During the Holocaust, many labor and mass murder camps were built. Auschwitz and Birkenau were infamous for their heavy labor camps. Other camps also built were solely built for mass murders. At these mass murder camps, some used gas to poison the people. The Belzec concentration camp is an example of one of these camps. It was established in February 1940 and on November 1, 1941, construction began at this death camp. It was opened for only 9 months and is reported that 600,000 people died there. Belzec had the capacity to kill 15,000 a day. There are only two known survivors.
The Belzec concentration camps were built on the orders of Hitler that were passed down to Heinrich Himmler. Himmler, in turn, ordered Odilo Globocnik, the SS commissioner occupying Poland, to construct a camp at Belzec. One of the first gas chambers that were built was at Belzec. Deportees from Cracow, Radom, Galicia, Czechoslovakia, Holland, as well as Belzec went there. Christian Wirth, formerly of the Brandenburg euthanasia program, built the gas chamber. His building contained three rectangular rooms, each about thirteen by twenty-six feet, with ceilings just over six feet high. A 240-horsepower engine from a captured Russian tank was installed in a shed just outside, and exhaust fumes were piped into the chambers.
Many believed that carbon monoxide was a reliable form of gassing. However, this form of gassing, at the beginning, functioned very inefficiently. A report from a SS colonial concludes this. In it he says, “Sergeant Hackenholt was making great efforts to get the engine running. But it doesn’t go up…My stopwatch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the diesel did not start. The people wait inside the gas chamber. In vain…After 2 hours and 49 minutes-the stopwatch recorded it all-the diesel started…the people shut up in those four crowded chambers were alive, four times 750 in four times 45 cubic meters…25 minutes elapsed. Many were dead…but some were still struggling for life…Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead.”
In Belzec, the entrance of the concentration camp was made to look like an ordinary country railway station. Flowers and shrubs were planted. Doors bore signs reading First Class, Waiting Room, and Cashier. Another large sign bore a directional arrow and the name of the next town. In reality, however, that was going to be the end of the line in every way. Signs at Belzec read: “ATTENTION WARSAW JEWS! You are now entering a transit camp from which you will be transported to a labor camp. To prevent epidemics, both clothing and luggage must be handed in for disinfecting. Gold, cash, foreign exchange, and jewelry are to be given up at the cash desk in return for a receipt. They will later returned on presentation of the receipt. All those arriving must cleanse themselves by taking a bath before continuing their journey.” The SS officers wanted the whole business of arriving and undressing to take place in “an atmosphere of calm.”
There were only two known survivors from the Belzec concentration camp. Rudolf Reder, one of the known survivors, recalls the deliberate insulation of the self: “We were one mass. I knew a few names, very few. It was meaningless for me to know who a man was or what his name was…No one was interested in the other. We went on with our horrible lives in a purely mechanical way.” He was able to escape when a SS man fell asleep while watching him load tin in a car. He slid out of the car appearing as if he was arranging the tin sheets, but slowly moving toward Legionow Street. He remembered where a Polish woman lived and went there where she hid him.
In March 1943, exhumation and cremation of bodies began at Belzec. Himmler ordered that it should be shut down. By July 1943, the last of Belzec prisoners were sent to Sobibor, another extermination camp. At this time, World War II was coming to an end. The reason for the shutting down of the camps was so that the Germans would be able to dismantle and abandon all of the death camps so no trace of these mass murders could be found. However, they were unsuccessful. The Allied countries found most of the camps and were able to put some of the SS involved in the murders on trial and to be found guilty.