Grave pit enlargement at Bełżec caused by soil movement?
Published: 2009-05-17

Between 1997 and 1999, Polish archeologist Professor Andrzej Kola carried out select excavations and probe drills at the former site of the Bełżec camp in eastern Poland, where allegedly 434,501 Jews (434,508 Jews were deported to the camp according to the so-called Höfle telegram, whereof 7 reportedly survived) were gassed to death, buried, disinterred and cremated on open pyres between 1942 and 1943. The total areal of this camp, which was completely dismantled in September 1943, amounted to no more than 6.2 hectares, with the "Totenlager" part containing the gas chambers and mass graves taking up roughly half of this space.     

In 2000, Kola published the book Belzec: The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archeological Sources. Excavations 1997-1999 (The Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom/USHMM) wherein he reported that he and his team through drillings had discovered 32 grave pits with a total surface area of 5,919 square meters and a total volume of 21,310 cubic meters. The news of Kola's research was widely touted as the definite proof that Bełżec had served as an extermination camp where hundreds of thousands of European Jews had met their death.

However, this claim was challenged in 2004 when Italian revisionist researcher Carlo Mattogno published his study on the Bełżec camp, Bełżec in Propaganda, Testimonies, Archeological Research, and History (Theses & Dissertations Press). In it, Mattogno scrutinized among other things the actual capacity of the reported mass graves, concluding that a theoretical maximum of 170,480 corpses could have been interred in them (p.85), with the reported physical evidence from the probe drillings indicating an actual number of Bełżec dead in the range of "several thousands, perhaps even some tens of thousands" (p.91). As it is uniformly alleged that practically all of the more than 400,000 Jews deported to the camp were killed there within a few hours of arrival, and that all victims were interred within the camp borders, this would by default obliterate the orthodox "extermination camp" hypothesis. The corpses actually buried at the camp site could readily be explained as dead Jewish deportees who had perished in transit - contemporary records document a catastrophic transport from Kolomea (Kolomyja) to Bełżec, during which 2,000 Jews died of various causes - or Bełżec inmates dead due to disease and other causes. As the tiny camp could not have contained even a small portion of the more than 430,000 Jews deported to the camp, it becomes obvious that the only viable alternative to the extermination camp hypothesis is that of a transit camp, wherefrom Jews were sent east to occupied USSR territory or to labor camps in the Lublin district.  

In 2009, Mattogno replied to an exterminationist critique of his study written by Roberto Muehlenkamp (available online at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2006/05/carlo-mattogno-on-belzec.html), publishing the long article "Bełżec e le Controversie Olocaustiche di Roberto Muehlenkamp" online (http://ita.vho.org/BELZEC_RISPOSTA_A_MUEHLENKAMP.pdf). This important work is at the moment awaiting translation.

In his 2004 study, Mattogno points out the fact that the reported dimensions of the Bełżec grave pits hardly can be identical to the original ones dating from the operation of the "death camp". As Kola himself admits, it is likely that clandestine "wildcat diggings" (carried out by locals searching for buried valuables) destroyed the walls between smaller neighbouring graves, creating bigger ones. According to Kola, "disturbances in archeological structures were made by intensive dig-ups directly after the war". The diggings continued in fact into the early 1960s, when the first monument was erected at the former camp site. Mattogno writes (p.89):

«How many graves were dug up in those twenty years? The diggings took place in total disorder, without any regard for orientation, order, or symmetry, which explains the total lack of orientation, the confusion, and the irregularity of the graves identified by Kola. In the course of these diggings, the walls which had originally separated the graves were destroyed, deceptively enlarging the graves. Furthermore, as we see from Kozak's testimony, the soil removed from the graves was spread across a large area of the camp, leaving ash and human remains exposed. When the graves were refilled, this mixture of soil, ash, and human remains ended up both in places which had originally been earthen walls separating the graves, and in holes where there were originally neither remains nor ash, thus creating the illusion of more numerous and more extensive mass graves».   

There also exists the possibility, suggested by Mattogno, that some of the pits detected by Kola derive not from the operation of the "death camp" in 1942-1943, but from just a few years earlier, in 1940, when a Jewish labor camp and (somewhat previously) a Gypsy camp was located in the immediate vicinity of the future "death camp". This could possibly explain why some of the pits reportedly contained remains of uncremated corpses.

In his 2009 rebuttal to Roberto Muehlenkamp, Mattogno moreover stresses that the outlines of the grave pits mapped by are, to a certain degree,  arbitrary, since the graves were located using a grid of probe drillings, with no attempt made to determine the exact outlines. 

The above indications that the original mass graves of the Bełżec "corpse factory" had a total volume significantly smaller than the 21,310 cubic meters stated by Kola makes the extermination hypothesis even more untenable than it already is. Below I will suggest that there exists yet another possible cause of grave pit enlargement which has been overlooked by Mattogno (in both his original study and in his 2009 rebuttal to R. Muehlenkamp) as well as, quite naturally, his detractors, namely that of soil movement caused by rainfall.

In a brief article entitled "Covering the mass graves at the Belzec Death Camp, Poland; geotechnical perspectives" published in the anthology Geotechnical and Environmental Aspects of Waste Disposal Sites (Ed. R.W. Sarsby & A.J. Felton, CRC Press 2007), A. Klein, an independent geotechnical consult based in Haifa, Israel, recounts how he and a team carried out various geotechnical work in connection with the installation of the new memorial at the former Bełżec camp site in 2003-2004. In the article Klein describes the topography and soil conditions of the former camp site as follows (p.151):

«The Belzec death camp is situated on a slope that descends from north-east to south-west at an angle of between 5° to 10°. The site was formerly covered with trees planted for the most part in the period 1943 to 1944, after the camp was closed. Almost all the trees were removed and their roots killed as part of the building of the new memorial site in 2003/2004.

The soil profile across most of the site consists of a thick layer of yellow, fine to medium, sand. According to information supplied by the contractor's project manager, a layer of loam or light clay was found at the southern corner of the site, next to the museum. This layer of clay was removed from the site in the framework of the works for the new memorial, and a layer of medium hard yellowish chalk, at least 3 meter thick, was found underneath. Groundwater was not found on site within the depth of the slurry walls excavated to construct the central concrete trench structure, i.e. it was at least 20 m below ground level».

According to the originally proposed construction design, the entire new memorial site, after having been leveled and freed of trees and other vegetation, was to be covered with a layer of thin perforated LDPE (Low-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic often used to create corrosion-resistant surfaces). On top of this a layer of blast furnace slag would be placed to prevent plant growth. It was realized, however, that rainwater run-off on the LDPE layer would make the slag move downhill in direction of the newly-built museum and also possibly cause flooding of the building. Klein writes (p.153):

«After the construction work had begun on site it was realised that there was a problem with the drainage across the site, and that in times of heavy rainfall the mass of sand and slag sitting on the perforated PVC might move down the slope towards the cemetery. In addition, the heavy rainfall could cause flooding in the museum area. The Client also became concerned that with the removal of most of the tree cover, human bone fragments and ash were working their way up through the sandy soil, out of the mass graves and moving across the site».

To solve these drainage-related problems Klein and his team were brought in at the end of 2003. They revised the construction, replacing the LDPE layer with a 10 to 20 cm thick leveling layer of sand. Next a layer of high strength woven geotextile was placed "above the approximate positions of the mass graves". Its purpose was to a) "cover the mass graves so as to lessen possible settlements in the future", and b) "to prevent the movement of human bone fragments and ash out of the mass graves and across the camp site". On top of the geotextile in turn was placed a some 10 centimeter thick layer of sand, whereupon rested a part of the actual memorial in the shape of a 30 centimeter thick layer of blast furnace slag.

The most interesting part of Klein's paper is the mention that absent a "tree cover" (or to be more precise, the roots of trees buried in the ground) there was an apparent risk at heavy rainfall of bone fragments as well as ashes moving not only to the surface, but also "across the site". This risk was obviously considered very real, as Klein (p.153) speaks of "periods of heavy rainfall, such as occur in this area of Poland". One should also not forget in this context Klein's note that the former camp "is situated on a slope that descends from north-east to south-west at an angle of between 5° to 10°". This is important, as a quick look at Kola's excavation map will reveal that the mass graves are concentrated in the northern portion of the camp area, that is uphill. Rain pouring down on the side of the slope would thus naturally cause human remains to move in a south-west direction. It happens to be the case that a large number of Kola's grave pits, especially those in the north-west quarter of the camp area, are more or less rectangular or elongated and aligned in roughly a west-south-western direction. Using Kola's enumeration (cf. p.19, 70), they are grave pits number 5, 4, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 23, 24 and 27.

According to Klein, who bases his description of the alleged death camp mainly on Kola's book, the Germans after dismantling the camp "planted trees over the whole site, in an effort to hide their past activities". If this was in fact true, then the resulting tree cover would have more or less effectively kept the bones and ashes in the soil from "moving across" the site in the years following the camp's dismantling. The problem is that we have a panorama photo (or rather a panorama composed of two photographies of ordinary size) of the former camp site, taken likely in 1944 or 1945 by Polish or Soviet "investigators" and displayed by the Bełżec Museum on its website (http://www.belzec.org.pl/historia.php?site=likwidacja).

This photograph, taken from the south-western corner of the old camp perimeter and clearly displaying the north-eastward elevation of the camp site, shows no newly-planted trees in sight. In fact, the whole camp area, including the portion containing the grave pits, is bare, with the exception of small shrove of trees not too far from the camera. There are also what seems to be the traces of diggings visible in front of this shrove. There might be more traces of dug-up pits further back that are not visible due to the quality of the picture. The photo does not prove whether the Germans had actually planted trees at the site or not, but on the other hand it clearly demonstrates that were was virtually no "tree cover" present to keep the grave contents from moving, or rather spreading out, during the end period of the war, and possibly for several years following it. A number of heavy rainfalls might thus have caused the enlargement of the soil volume containing human remains, half a century later leading Kola's drills to detect (yet) larger graves than were originally present at the site.

Finally, when reading Klein's article, one is struck by the special reverence seemingly given only to Jewish victims of war crimes (real or alleged). In the conclusion we read (p.155):

«The site reported in this pape was the location of a former death camp (Belzec) in south-east Poland. Within the ground were mass graves (occupying about 50% of the total area of the site) containing the remains (after burning and crushing of the bodies) of up to 600,000 people. Consequently any construction work on this site needed to be carried sensitively and sympathetically with respect to the victims».

Aside from the fact that the total area of Kola's grave pits covers 0.59 hectars, that is 9.5, not 50% of the camp site as Klein falsely claims, the above quote seems to imply that the necessary special respect given to the alleged gas chamber victims rules out any forensic investigation of the grave sites. Recently, a mass grave was found in Malbork, northern Poland. The discovery prompted a thorough excavation, which revealed that the grave contained the skeletal remains of 1,800 German men, women and children. Bullet holes found in many of the skulls suggested that a mass execution of German civilians had taken place at the end of the war. Several forensic tests were carried out by German and Polish experts before the remains were interred at two local cemetaries (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/13/mass-grave-poland-german-war). In sharp contrast to this, none of the mass graves detected at Bełżec was ever excavated, none of the saponified corpses were disinterred to be examined, and no attempt whatsoever was made to determine the actual amount of buried cremated human remains. Nowadays of course there is the thick layer of blast furnace slag covering the entire site, making further examinations virtually impossible. A similar protective layer disguised as someone's idea of a momument has covered the "Totenlager" area of the Treblinka camp since the 1960s.

One might perhaps argue that there was no reason to excavate and examine the mass grave contents since one already the identity of the victims and their approximate number. This is however not true. While the Polish Cental Commission's figure of 600,000 Bełżec victims still is the most repeated one, at the time of Kola's excavations (1997-1999) as diverse figures as 1,000,000 (Michael Tregenza 1999), 800,555 (Robert O'Neil 1999) and 100,000-150,000 (Jean-Claude Pressac 2000) were offered by various exterminationist experts. It thus existed ample reason to conduct a forensic examination aimed at determining the approximate number of buried victims. However, not the slightest intention in that direction appears to have existed among the Polish archeologists in regards to Bełżec. Rather, the non-excavations of the graves were supervised by Jewish rabbis, while not a single photo of the drill cores was published. It appears that a number of institutions, including Polish academia, make a significant difference between Gentile and Jewish bodies.

It is readily acknowledged that the extent of the above described (likely rather than simply possible) kind of soil (or rather sand) movement of human remains is unknown, and that it might be not very significant, but it is any case worthy of notice.

 - Thomas Kues


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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Grave pit enlargement at Bełżec caused by soil movement?
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Published: 2009-05-17
First posted on CODOH: May 16, 2009, 11:05 p.m.
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