The German Death Camp in Bełżec was a centre of extermination for Jewish people. From March to December 1942 about 450 thousand people were murdered here, most of whom were Polish Jews as well as Jewish citizens from Germany, Austria, Czechia and Slovakia.
The date of the first deportations to Bełżec, 17 March 1942, corresponds to the beginning of Operation Reinhardt, whose aim was the extermination of Jews from the General Government and plunder of their property. The camp in Bełżec was the first of the three centres of this kind. It was a place where the Nazis carried out different experiments with the aim of murdering thousands of Jews. The decision to start Operation Reinhardt, and build the camp at the same time, was most probably taken during the conference of October 13, 1941 in Hitler’s headquarters called Wolf's Lair near Kętrzyn in East Prussia.Apart from Heinrich Himmler, SS and Police commanding officers in the General Government took part in it. One of them was the commander of SS and Police in the Lublin district Odilo Globocnik, who was to supervise the Bełżec camp.
Germans started building the death camp on November 1, 1941. Its location was determined by several factors. First of all, Bełżec lay next to the railroad which connected Lublin with the junction station in Rava-Ruska, where transports form the Krakow district and Galicia could be brought. Bełżec was the place that the Nazis knew very well, as in 1940 a labour camp for Jews operated there. Its prisoners built an anti-tank ditch, called ‘Otto Line’ on the border of the USSR and the General Government. The town also had a ready railway ramp belonging to the former forest exploitation company.
The death camp in Bełżec was the first place, where stationary gas chambers were used to kill Jewish people. It was managed by the commanding officer supported by the SS crew, which consisted of no more than 37 people. The camp had two commanding officers: Christian Wirth and Gottlieb Hering. Supervision and protection activities were the responsibility of the recruited Soviet prisoners of war, most of whom were Ukrainians trained at the camp in Trawniki. At different periods of time the number of them changed but always oscillated around one hundred people.
Two phases can be distinguished in the history of camp operation. The first one started on March 17, 1942, when two transports of Jews from Lublin and Lvov were exterminated. At that time there was a primitive wooden gas chamber operating, in which 80 thousand people were murdered by June of 1942. The second phase falls on the period of increased deportations from the direction of Lvov and Krakow in July of 1942. In the meantime, a bigger, more efficient, concrete gas chamber was erected in the central part of the camp. During the several months of its operation, between 350 and 400 thousand people were killed there. Both the first primitive wooden gas chamber and its improved concrete version were built in such a way so as to resemble a bathhouse. The imitations of showers were installed at the ceilings and the inscriptions by the door contained information that the rooms were for bathing and inhalation. The work connected with burying dead bodies and segregating the property was done by a group of about 500 Jewish prisoners. From time to time Germans carried out selections and as a result, they shot the people who were not capable of working any more. New workers were chosen from the people coming in next transports.
Jews arrived in Bełżec in cattle trucks. On average, about 100 people travelled in each of them. Extreme conditions of the transport, such as overcrowding heat, lack of water and food made many people die on the way to Bełżec.
The camp stopped functioning in December of 1942. The most probable reason was lack of space for more mass graves. The action of burning corpses and covering the tracks of camp’s activity lasted by the spring of 1943. All the buildings and equipment were dismantled by June of 1943. The members of the last Sonderkommando who took part in the liquidation of the camp were taken to the death camp in Sobibor and murdered there.