The German death camp in Bełżec was a centre of extermination for the Jewish people. From March to December 1942 about 450 thousand people were murdered there, most of whom were Polish Jews as well as the Jewish deportees from Germany, Austria, Czechia and Slovakia.
The date of the first deportations to Bełżec, 17 March 1942, corresponds to the beginning of operation "Reinhardt" – its aim was the extermination of Jews from the General Government and the plunder of their property. The camp in Bełżec was the first of the three killing centres established within the course of "Einsatz Reinhardt." It was a place where the Nazis conducted different experiments aiming at devloping the most efficient methods of mass murder. The decision to launch operation "Reinhardt" and to build the camp 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 the SS and police forces in the Lublin district Odilo Globocnik, who was to supervise the death camp in Bełżec.
The Germans started the death camp construction on November 1, 1941. Its location was determined by several factors. First of all, Bełżec was situated next to the railroad which connected Lublin with the junction station in Rava-Ruska, where transports from the Kraków and Galicia districts could be brought. The location was very well known by the perpetrators at that time, since in 1940 a labour camp for Jews, Poles, and Gypsies had already operated there. Its prisoners built the anti-tank ditches within the "Otto Line" situated on the border of the USSR and the General Government. The town also had an existing railway ramp belonging to the former forest exploitation company.
The German death camp in Bełżec was the first place, where stationary gas chambers were used to kill the Jewish people. It was managed by the commanding officer supported by the SS garrison, which consisted of no more than 37 people. The camp had two commandants: Christian Wirth and Gottlieb Hering. The supervision and sentry duties were the responsibility of the recruited former Soviet prisoners of war, most of whom were Ukrainians trained at the camp in Trawniki. At different periods of time their number changed but always oscillated around one hundred people.
Two phases can be distinguished in the history of the camp's operation. The first one started on March 17, 1942, when two transports of Jews from Lublin and Lwów arrived at Bełzec. At that time there was a primitive wooden gas chamber operating, wherein 80,000 people were murdered by June 1942. The second phase falls on the period of increased deportations from the direction of Lwów and Kraków in July 1942. In the meantime, a bigger, more efficient, concrete gas chamber building was erected in the central part of the camp. During the several months of its operation, up to 370,000 people were killed there. Both the first primitive, wooden gas chamber and its improved, concrete version were built in such a way so that they would resemble a bathhouse. The imitations of showers were installed at the ceilings and the inscriptions at the entrance contained information that the rooms were used for "bathing" and "inhalation." The labour connected with burying or burning bodies, and segregating the victims' property was done by a group of around 500 Jewish prisoners. From time to time Germans performed selections and shot the rejected people whom they considered no longer fit for labour. New workers were chosen from the deportees arriving in next transports.
The Jews were transported to Bełżec in cattle cars. On average, about 100 people travelled in each of them. Horrible conditions during the transport, such as overcrowding, heat, the lack of water and food resulted with the deaths of many deportees already on their way to Bełżec.
The camp ceased functioning in December 1942. The most probable reason for shutting the facility down was the lack of space for more mass graves. The burning of corpses and covering trails of the camp’s activity lasted until the spring of 1943. All the buildings and equipment were dismantled by June 1943. The prisoners of the last Sonderkommando tasked with the camp liquidation were transferred to the death camp in Sobibor. Realising their imminent fate, they attacked the guards at the unloading ramp of Sobibór and were all shot upon their arrival. Only one man survived the transport – Chaim Hirszman – who escaped from the train.