In the summer of 1993, my father and I visited the site of the extermination camp of Belzec in eastern Poland, where my grandparents were among half a million Jews murdered by the Nazis in 1942.
That visit would change my life.
I was working on a book about my father’s experiences during World War II — he had survived Soviet Gulag camps, interrogations by the NKVD and the Gestapo, and been severely wounded at the end of the war. (The book, “Guarded by Angels,” was eventually published in 2005 by Yad Vashem.)
After visiting some of the places in Russia where my father had been, I thought it appropriate to finish by paying tribute to his parents, the grandparents I had never known, at the place of their death.
The first unpleasant surprise was that the camp proved difficult to find. There was not a single signpost in the village pointing to it. We stopped a local resident and my father asked him in Polish where the museum was. He shook his head. “Then where is the memorial?” my father persisted. The man shrugged blankly. He was an elderly man, and it crossed my mind that he could well have been here when the daily transports of Jews were arriving. “The place where they killed the Jews,” my father finally asked. A look of comprehension dawned on the man’s face. “Go to the crossroads and turn right. It’s two kilometers down, next to the railway line,” he said.
As we pulled in, we saw a rusty sign, half hidden by trees, next to another larger placard advertising agricultural vehicles. There was no car park. We pulled up next to the gate, outside a private house from which pop music was blaring on the radio. A child was puttering around in the backyard. We were the only visitors.
As we got out of the car, a woman came out of the house to talk to us. “It’s not true they killed children here,” she told us. “They just put up that sign to get people to give money.” To be confronted by a Holocaust denier actually living beside a death camp is a highly disconcerting experience. But when she saw the flowers in our hands, she went into the house and brought us two vases with water to put them in.
My father’s family had come from a small town in southern Poland called Nowy Sacz, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Before the war, around a third of the town’s population of 35,000 was Jewish. On Aug. 23, 1942, all the Jews were told to gather in a central square wearing their best clothes and carrying personal possessions up to a weight of 15 kilograms. About 800 of the youngest and strongest were selected for labor camps. The rest were squeezed into a narrow area where there was no food or water and told to wait. Finally, between Aug. 25 and Aug. 28, they were marched in three batches to the railway station, loaded on cattle trucks and transported to Belzec.
There was little to see at the site of the camp. The Nazis removed most of the evidence when they evacuated the camp, and the Poles had made little effort to maintain the site. A block of granite near the entrance, engraved in Polish, noted that 600,000 Jews, and 1,500 Poles who helped Jews, died horrible deaths here. (Historians later adjusted the figure to 500,000.)
A few yards behind that marker was another memorial, a statue of an emaciated figure supporting another skeletal figure. Its Polish inscription read: “In memory of the victims of Hitler’s terror murdered from 1942 to 1943.”
Behind that, birch trees had grown up. Among them stood a row of concrete blocks, perhaps intended to symbolize the gas chambers. Adjacent to that was a row of giant urns. The overwhelming effect was of neglect. There was not a single Jewish emblem — not a Hebrew word, not a Star of David — although we saw a small statue of the Virgin Mary among the trees. The place was overgrown with weeds, and the symbolic structures were crumbling. I saw two women with shopping bags taking a shortcut home through the camp.
These are the facts about Belzec: 47 miles north of the major city of Lvov, on the railway line to Lublin, the gas chambers were installed in the winter of 1941, and the camp received its first shipment of Jews on March 13, 1942. Within a week or two of coming online, it was handling 5,000 victims a day.
Belzec extermination camp memorial. Photo by Yarek Shalom/Creative Commons
A report by a German officer, written in mid-September 1942, describes how Jews rounded up in their villages were packed 200 to each cattle car. The journey to the camp sometimes took more than a day, but no food or water was provided. Throughout the passage, Jews constantly tried to break away through the walls and ceiling of the train cars. Many succeeded but were shot by soldiers guarding the train or hunted down by police units. On several occasions, the train guards used up all their ammunition shooting escaping Jews before the train reached Belzec and had to resort to stones and bayonets.
“The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars and stink of dead bodies — when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train — made the transport almost unworkable,” the German officer complained. He demanded more guards and more train cars for future shipments.
There were four primitive extermination cells. Carbon monoxide gas was pumped in to kill the victims. SS Lt. Kurt Gerstein left a rare description of a gassing. He described how the Jews were packed into the gas chamber so tight they could not move. When the doors closed, the diesel engine would not work. Finally after three hours, it stuttered to life. “Up till then people were alive in these chambers — four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes went by. True, many were now dead. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. At last after 32 minutes, everyone was dead,” Gerstein wrote. “Finally, all were dead like pillars of basalt, still erect, not having any place to fall.”
On the specific point of whether children died at Belzec, we have the testimony of Edward Luczynski from a 1964 trial of German officers: “After the doors were opened, it was often ascertained that some of the children and adults were still alive. Children on the floor and adults with their faces pressed against cracks sometimes managed to survive. The survivors were killed by the Ukrainians,” he said.
The museum at Belzec. Photo by Yarek Shalom/Creative Commons
Despite its phenomenal killing record, the Germans liquidated Belzec early in 1943. One problem was the lack of efficient facilities for the disposal of bodies, which were dumped in nearby anti-tank ditches. By then, a much more sophisticated killing facility was available at Auschwitz to take up the slack. When the Germans closed Belzec, they tried to erase all telltale signs. Bodies were removed from their mass graves, their bones were crushed with a special machine, the remains were burnt and the ashes scattered. Ethnic Germans were settled on a farm established on the site. Only two Jews survived Belzec, and both were dead by 1954. Few of the Germans who operated the camp were identified or brought to justice.
For my father, our visit to Belzec was overwhelming. As soon as we entered, he was overcome with great, shuddering sobs. “My mother, my poor mother,” he kept saying. Yet there was nothing there to give a sense of comfort or consolation. Instead, one had the sense of people who had been blotted out, with nothing left behind, not even a simple Magen David, to memorialize their existence and their suffering.
My own response was more of anger. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of my grandparents as people who had loved and been loved and whose loss had been deeply felt. Their final hours were unbelievably cruel and humiliating, their suffering protracted and unimaginable. Yet the place where they died was overgrown with weeds and debased by pop music. In a grandiose moment, I told my father I would not allow this situation to stand. I promised him I would work to build a new memorial.
When I returned to the United States, I started doing the only thing I could think to do — which was to write. My articles appeared in several different outlets, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Calls began coming in from others whose loved ones had died at Belzec. And then I was put in touch with Miles Lerman, a survivor and the chairman of the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Lerman had himself had grown up near Belzec, and his family had owned a mill within sight of where the camp was established. His own parents died there.
“Your article moved me,” he said. “I have decided that we must work to build a proper memorial there. It will be the last thing that I do, and it will be my legacy.”
So began a long and difficult process to save the site of Belzec and to build a proper memorial. There were many twists and turns along the way, many times when the project seemed stalled with no way forward. Lerman negotiated an agreement with the Polish government to split the costs of the new memorial between Poland and private donations. The Poles insisted that a Polish national would design the memorial. The American side demanded that an international jury decide between the various designs that were submitted.
Eventually, a design submitted by a team of artists led by Andrzej Solyga was selected. But the project kept hitting roadblocks. The government in Warsaw changed several times; there were problems with the regional and local authorities, and at the last moment some ultra-Orthodox Jews launched a lawsuit to stop the project, because they said it would involve disturbing the remains of people buried there.
It’s true that before construction of the new memorial began, a team of Polish archeologists drilled down into the earth at Belzec and found the locations of 33 mass graves. However, out of respect for these martyrs, the graves were not disturbed. Still, scientists vastly expanded their knowledge of this most opaque of camps, creating a historical record that will stand as a constant rebuke for anyone who would deny the Holocaust.
I worked for Reuters news service at the time, which the Poles paid a lot of attention to. Every so often, I would write another article, trying to keep the issue alive and remind the Polish government that the world was paying attention. I also wrote a novel, “The Nazi Hunter,” with a plot that revolved around Belzec. My aim was not just to entertain readers but also to inform them about this half-forgotten place.
The decision was made not only to build a new memorial, but also a museum there. Today, visitors entering the museum are confronted with a series of large photographs of some of the people who died there — and my grandfather is the second face they see.
The memorial itself has turned the entire area of the camp into a sacred place. A large field of concrete slabs and rubble renders the site symbolically sterile and dead. A central path cuts through the center, evoking the “tube” which victims passed through on their way to the gas chambers. It slowly descends with walls rising on either side, leading ultimately to a wall built of Jerusalem stone. The deliberately claustrophobic experience of walking down this path symbolically re-creates the horror of the victims who had no escape. This areas is encircled by a path, with an inscription every few steps of European cities whose Jewish communities were destroyed at Belzec.
Well, finally, the great day came for the new memorial to be inaugurated — June 3, 2004. I had the honor of attending, together with both my parents as well as my wife.
The contrast to our first visit could not have been greater. Then, my father and I had been alone. This time, thousands of visitors and dignitaries attended.
Pope John Paul II sent a personal message, as did President George W. Bush. An Israeli honor guard and marching band were there. Most of the Polish government, the diplomatic corps, and Christian and Jewish leaders attended. The place was crawling with security. Helicopters kept landing with more VIPs. And thousands upon thousands of ordinary Poles from the surrounding region came. Today, the museum is actually a driver of economic growth in one of the more backward areas of Poland, because it draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area.
“This whole Jewish universe of Galicia was wiped off the map and buried in this grave,” Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in a speech before lighting a candle in memory of the victims.
“I trust that as of today the memory of what happened here will not be only Jewish or Polish alone. We should spare no effort to make it part of the collective memory of the whole of Europe and the world at large.”
Few things I have done in my life have been as meaningful as the small contribution I made to building the new memorial at Belzec. It gives me satisfaction — but of course it will never replace the grandparents I never had a chance to know — Adolf and Bertha Elsner. May their memory be for a blessing.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications of J Street, an organization that advocates for U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution.