Bełżec - The dubious claims of Michael Tregenza
Published: 2008-09-26

In 1999, an article by Tregenza entitled "Bełżec – Das vergessene Lager des Holocaust" (Bełżec – The Forgotten Camp of the Holocaust) was published in a German anthology of academic writing on the Holocaust.[1] This article was later critiqued by Italian revisionist researcher and writer Carlo Mattogno in his 2004 book on the Bełżec camp.[2] In this brief article, I will comment of some aspects of the Tregenza article not covered by Mattogno, as well as expand on some points of his critique.

The Method of M. Tregenza

As has been pointed out by Mattogno, Tregenza's method for reconsidering what passes as the history of Bełżec consists of declaring the two key witnesses Kurt Gerstein and Rudolf Reder unreliable, throwing their embarrassing ballast of lies and absurdities overboard, and replacing them with a host of minor witnesses belonging to three main categories:

  1. A group of local Poles interrogated by Polish-Soviet investigators in 1945.
  2. Testimonies left by former SS camp personnel during the 1960s.[3]
  3. A group of local Poles interviewed by Tregenza between 1993 and 1999.

About the third category Tregenza writes:

During the last six years this author made frequent visits to Bełżec (as he lives in Lublin) and there interviewed several eyewitnesses. Out of fear of incriminating themselves, many of them have never spoken previously. To these eyewitnesses belong Jan K., Bronisław R. and Bronisław C, who helped build the camp as well as the first gas chambers, the Train Driver Stefan K., who maneuvered the deportation trains into the camp, as well as volkdeutschen train conductors at the Bełżec railway station who worked for the Ostbahn, such as Mieczysław O. and Teofil P. Only two witnesses, alleged by other villagers of collaboration and a number of crimes, declined to speak to the author about what happened in 1942.[4]

As any expert on eyewitness testimony and the human memory could tell, the reliability of a testimony declines in correlation with its distance in time from the (alleged) events. The passage of even a few years may drastically affect in a negative way the reliability of what the witness has to say. The simple reason for this is that the more time passes, the more the witness will exposed to testimonies by others, media reports, books, rumors, and even his/her own fantasy. It is not only that the witness may consciously borrow from other sources than the own experiences, it is also an established fact that witnesses can come to believe that they themselves have experienced those borrowings, mistaking what they have read, heard, or fantasized for genuine memories. The tendency for this to occur increases with the passage of time.

A telling example of this dubious method may be found in the case of Michał Kuśmierczak. Tregenza has the following to say about this Bełżec villager:

The electrician Michał K. installed cables and lighting in the second gas chamber building, the so-called "Stiftung Hackenholt", and is said to have occasionally assisted in the gassings. To the knowledge of the author, this is the only case of a Pole directly involved – voluntarily and with pay- in the mass murder of Jews in an extermination camp.

From where does Tregenza get this information? If we look up the footnote for this passage we find that:

Michał K. was questioned by the Polish War Crime Commission in Bełżec on October 16, 1945, and in Tomaszów Lubelski on January 19, 1946. He freely admitted his employment as an electrician in the camp and gave a detailed description of the gassing process for the protocol (OKBL, Az: 1604/45-Zamo). Not until 1998 did some villagers inform the author about Michał K.'s participation in the gassings.

In other words: the claim that Michał Kuśmierczak participated in the homicidal gassing of Jews is based merely upon allegations made by anonymous villagers more than fifty years after the event. The possibility that these unnamed witnesses may have had something personal against Kuśmierczak and therefore wished to soil his (likely posthumous) reputation is never mentioned. That war crime investigation in a totalitarian, communist controlled nation like Poland after World War Two may not adhere to western time-honored standards of justice and objectivity is a possibility which likewise never occur to Tregenza. No attempt is made to understand what the situation might have been like for the Bełżec villagers during the early days of Soviet occupation. It may very well have been that the locals were threatened with imprisonment, deportation or even execution as a punishment for "collaboration with the enemy" if they did not affirm the general outline of the death camp allegations.

Besides, how likely is it that the SS at would have involved a Polish civilian in their alleged mass gassings, when they had about a hundred Ukrainian auxiliaries as well as several hundred Arbeitsjuden at their disposal?

Contacts between the camp and Bełżec villagers

Mattogno has already commented on Tregenza's description of the paradoxical "openness" of the alleged death camp, so my own comments on this issue will be brief.[5] First of all, the known contacts between the "death camp" and the Bełżec villagers may be summed up as follows:

  1. 20 villagers, including the witness Kozak, employed to construct the camp, including the alleged first gas chamber building, in late 1941.
  2. Four villagers (Dmitri N., Mieczysław Kudyba, Waclaw O. and Michał Kuśmierczak) employed within the camp as mechanics and electricians.
  3. Villagers Eustachy Ukraiński and Wojciech I. allowed to take pictures of camp staff inside the camp.
  4. Groups of Jewish inmates working outside the camp at various locations, including inside Bełżec village (cf. testimonies of Heinrich Gley, Maria Daniel, Tadeusz Miesiewicz and Rudolf Reder).
  5. Numerous private contacts between Bełżec villagers and camp staff.

Incredibly, no measures were taken by the SS to "silence" the local Poles that had come into contact with the "death camp" and who may even have been in possession of incriminating evidence (that is, if we are to believe the mass killing allegations) – this despite the fact that the Germans had ample opportunity and time on their hands to do so during the drawn-out liquidation phase of the camp (December 1942 to September 1943).

According to Tregenza (who states no source on this), the witness Wojciech I. gave some of these photos to the Polish partisan group Armia Krajowa, but later destroyed most of what he had "since it became clear to him what danger the possession of this collection posed to him."[6] But if so, why did the SS allow him to take the pictures in the first place? And why wasn't this supposedly dangerous witness captured and his photographs confiscated? Could it be that the pictures were in fact destroyed after the war, or seized by Soviet intelligence?

Secret documentation

The Bełżec documentation (i.e. interrogation protocols, affidavits and investigation reports) stored at Zentralen Stelle Ludwigsburg (the official Federal German Nazi-hunting center) amounts to more than 100,000 pages.[7] Besides this collection of papers there exist two other groups of documents, one in the archives of the Polish security police in Lublin and one in the former KGB archive in L'výv. The latter relates to the Soviet show trials against Ukrainian former auxiliaries serving in the camp, the former concerns Bełżec villagers either accused of collaboration with the SS or working for the communist secret police after the war. Parts of these document groups have, Tregenza informs us, disappeared.[8]

We are told repeatedly by that the German forces involved in the "Holocaust" tried to cover the tracks by destroying all kinds of incriminating documentary evidence. Apparently, however, none of the SS at Bełżec thought of burning the transportation documents kept at the Bełżec train station. Instead this documentation was destroyed on July 4, 1944, as a Soviet aircraft dropped a bomb on 400 railway wagons loaded with ammunition that were standing in the rail yard. The resulting explosions and fires completely destroyed the station buildings. About three weeks later, on July 23, Bełżec was "liberated" by the third Soviet army.[9]

Victim figures and mass grave capacities

When it comes to the number of Jewish victims allegedly exterminated at Bełżec, Tregenza proposes a figure much higher than that commonly held at the time of publication (1999):

During its relatively brief period of its existence – the extermination facilities functioned during nine months in 1942 – several hundred thousand Jews were exterminated in Bełżec. Today it is officially spoken of "at least 600,000 murdered people." However, in the light of new research and excavations, one must assume a considerably higher victim figure – possibly up towards one million.[10]

In the following passage of his article, Tregenza details his reasoning behind this significantly higher figure: 

The Report of the Polish Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes, published in Zamość in April 1946, is based on the testimony of the Bełżec station master, Alojzy Berezowski, as well as that of other railway employees. The report reached the conclusion, that in total 439 transports from the direction of Lemberg and 57 from the direction of Lublin, each transport carrying on average 3,000 Jews, had arrived at the Bełżec railway station between mid-March and the beginning of December 1942. This would mean a total of 1,488,000 victims. Not accounted for were 52 transports which could no longer be determined.[11]

Thus we have a local railway employee with supposedly good insight into the Jewish transports talking of at least 1.5 million victims! What more does Tregenza have to present as evidence? Let us continue with reading Tregenza's description of the alleged outdoor cremation of gassing victims:

Witnesses from the village maintain that up to five pyres were used, while the SS at the judicial process in Munich 1963/1964 spoke of two pyres. According to their statements at least 500,000 people were burnt on these two pyres. If we assume a minimum of 500,000 cremated corpses for two pyres, then for five pyres we must assume a victim figure much higher – possibly even twice as high – as the hitherto officially held figure of 600,000. The commission for investigation of German war crimes in Poland in 1945 came to the conclusion that the Bełżec camp had functioned during a total of 133 days and that during this period transports of forty wagons together containing around 4,000 Jews arrived at the camp daily. This means a minimum of 532,000 victims. Later estimates proceeded from a minimum of 680,000 Jewish arrivals to the camp. In the period with the most gassings, that is August and September 1942, three or more transports arrived daily, often consisting of up to sixty wagons, each wagon containing at least one hundred people. This means a daily victim figure of around 12,000 people. Rudolf Reder, survivor of the camp, confirms this figure. Other witnesses, among them staff of the Bełżec railway station, claim that on some days 15,000 or even more Jews arrived at the rail yard. All of them were however not gassed on the day of their arrival. If for this time-span we assume fifteen days when on average 5,000 more people were gassed in addition to the aforementioned daily 4,000 victims, we reach a victim figure of at least 930,000. It is hard to believe, that so many people could be killed within such a short time-span – only nine months – under the supervision of no more than fifteen SS men.[12]

Tregenza's reasoning is thus entirely based on witness testimony. The way he combines Heinrich Gley's statement on the number of victims and pyres with those of villagers claiming a larger number of pyres in order to reach a victim figure "possibly even twice as high" as the officially held figure of 600,000 is especially illuminating. Nowhere does Tregenza attempt to justify his proposed victim figure by pointing to documentary evidence such as transport lists or demographical data.

In retrospect, the biggest problem with Tregenza's "at least" 930,000 Bełżec victims is the fact that the so-called Höfle telegram, discovered in 2000 by historian Peter Witte, shows the total number of Jews deported to the camp during its less than one year in operation to be no more than 434,508.[13] In the light of the Höfle telegram, the statements of railway personnel which Tregenza relies on can only be viewed as either exaggerations, manipulations or, in the worst case, deliberate lies.

Most astonishing is the fact that Tregenza proposed this absurd victim figure while being highly aware of the results of Andrzej Kola's 1997-1999 drillings and excavations at the former camp site. In fact, at the time his herein criticized Bełżec article was published, he had also written a manuscript entitled "Report on the Archeological Investigation at the Site of the Former Nazi Extermination Camp in Bełżec, Poland: 1997-1999."[14] As he had access to excavation and drilling data, and since the measurement of the mass graves had been finished by 1998, Tregenza would have known of the estimated total grave volume of 21,310 cubic meters.[15] This in turn can only mean that Tregenza finds it entirely plausible, that (930,000 / 21,310 =) 43.6 human bodies could be packed into each cubic meter of the mass graves!

The alleged remains of the two gas chamber buildings

Tregenza in his postscript on the Kola excavations alleges that the archeological investigators managed to find the remains of not only one, but both of the two alleged Bełżec gas chamber buildings:

On the former premises of Lager II was found a concrete base, measuring 15 by 4 meters and divided into four large rooms of equal size. It is assumed that this is what remains of the "Stiftung Hackenholt" gas chambers. A small concrete base, located close to the former main gate, is presumably a rest of the first gas chambers. This base was however not excavated, since most of it lies under the post-war concrete road.[16]

The above statement is actually completely at odds with what we read in Andrzej Kola's official excavation report from 2000. In its chapter on building remains at the former camp site, Kola discusses an object designated "Building G." This is clearly the same building (or rather building negative) which by Tregenza is claimed to be the remains of the alleged second gas chamber building ("Stiftung Hackenholt"), as the dimensions given are identical, and since there among Kola's finds are no building remains which could possibly be confused with it. Professor Kola describes "Building G" thus:

The probing drills indicated undefined archaeological structures of a non-grave character in the northern part of the camp, in the north-western area of ha 16. The neighboring excavations of different shape and size were located there (excavations 15/99, 15a/99 and 15b/99). They revealed the existence of an undefined building negative, made completely of wood, partly buried in the ground, dismantled totally. In the bottom view the relicts had a shape of a regular rectangle with the sizes of about 3,5 x 15 m, which bottom was deposited horizontally to the depth of about 80 cm, The excavation contained dark sandy humus, clearly drawn on the background of sandy soil.

The cultural contents consisted of fragments of tar paper, iron nails coming probably from the over-ground building construction. Moreover pieces of dentures, female combs and two Polish grosz coins were found. The wooden building served probably as a gas chamber in the second stage of the camp functioning, in autumn and winter 1942. Such an interpretation could be confirmed by its location in the camp plan. The probing drills from the north-eastern and eastern part of the building excavated only mass grave pits. Location of the gas chamber close to the burial places in the second stage of the camp existence was confirmed by some of the witness reports. [17]

As has already been noted by Carlo Mattogno, Kola here confronts the eyewitness evidence in a highly contradictory fashion.[18] Because the Jewish key witness Rudolf Reder stated that the second gas chamber building had been a concrete structure, Kola declares Reder's testimony to be "unreliable." On the other hand, the building's function as a gas chamber building is confirmed because its location presumably agrees with that given in "some of the witness reports" – but the only witness report referred to by Kola in this case is that of the "unreliable" Rudolf Reder! Kola furthermore completely ignores the fact that the second gas chamber building ("Stiftung Hackenholt") such as it is described by Reder, Gerstein et al. – a structure with six gas chambers each measuring at least 4 x 5 meters, arranged three and three alongside a corridor – could never have been housed inside a wooden building measuring 15 x 3,5 meters.[19] 

Tregenza, who himself was present at the excavations[20], states that the building remains consisted of a "concrete base" (Betonfundament) while Kola writes in his report that they were "completely of wood." Since in the photo reproduced by Kola as figure 78 (captioned "Building G. The building relicts and the profile at the depth of 60-70 cm") does not show any visible traces of concrete (or brick for that matter) we may assume that Kola's claim is the correct one. Furthermore, Kola makes no mention of the building being divided into "four large rooms of equal size," as is alleged by Tregenza. Since in the other object descriptions such divisions are always mentioned when present, we may assume that no such divisions were found. It therefore follows that Tregenza in 1999 made untrue statements regarding "Building G," either due to misinformation (which seems unlikely given his privileged insight), or as an attempt at deceiving his readers, making them believe that a structure had been found which (at least to some degree) matched the claims made regarding "Stiftung Hackenholt."

What then about the alleged remains of the first gas chamber building? After involving himself in a typical mess of contradictory reasoning,[21] Kola states that while the remains of the first phase gas chamber building could not be found, the structure must nevertheless have existed somewhere south-east of "Building D," the camp's garage.[22] Bełżec expert Robin O'Neil, obviously embarrassed by Kola's bungling in regard to "Building G," had to admit in an article from 1999 that:

We found no trace of the gassing barracks dating from either the first or second phase of the camp's construction.[23]

No "small concrete base," located near the former camp main gate or elsewhere, is mentioned by Kola. One might argue that such an object would not appear in the excavation report if located outside of the perimeter of the drilling area, but on the other hand it seems strange that Kola would not mention – even in passing or in a footnote – such an object in his 84 pages long text, given its possibly major importance.

In an online article about the Kola excavation, Robin O'Neil writes that:

The concrete foundations, or part thereof, of the original gassing barrack, could still lie beneath the rough grass verge between the forester's field to the left of the entrance gate to the memorial area and the paved road that runs alongside the road, and at a point about half-way between the path to the entrance gate and the north end of the field. As the forester has mentioned to the authors that on occasions he has damaged farm machinery on a concrete structure near the east end of his field, this suggests that such a construction could be the walls of the pit in which the gassing engine was placed – 30 m. from the gassing barrack.[24]

The patently absurd notion that the engine used in the alleged first gas chamber building was placed in a pit in fact derives from the statements of a single witness, the aforementioned local Pole Michał Kuśmierczak, who claims to have heard from Ukrainians working in the camp that the engine was hidden three meter below ground at a distance of 30 meters from the gas chambers![25] This is the sole evidentiary basis for the supposed "discovery" of remnants from the alleged first gas chamber building.

Guilty until proven innocent

At the end of his article, Tregenza spends a paragraph describing the fate of the mortal remains of those former Reinhardt staff members who had died fighting partisans in northern Italy in 1944. Most of them eventually ended up in the German military cemetery at Costermano, near Italy's Adriatic coast. In a footnote to this passage, Tregenza remarks:

All in all twelve members of Wirth's SS-Sonderkommando "Aktion Reinhard" were interred at Costermano. In 1989 the Italian government demanded from Bonn that the remains of war criminals Wirth, Schwarz and Franz Reichleitner, the former commandant of Sobibor, be disinterred and removed from the cemetery. Despite a dispute between Rome and Bonn that lasted four years, and despite wide media coverage in Germany as well as Italy, the corpses were never exhumed. In December 1999, the Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VdK) in Kassel told this author that in the eyes of the VdK "Wirth […] is no war criminal, only a war dead."[26]

Of course, VdK are fully justified in not treating Wirth et al. as war criminals, since they were never put on trial and found guilty of war crimes. Tregenza, calling them "war criminals," apparently believes, in reverse of western judicial tradition, that the accused is guilty until proven innocent. In fact, the only evidence which could be mustered in a court against these men consists of unsubstantiated, absurd and contradictory witness statements in conjunction with fraudulent interpretations of finds made during a dubiously carried out archaeological investigation. Some of the Reinhardt staff may have been found guilty at spurious so-called "NS-trials," but the verdict of history will most likely free them, as well as their dead or missing comrades, from the allegations thrown at them by the current powers of this world.

Conclusion

Michael Tregenza's 1999 article on the Bełżec "death camp" is highly illustrative of the methods employed by him. Eyewitness testimony, not contemporary documentation, is used to produce a victim figure which has later been proven to be extremely exaggerated. The results of an archeological investigation are misrepresented. Witness statements made half a century after the alleged events, as well as testimony produced under Polish-Soviet "investigative commissions," are treated as gospel. The fact that Tregenza during the last ten years has published virtually nothing on Bełżec should not come as a surprise to us.


Notes

[1]
Tregenza, Michael, "Bełżec – Das vergessene Lager des Holocaust," In: Wojak, Irmtrud, Peter Hayes (eds.), "Arisierung" im Nationalsozialismus, Volksgemeinschaft, Raub und Gedächtnis, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/Main, New York, pp. 241-267. All translations from this article have been made by the author (Thomas Kues).
[2]
Carlo Mattogno, Bełżec in Propaganda, Testimonies, Archeological Research, and History, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2004.
[3]
Tregenza does not provide us with much new information on the two West-German Bełżec trials. We learn however, that Heinrich Barbl was not put on trial because no extradition agreement could be reached between Austria and West Germany (as I have noted in another article "The Alleged First Gas Chamber Building at Sobibor," Barbl, while working as a free man at a hospital in Linz, provided West German authorities with a bizarre statement on the Sobibor camp) (p. 255, 266), that the Munich pub where Josef Oberhauser worked both prior to his arrest and also after his release from prison was called "Franziskaner Poststübl" (p. 255), and that Bełżec camp commandant SS-Hauptsturmführer Gottlieb Hering died on October 10, 1945, while in a waiting room at the Katherinen Hospital in Stetten-im-Remstal, Würtemberg, his death certificate being incomplete and, contrary to regulations, without any cause of death stated (p. 256, 267). 
[4]
Tregenza, p. 246.
[5]
Mattogno, pp. 42-44.
[6]
Tregenza, p. 247.
[7]
Ibid, p. 243.
[8]
Ibid, pp. 243-244.
[9]
Ibid, pp. 254-255.
[10]
Ibid, p. 242.
[11]
Ibid, p. 258, note 4.
[12]
Ibid, p. 253.
[13]
Peter Witte, Stephen Tyas, "A New Document on the Deportation and Murder of the Jews during 'Einsatz Reinhardt 1942," in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, no. 3, Winter 2001, pp. 469f.
[14]
Tregenza, p. 267.
[15]
Andrzej Kola, Bełżec: The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archaeological Sources. Excavations 1997-1999, The Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Warsaw-Washington 2000, p. 21, 40; Mattogno, p. 73
[16]
Tregenza, p. 257.
[17]
Kola, p. 61.
[18]
Mattogno, pp. 93-94.
[19]
An attempt by exterminationist writer Charles A. Bay to save both Reder and Kola will be examined in a future article by this author.
[20]
As confirmed by Kola, p. 10, note 8.  That Tregenza participated in the excavation is also confirmed by an article for BBC News, "Poland's unknown death camp," which can be read online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/140464.stm\.

This article also contains an interesting passage about Bronislaw Czachor, who together with Stanislaw Kozak was one of the twenty villagers that helped construct the camp: "He recently had a stroke and his speech is muddled – until, that is, he begins talking about the war. It all comes flooding back. He told me in great detail the types of wood he used and where the Germans forced him to carry it. 'But,' I asked him, 'Did you know at the time what you were building?' He grew confused and started contradicting himself. 'He knew alright,' his daughter-in-law whispered, but without any malice."

[21]
Cf. Mattogno, pp. 94-95.
[22]
Kola, p. 67.
[23]
O'Neil, Robin, "Bełżec: The 'Forgotten' Death Camp," in East European Jewish Affairs, 28(2) (1998-9), p. 55.
[24]
Robin O'Neil, "Belzec: Archaeological Investigations," online article from 2006: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/modern/archreview.html
[25]
Mattogno, pp. 46-47.
[26]
Tregenza, p. 267, note 80.

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Author(s): Thomas Kues
Title: Bełżec - The dubious claims of Michael Tregenza
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Published: 2008-09-26
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