Bełżec: Photo Essay

This blog post is the fourth in a series documenting my visits to various concentration and extermination camps in eastern Europe during the summer. Our group visited Majdanek in the morning (see previous post) and visited Bełżec the same afternoon. It made for quite an emotional day.

Construction began on the extermination camp at Bełżec on 1 November 1941 - coincidentally 75 years to the day that I write this post. It was built on the site of a former labour camp for Polish Jews, which operated for some time during 1940. The killing centre was finished towards the end of 1942, although victims were deported there from 17 March of the same year. Bełżec was the first Operation Reinhard camp, taking on the task of the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Europe's Jews.
The camp was separated into two main areas; a 'reception' area, where new arrivals were brought, and the area used for mass murder. Men and women were intially segregated when they arrived, but later the Nazis and their collaborators killed whole groups together to avoid the chaos and confusion that was sometimes caused. Victims were forced down the 'tube', a small path camouflaged from the outside, and straight into the gas chambers. Carbon monoxide was pumped into the chamber; all those inside were dead within 20 minutes. Members of the Bełżec Sonderkommando transported the bodies from the gas chamber into large burial pits, but in 1942 these were ordered to be exhumed, the corpses burned on pyres, as was the case in other camps such as Treblinka and Auschwitz.
The murder of Jews (and Roma/Sinti, otherwise known as 'Gypises') at Bełżec was deemed to be complete by the summer of 1943. The camp was then dismantled, a manor house built and trees planted on the site. The area was captured by the Red Army in July 1944, and the horrors of what had taken place at Bełżec finally came to light. It is estimated that as many as 600,000 Jews, and at least a few thousand Roma and Sinti, were murdered there. You can read more about the history of Bełżec on the USHMM website.

Considering the events that took place and the number of people who were killed, Bełżec is a fairly small area. For many years, I'm told, the area was almost completely barren, save for one square memorial on one side of the former camp. One of my colleagues on the trip revealed that a friend had once come across a human jawbone on the site, small enough to belong to a child. Since 2004, however, the site has been covered by a vast memorial. The main area is covered with black rubble, but visitors are able to walk around the space and through a path in the middle. The sides of the memorial gradually slope upwards, so that by the time the visitor reaches the furthest end, the two sides tower overhead. A quote from the Old Testament is written on the wall; on each side of the memorial, facing away from the entrance, the first names of victims are inscribed. Around the outside of the memorial are the names of various places from where Jews were deported to Bełżec. Some are familiar, such as Prague and Krakow; others are the names of small Polish towns that would probably otherwise have remained unheard of. This, to me, shows the scale and impact of the Holocaust and the number of communities that were utterly destroyed in its wake.
There is also a small museum on site, detailing the history of the camp and containing artifacts found within the memorial grounds. One particularly moving exhibit is a model of the Bełżec camp created from survivors' accounts; a button on the case plays part of a testimony of a former member of the Sonderkommando. Towards the end, he recounts a child walking towards the gas chambers, turning to their mother and asking, "Mummy, haven't I been good? It's dark, it's dark!"
At one end of the museum is a large, dark, concrete room, dedicated entirely to reflection. You can hardly see to the end, but every noise you make, big or small, echoes. The door leading to the rest of the museum is soundproof, so whatever emotions take you during your visit - sadness, anger etc. - can be relayed to this room. This was quite an odd experience, but the concept is certainly interesting.
Bełżec is now a quiet space for contemplation and remembrance. It is hard - indeed, impossible - to imagine the brutal scenes that took place there 70 years ago. The memorial is a powerful statement of all the lives and communities lost, and the museum helps to further individualise those who lost their lives in one small Polish town.

Below are a selection of my photographs from my visit.

Railway lines outside the Bełżec memorial

The entrance to the memorial

View of the memorial from the entrance

A separate memorial commemorating the cremation of victims

A view across the memorial

Just one example of the cities and towns named around the memorial - Izbica, where our group cleaned the Jewish cemetery

Staircase from the side of the memorial, down to the centre

Names of victims inscribed on the walls

Looking towards the entrance to the memorial, from the middle pathway

Photographs of victims in the museum

Part of the permanent exhibition

Part of a model of the camp

An abstract feature of the Reflection Room

Star of David armbands found on the site

Numbered concrete plaques, thought to have been given to victims as a deposit for their belongings to collect after their 'shower'