. One group of young Jewish men worked at unloading and cleaning the trains; another group sorted the property of victims, while a further group removed the bodies from the gas chambers. All of these men were subject to the selection process and themselves in danger of being sent to the gas chambers.
The camp ceased operations in December 1942. From then until the spring of 1943, the mass graves were opened and the corpses cremated, in order to destroy evidence of mass extermination. The camp was then closed, while the site was turned into a farm and given to a Ukrainian guard. The remaining 600 prisoners were sent to Sobibor.