wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Laurence Rees


It was in November 1941 that construction began on a small camp about 500 meters from the railway station in the isolated town of Belzec in the far southeast of occupied Poland. In the minds of the members of the SS, this was to be a local solution to a local problem—the need to kill 'un-productive' Jews living in the surrounding area. Just as the Chelmno gas van center was established primarily to kill Jews from the Lodz ghetto, so Belzec was built to kill 'unwanted' Jews from the Lublin area.

In December 1941, SS Haupsturmfuhrer (captain) Christian Wirth arrived at Belzec to take up the post of commandant. Originally trained as a carpenter, the fifty-six year old had fought in World War I and was awarded medals for bravery, had joined the Nazi party, and then, during the 1930s, worked for the Gestapo in Stuttgart. In 1939, Wirth became involved in the euthanasia actions against the mentally ill and helped organize their murder by use of bottled carbon monoxide. By 1941, he was working in the Lublin area, conducting more euthanasia killings. Known by the nickname 'savage Christian,' Wirth was a sadist. He was once observed whipping a Jewish woman and chasing her into the gas chamber, and he personally murdered Jews with his own hands. Red faced and sweating, he screamed obscenities while encouraging his men to commit bestial acts.

At Belzec, this loathsome man was able to cram all his previous killing experience into one physical space. He decided to use carbon monoxide gas as the means of murder, not supplied from canisters as in the gas chambers of the euthanasia program but from a normal combustion engine, just as Widmann had used a few months before in the Soviet Union. The three small gas chambers themselves were incorporated into a brick building that was disguised to resemble a shower room, with the carbon monoxide gas delivered through fake shower heads.

So far, with the use of carbon monoxide from a car engine and the pretend showers, Wirth was adapting previous killing techniques. But now, in supervising the layout of the camp, he entered entirely new territory and broke completely with established concentration camp design. First, he realized that because the vast majority of arrivals would be alive only for a matter of hours, the large complex of buildings that characterized Auschwitz or Dachau could be dispensed with. The death camp—unlike the concentration camp—needed relatively few facilities of any kind and could be contained in a small space. Thus Belzec measured less than 300 meters square.

Visitors to the sites of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka (of whom there are far, far fewer than travel to Auschwitz) are shocked by how tiny these killing camps were. A total of about 1.7 million people were murdered in these three camps—600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz—and yet all three could fit into the area of Auschwitz—Birkenau with room to spare. In a murder process that is an affront to human dignity at almost every level, one of the greatest affronts—and this may seem illogical unless you have actually been there—is that so many people were killed in such a small area. Somehow the mind associates an epic tragedy with an epic space—another reason, perhaps, that Auschwitz is so much better known today than these three death camps. The massive scale of Birkenau gives the mind space to try and conceive of the enormity of the crime—something that is utterly denied to visitors at a place like Belzec. How can the brain conceive of 600,000 people, the estimated death toll here, being murdered in an area less than 300 meters square?