In 2000, Polish historian M.M. Rubel published an annotated translation of Rudolf Reder’s witness account of his time as a prisoner in the alleged extermination camp Belzec, which is simply entitled Belzec. It was originally published as a 74-page booklet in Krakow, Poland, in 1946. This translation, published in volume 13 of the journal Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, is currently the most accessible English translation of Reder’s account. In the following article, I will scrutinize this text and its contents, comparing it with orthodox historiography as well as other witness accounts.
Rubel’s introductory note
In his introductory note to the translation, Rubel begin with discussing the importance of the Reder account. There were allegedly only seven survivors of the Belzec camp, and of those seven only two – Rudolf Reder and Chaim Hirszman – left testimony of their experiences. Since Hirszman only made a short statement before he was murdered – by anti-Semitic Poles according to most historians, by Poles who targeted Hirszman due to his role as a communist functionary, according to at least one source – Reder’s account is regarded as the most important testimony on the Belzec camp left by a former Jewish prisoner. Besides Reder, Rubel also mention the reports left by Kurt Gerstein, and the post-war testimony left by Professor Wilhelm Pfannenstiel.
Illustration 1: The cover of the original Polish edition of Belzec.
Rubel also provides us with some biographical information on Reder. He was born on April 4, 1881, in the Polish town of Debica, which makes him no less than 61 years old in 1942, the year he claims to have spent three and a half months as a prisoner in Belzec. According to Rubel, Reder testified about Belzec at three separate occasions in 1945 alone, "twice for the Jewish Historical Commission, and the third time for Jan Sehn, a district attorney who collected evidence on behalf of the regional commission investigating German crimes in Poland." The booklet Belzec was not written by Reder alone, but in collaboration with a certain Nella Rost (whose surname is misspelled as Post by Rubel), who also wrote a foreword (not included in the Rubel translation). Rubel writes that the account was published "under his name but was probably written by [Rost]."
The translator does not know much about Reder’s later life and whereabouts. We are told that he married his former housekeeper (who had hidden him after his escape from Belzec) and migrated to Canada sometime in the early 1950’s. By this time, he had changed his name to Roman Robak, and under this new name he made a deposition at the prosecutor’s office in Munich in 1960 as part of the preparation for the trial against former Belzec personnel, which eventually took place in the same city in 1965. Rubel does not know what year Reder died, but gives as an estimate the late 60’s or early 70’s.
Deportation and arrival at Belzec
On the first pages of his account, Reder recounts how he and other Jews of the Lemberg (Lvov) ghetto were rounded up on August 16, 1942 and sent to a camp in Janowska. It is to be noted that Reder does not provide any personal background data regarding himself (such as the fact that he had passed 60 years of age at the time) neither here or later in the text. We know however, thanks to the translator, that Reder had a background as a soap manufacturer in Lemberg. Next, Reder mentions the rumors circulating about the supposed death camp at Belzec:
We were in despair, since we already knew well what the word Aussiedlung meant. We were being told the story of a worker who had once belonged to a death commando in Belzec, but then eventually managed to escape. While still there he was employed in building chambers disguised as baths which in fact were intended for gassing people. […] We also heard the story of a Ukrainian guard employed there in murdering Jews recounting his experiences to his Polish girlfriend. The woman was so terrified by what she had heard that she decided to pass the news round in order to forewarn prospective victims. That is how we got to know about Belzec.
After spending a day in the Janowska camp, Reder was deported to Belzec together with 5,000 other Jews. Of those 5,000, supposedly only 8 men remained alive a few hours after arrival. Those eight, according to Reder, were the only ones to step forward when the German guards asked for skilled workers. By some small miracle, the elderly witness was accepted for slave work.
Reder’s general description of the camp
The following is Reder’s description of what he observed as his deportation train approached the Belzec camp:
It was a small station surrounded by little houses occupied by Gestapo. Next to the station stood a post office and the lodgings of the Ukrainian railway men. Belzec is on the line between Lublin and Tomaszow, 15 kilometers from Rawa Ruska. At Belzec our train left the main line and moved onto sidings about a kilometer long, which led directly into the camp. […] The sidings led through empty fields: not one habitable building in sight.
While the location given for Belzec is correct, the description of the landscape surrounding the camp is somewhat incorrect, or at least misleading. A look at a Polish map from 1937 (Illustration 2) shows that the small side spur would have led more or less directly from the southern end of the Belzec station rail yard to the camp (its future perimeter marked with red by the author), with the spur measuring 500 meters, according to Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad. Also, there were at least a handful of civilian structures visible from the railway spur, as well as the railway main track and a larger paved road accessible to civilians.
Illustration 2: Portion of a Polish map of the Tomaszow-Lubelski area, drawn in 1937. The approximate perimeter of the future camp has been marked in red by the author.
When it comes to his description of the German (and Austrian) personnel posted at the camp, Reder cannot make up his mind whether they are Gestapo or SS. Rubel feels obliged to note this and explains that "[n]o members of the Gestapo were ever employed in any of the murder camps" and that therefore "[w]here ever Reder uses the word Gestapo in reference to the German garrison at the murder camp in Belzec" we should "read SS men." Yet the witness appears able to distinguish between Gestapo and SS, since he later writes about the camp commandant (Christian Wirth):
Although he seldom came to the camp, for the other SS men he was a terror.
He points out as well that:
The SS men lived without women both in Belzec and within the camp. […] Neither the commandant nor the other Gestapo had personal daily contact with the camp.
How large was the Belzec camp? Reder writes:
The camp was under the total control of the SS. No one was allowed to come near. Those who found themselves in the area by mistake were shot at. The train would come into a courtyard 1 square kilometer in size enclosed on all sides by barbed wire and wire netting to a height of 2 meters. This fencing was not electrified. The entrance to the courtyard was through a large wooden gate covered with barbed wire. Beside this gate was a guardhouse with a telephone. By the guard house stood a few SS men with dogs.
Yet from Luftwaffe air photographs of the by then liquidated camp taken in 1944 we are able to make out the approximate dimensions of the camp: it had the shape of an irregular rectangle measuring roughly 250 x 300 meters, with a large part of it apparently still covered by trees during the camp’s period of operation. The courtyard described by Reder is thus almost four times as large as the camp’s entire area!
According to Reder the Jewish prisoner work force at Belzec, which he dubs the "death commando," consisted of 500 individuals divided into two groups, "the workers doing miscellaneous work" and "the so-called professionals". The prisoners were housed in two barracks with 250 sleeping bunks in each.
Not far from the barracks was a kitchen, the camp's store, an office, a laundry, a tailor's shop, and, finally, comfortable barracks for the askers.
Here for the first time we encounter a point where Reder’s account clashes with official Belzec historiography. According to the orthodox historians, the three Reinhardt camps Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were constructed and managed more or less identically, with the Jewish prisoner workers divided into two main groups: the first mainly occupied with the sorting of clothes and goods, the second one carrying out tasks directly related to the alleged exterminations, such as cleaning the gas chambers and burying the corpses. In Belzec no such distinction is made between Jewish prisoners – nor does the notion of a "death camp proper," a fenced in area containing killing facilities and mass graves, appear in the text. Arad in fact brings up this anomaly:
The absolute division of the Jewish prisoners between those in the main camp and those in the extermination area existed in Sobibor and Treblinka. There is no certainty whether such a division existed in Belzec. One of the two survivors of Belzec, Rudolf Reder, in his book about this camp, referred to all the Jewish prisoners in this camp as one group. However, in the testimonies given by SS men who served in Belzec, the Jews were divided into two separate groups.
Also, on the map of Belzec which accompanied the original edition of Reder’s booklet (Illustration 2), no such division of the camp appears. Rubel does not bother to reproduce this map together with his translation of the account.
In the following descriptive passage it is stated that the gas chamber building was directly accessible from the courtyard:
The camp was surrounded by a dense forest of young pine. Although the forestation was thick, extra branches were cut and interwoven with the existing ones over the gas chambers to allow a minimum of light to penetrate. Behind the gas chambers was a sandy lane along which we dragged the corpses. Overhead the Germans had put wire netting interwoven with more branches. This part of the camp was covered by a sort of greenery and was darker than elsewhere. I suppose the Germans wanted to conceal the area from aerial observation. The main gate led to a sizeable courtyard, surrounded on all sides by a fence 3 meters high. It was made of close-fitting wooden boards, greyish in colour. The courtyard led directly to the gas chamber. Thus no one on the outside would have been able to see what was happening within.
So how come Reder did not notice the alleged division of the camp and the separation of its Jewish work force, or else forgot about it when writing his book, just soon after the war? Could it be that the former SS in the West German trials of the 1960’s based their testimonies – at least those part concerning the alleged mass killings – on a general composite Aktion Reinhard narrative (combining elements of Wiernik, Gerstein et.al.) rather than keeping to the actual truth, or is it Reder who is unreliable on this matter?
Reder uses the word asker to denote the Ukrainian auxiliaries (or "Hiwis") posted as guards as the camp. The term is apparently a corruption of Askari, the name of an African tribe drafted by the German imperial army during World War I. The term was presumably applied to the Ukrainians or "Trawniki men" because of the black uniform they wore.
Despite the supposedly top secret nature of the camp, the Germans did not see any risk in letting Jewish prisoners like Reder work on occasion outside the camp perimeter:
They [the Germans] kept large flocks of ducks and geese. People said that early in the summer they received whole baskets of cherries. Deliveries of wine and other alcohol arrived daily. I repaired an oven there once and saw two young Jewish women plucking geese. They threw me an onion and some beetroot. I also saw a village girl working there. There was no one else besides them, except orderlies. Every Sunday they took an orchestra from the camp and had a drinking orgy. The Gestapo drank and stuffed themselves like pigs.
Curiously it appears that no Jews in the orchestra or among the other inmates sent to the SS billet ever took the opportunity and tried to escape during one of those drinking orgies!
The handling of transports and the extermination process
As soon as he was picked out for the work force, Reder had to participate in tasks related to the handling of arriving transports. This is how the deportee trains were received according to him:
When the train had been brought into the courtyard, one of the men would come out of the guardhouse, shut the gate and then go back in. At this moment the reception of the transport began. Several dozen SS men yelling 'Los' opened the trucks, chasing people out with whips and rifle-butts. The doors were about a meter from the ground, and the people, young and old alike, had to jump down, often breaking arms or legs.
One would think that, if the German’s aimed to deceive the deportees into believing that they had reached an ordinary transit camp, then at least a primitive platform would have been constructed. Jews falling down and breaking their legs in front of the cars would at any rate have provided an unwelcome obstacle to the unloading process.
Next, the witness describes the treatment of infirm arrivals:
The sick, the old, and small children – in other words, all those who could not walk on their own – where thrown onto stretchers and taken to pits. There they were made to sit on the edge, while Irrman – one of the Gestapo – shot them and pushed their bodies into the pit with a rifle-butt.
If we are to believe Reder, Irrman, or SS-Oberscharführer Fritz Jirmann, as was his actual name and rank, was a busy man: not only did he bring all infirm deportees to a ditch and shoot them, he also delivered the deceptive speech about showers and labor camps to all arrivals. Following this trickery, the columns of victims were brought to the waiting gas chambers:
And in silence they all went forward: men straight across the courtyard to a building bearing the inscription "Bade und Inhalationsräume" in large letters, the women, some 20 meters further on to a large barracks[sic], 15 by 30 meters. They were led there not knowing why. For a few minutes more there was peace and quiet. I saw that when they were handed wooden stools and ordered first to stand in line and then to sit down, and when eight Jewish barbers, silent as death, came in to shave their hair to the bare skin, it was at this moment that they were struck by the terrible truth. It was then that neither the women nor the men – already on their way to the gas – could have any illusions about their fate. […] There were cries and shrieking. Some women went mad. Others, however, went to their death calmly, young girls in particular.
Since Reder arrived at Belzec in mid-August, the gas chamber building he is describing would have been the new, second gas chamber building, which, it is claimed, had been constructed during the previous months. The second most important Belzec eyewitness, Kurt Gerstein, allegedly visited the camp on August 18, 1942, just a few days after Reder’s arrival. According to Reder, the gas chamber building carried the inscription "Bade und Inhalationsräume." According to Gerstein on the other hand, the large inscription read "Stiftung Heckenholt" or "Heckenholt-Stiftung". It is further of interest that Reder locates the same building "straight across the courtyard", instead of describing the Schlauch or funnel supposedly leading to the gas chamber building and its entrance.
Shaving the women took approximately two hours. Two hours were the time it took to prepare for murder and for the murder itself.
A dozen or so SS men drove the women along with whips and fixed bayonets all the way to the building and from there three steps to a hall. There the askers counted 750 people for each gas chamber. Those women who tried to resist were bayoneted until the blood was running. Eventually all the women were forced into the chambers. I heard the doors being shut; I heard shrieks and cries; I heard desperate calls for help in Polish and Yiddish. I heard the blood-curdling wails of women and the squeals of children, which after a short time became one long, horrifying scream... This went on for fifteen minutes. The engine worked for twenty minutes. Afterwards there was total silence. Then the askers pushed open the doors that led outside. It was then that those of us who had been selected from different transports, in unmarked clothing and without tattoos, began our work.
We pulled out the corpses of the people so recently alive. We dragged them to pits with the help of leather straps while an orchestra played... from morning until night.
According to Yitzhak Arad, the new gas chamber building measured 24 x 10 meters and contained six chambers measuring either 4 x 8 or 4 x 5 meters. Arad estimates their total absorption capacity as approximately 2,000 people, which in turn means either 10 or 17 victims per square meter. Using the dimensions given by Arad would mean that Reder wants us to believe that 23 to 37.5 victims were crammed in per square meter gas chamber. Clearly this is nonsense – but nonsense with a background. The figure of 750 victims per chamber is identical to that stated by Kurt Gerstein in his reports. The figure is repeated in the next paragraph:
Each transport received the same treatment. People were ordered to undress and to leave their belongings in the courtyard. Each time there was the same deceptive speech. […] But a minute later, and with extreme brutality, babies were torn from their mothers, old and sick were thrown on stretchers, while men and little girls were driven with rifle-butts further onto a fenced path leading directly to the gas chambers. At the same time, and with the same brutality, the already naked women were ordered to the barracks, where they had their hair shaved. I knew exactly the moment when they all suddenly realized what was in store, Cries of fear and anguish, terrible moans, mingled with the music played by the orchestra. Hustled along and wounded with bayonets, first the men were made to run to the gas chambers. The askers counted 750 people to each chamber. Before all six chambers were filled to capacity, those in the first had already been suffering for nearly two hours. It was only when all six chambers were packed with people, when the doors were locked into position, that the engine was set in motion.
According to Reder’s account the gassing engine was always serviced by two Ukrainian guards, and always by the same two individuals. Reder further states that the Jewish inmates had no contact with the Ukrainians, who used to shoot those workers who tried to give water or food to the arriving victims.
How is it that both Gerstein and Reder came up with the same impossibly high number of victims per gas chamber? As an attempt at rationalization, M.M. Rubel writes that it derived from Christian Wirth, who stated this exaggerated figure to Gerstein and Pfannenstiel in order to inflate the killing capacity of the chambers. It is Rubel’s suggestion that this figure then became the "official one" and that Reder then heard it from the guards or his fellow inmates. However, if one looks at what Reder actually writes, we find it stated twice that "the askers counted 750 people for each gas chamber" (a askarzy odliczali po 750 osob do kazdej komory). Thus the figure presumably derives from Reder’s own observation of Ukrainian guards counting the gas chamber victims.
Is it possible that Reder or his ghostwriter Nella Rost had access to one of the Gerstein reports at the time of the writing of Belzec? We know that the first edition of Reder's booklet was published by the Wojewódzka Zydowska Komisja Historyczna (Regional Jewish Historical Committee) in Krakow in 1946. We also know that the first of the Gerstein reports was composed in the prison in Rottweil on April 26, 1945, and that the last was written on May 6 the same year. The text in German dubbed T II by Roques was written on April 26 1945 and later filed by allied investigators as Document PS-1553. On January 1946 the same document was refused by the Nuremberg Tribunal. We also know that a version, or rather a rewrite, of one of Gerstein’s reports had been published by the French newspaper France Soir on July 4, 1945. However, since the text (of spurious origin) quoted in this article gives "700 to 800 persons" as the total number of victims per gassing, this cannot have been the source of the possible plagiarizing. Henri Roques writes that "[u]ntil 1951, the texts composed by Gerstein […] were read only by a very limited number of persons, essentially the officers of the Allied intelligence services, magistrates of various nationalities, and some rare journalists." This does not exclude that an official institution such as the Polish Jewish Historical Committee could not have gotten hold of a copy of a report by 1946. We know from other cases that Western Allied intelligence cooperated with Polish authorities and provided them with documentary evidence for war crime tribunals as late as 1947. That Nella Rost does not mention Gerstein in her foreword to the original edition of Reder’s book does not necessarily mean that he and his writings were unknown to her. The question of whether Polish judiciary, historians, and propagandists had access to Gerstein’s writing soon after the war is in need of further research.
The following anecdote recounted by Reder is of much interest in the above context:
One day, the death-machine went out of order. When he [the commandant] was informed, he came on horseback and ordered an immediate repair. He did not allow the gas chambers to be opened to let the people out: let them asphyxiate slowly and die in agony for a few hours longer. He crouched beside the engine, yelling and shaking with fury. Although he seldom came to the camp, for the other SS men he was a terror.
This episode could be identified as the botched gassing allegedly witnessed and described by Kurt Gerstein. However, it stands to reason that if Rudolf Reder (or Nella Rost) had access to the text of one of the Gerstein reports and lifted the gas chamber capacity figures from it, then it is also possible that Reder likewise plagiarized Gerstein’s testimony in the above quoted passage.
The number of victims and their nationalities
About the number of the victims deported to Belzec Reder informs us:
I stayed in Belzec death camp from August until the end of November. This was a period which saw the gassing of Jews on a massive scale. I was told by some of the inmates who had managed to survive from the earlier transports that the vast majority of the death convoys came during this precise period. They were coming each and every day without respite. Usually they arrived three times a day. Each convoy was composed of fifty cattle-trucks, each truck containing 100 people. If a transport happened to come during the night, the victims were kept in locked cars until six in the morning. The average death toll was 10,000 people a day. Some days the transports were not only larger, but even more frequent. Jews were brought in from everywhere: no one else, only Jews.
With an average of 10,000 arrivals per day, no less than 1 million Jews would have been gassed at Belzec merely during Reder’s stay in the camp. Yitzhak Arad states that 93,000 Jews had been deported to Belzec and killed there up until the middle of June 1942, when the construction of the new gas chambers allegedly began. He also states that a further 414,000 Jews were deported to Belzec from Polish territories between December 1942, together with an estimated 100,000 Jews from outside Poland. The so-called Höfle telegram on the other hand shows that 434,508 Jews in all were deported to Belzec. It therefore stands to reason that at most somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 Jews could have arrived at Belzec during Reder’s (supposed) stay there. Anyway, it remains a mystery how the prisoner workers managed to dig all the pits necessary to accommodate the thousands of victims killed daily!
Regarding the nationality of the victims Reder writes:
Apart from Polish Jews there were also transports of Jews from other countries. The majority of foreign transports came from France. There were also Jews from Holland, Greece, and even Norway. I do not recall seeing German Jews. On the other hand, I do remember Jews from Czechoslovakia.
It is more or less a certainty that no Norwegian Jews were sent to Belzec. From Norway only 767 Jews were ever deported. The first transport of Jews (a mere 21 individuals) was dispatched from Oslo on November 19, 1942, and at that time Reder had supposedly already escaped left Belzec, which was ready for liquidation. He could thus impossibly have encountered any Norwegian Jews.
Reder "does not recall seeing German Jews". Arad on the other hand claims that thousands of German as well as Austrian Jews were gassed at Belzec during the autumn of 1942. Furthermore, all orthodox sources seem to agree on the point that the largest portion of the 76,000 Jews deported from France (the vast majority of them not French nationals) were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, it therefore stands that the number of transports from France which possibly reached the Reinhardt camps in general and Belzec in particular must have been few, if any. One source states that only four French convoys were sent to the Reinhardt camps – all of them to Sobibor. Reder’s claim that "the majority of foreign transports came from France" thus appear highly spurious. Even Rubel takes note of this, but it apparently does not strike him as very odd that the witness claimed a majority of the foreign deportees to be French Jews, as well as mentioning three nationalities that never set their feet in Belzec and dismissing the presence of another that actually did (the German Jews).
In Belzec, Reder gave the total number of victims as 2.5 million (see below, "Reder’s return to Belzec"). In a previous statement made before the Jewish Historical Commission in Krakow in 1945, Reder stated the same figure as 3 million. Thus Reder believed the number of murdered Jews at Belzec to be five or even six times higher than that of the Jews actually deported to the camp. The absurdity of this belief will become even more apparent when below we discuss Reder’s conception of the Belzec grave pits.
The gas chambers and the killing agent
Compared to many other eyewitnesses to the alleged gas chambers, and especially to the former camp personnel interrogated in the 1960’s, Reder provides his audience with a description of the gas chambers that is rather detailed:
The building containing the gas chambers was not high, but long and wide. It was made of grey cement blocks, and was covered by a flat roof made of asbestos sheets. Immediately above it stretched wire netting covered with branches. The door to the building was approached by three steps a meter wide and without railings. In front stood a large flower-pot filled with plants. There was an inscription in large letters on the front: ‘Bade und Inhalationsräume’. The steps led to a completely empty and unlit corridor; just four cement walls. It was very long, though only about a meter and a half wide. On both sides of it were doors to the gas chambers. These were sliding doors made of wood, with wooden handles. The gas chambers had no windows. They were dark and empty. In each gas chamber there was a hole the size of an electric socket. All the walls and floors were made of cement. Both the corridor and the gas chambers were no more than 2 meters high. On a wall opposite the entrance to each gas chamber were more sliding doors 2 meters wide. Through these the corpses of the gassed were thrown outside. On one side of the building was an adjoining shed no bigger than 2 meters square. This housed the engine, which was petrol-driven. The gas chambers were about a meter and a half above ground level. The doors leading to the ramp, onto which the bodies of the victims were thrown, where on a level with the gas chambers.
Reder here claims that the engine was placed in a small "adjoining shed." Yet judging from Kurt Gerstein’s description, the engine was placed at the far end of the corridor, making it visible to Gerstein while he inspected the insides of the gas chambers through the peepholes in their inner doors.
Reder describes the actual killing agent, i.e. the alleged gassing engine, as follows:
The engine was large, about a meter by a meter and a half. It consisted of a motor and wheels. The engine whirred at intervals and worked so fast that one could not see the spokes turning. It worked for twenty minutes. Afterwards it was turned off. The doors leading from the gas chambers onto the ramp were then opened. Bodies were thrown out onto the ground in one enormous pile a few meters high. The who opened the doors took no precautionary measures. We did not smell any particular odour; I saw no balloons filled with gas, or any powder thrown in. What I saw were petrol canisters. […] But once, when the engine went wrong, I was called in to put it right. In the camp they called me an [stove-setter]. That's why they selected me. I looked it over and saw glass tubes connected to metal pipes, which led to each gas chamber. We thought that the engine worked either by producing high pressure, or by sucking air away, or that the petrol produced exhaust fumes, which suffocated the people. The calls for help, shrieks, and terrible moans of people locked in and slowly asphyxiated lasted between ten and fifteen minutes.
Given that we know that Reder had a background not as a mechanic, but as a manufacturer of soap in Lvov (Lemberg), it seems strange that he would be called in to fix the gassing engine. One would rather expect that the two Ukrainians, who according to the witness always handled the engine, were capable of solving such problems, or SS truck drivers Werner Dubois and Erich Fuchs, alternatively any Jewish inmate with a background as mechanic would have been ordered to repair the motor. A skeptical reader may suspect that Reder came up with the notion of himself as a kind of camp do-it-all in order to rationalize his claims of having observed most if not all of the camps, including the inside of the killing installations and the killing agent itself.
Reder identifies the engine, although rather large in size, as a petrol engine, whereas the trained mining engineer Kurt Gerstein consistently describes it as diesel engine.
During his interrogation by the Polish Judge Jan Sehn on December 29, 1945, Reder provided the following account of the gassing installation and its effects on the victims:
I am not in a position to say precisely what chemical process was used to murder the people in the chambers at Belzec. I know only that from the engine room a pipe, one inch in diameter, went to each of the gas chambers. Those pipes had their outlet in the individual chambers. I cannot say whether any gases were fed through those pipes into the chambers, whether they compressed the air in the chambers, or whether the air was pumped out of the chambers. I was often on the ramp at the moment the doors were opened, but I never smelled any odor, and on entering a chamber right after the doors were opened I never felt any ill effects on my health. The bodies in the chamber did not show any unnatural discoloration. They looked like live persons, most had their eyes open. Only in a few cases were the corpses bloodstained. The air in the chambers, when they were opened, was pure, transparent and odorless. In particular, there was no smoke from the exhaust gas of the engine. The gas was evacuated from the engine directly into the open air, and not into the chambers.
First of all we note the absence of engine exhaust odor, which would have permeated the chambers even if we are supposing a petrol engine as the killing against. According to Reder’s account, the workers on the ramp entered the gas chambers more or less immediately after a gassing was finished, without allowing for the chambers to be ventilated by the draft (no Belzec witness mention anything about mechanical ventilation and there is nothing in Reder’s description of the interior of the chambers which could be interpreted as part of a ventilation device). The notion that there was no smell is present in both Belzec and the December 1945 interrogation protocol.
Reder stated in the interrogation protocol that the victims displayed no "unnatural discoloration" and that they looked "like live persons." No statements regarding the appearance of the victims are to be found in Belzec. As has been most forcefully pointed out by revisionist F.P. Berg, discoloration of the victim’s skin is in fact a telltale sign of carbon monoxide poisoning. Photographs in specialist literature on forensic medicine reveal that large cherry-pink or bruise-red discolorations are prevalent and easily visible on the bodies of victims. It is thus highly suspicious that Reder denies having seen such discoloration among the gas chamber victims. If he had indeed as claimed spent months dragging corpses from the gas chambers to the mass graves, he would beyond any certainty have witnessed numerous cases of discoloration.
In the account found in Belzec, Reder describes seeing "glass tubes connected to metal pipes", in turn apparently attached to the engine. The witness profess not to know how exactly the victims in the chambers were killed and lists high pressure (presumably by the pumping in of air), vacuum (by the pumping out of air) and "exhaust fumes" as three possibilities. In the earlier 1945 testimony on the other hand Reder again mentions vacuum and high pressure as possible killing methods. He then states that he does know whether "any gases" were fed through the pipes. That the "gases" goes undefined should be noted. Reder finally informs us that the engine exhaust "was evacuated from the engine directly into the open air, and not into the chamber", thus blatantly contradicting the later account found in Belzec which stipulates engine exhaust gas as a possible killing method. When taken as a whole, Reder’s statements about the gas chambers and the killing method seem very curious indeed.
The mass graves
Rudolf Reder claims that he spent a significant portion of his nearly four months long stay in Belzec dragging corpses to mass graves in proximity of the gas chamber building – a strange case of work assignment when one recalls Reder’s advanced age at the time: 61. In any case, Reder asserts familiarity with the grave pits, their location and appearance:
There were mass graves on both sides of the building housing the gas chambers. Some were already full; others were still empty. I saw many graves filled to capacity and covered high with sand. It took quite a while for them to level down. There always had to be one empty pit, just in case...
We dug pits, enormous mass graves, and pulled bodies along. […] We dug with spades, but there was also a machine which loaded sand, brought it to the surface, and emptied it beside the pits. There was a mountain of sand which we used to cover the pits when they were filled to overflowing. On average 450 people worked around the pits on a daily basis. What I found most horrible was that we were ordered to pile bodies to a height of about a meter above ground-level, and only then to cover them with sand. Thick, black blood ran from the mounds and covered the whole area like a sea. In order to get to the next empty grave we had to cross from one side of an already empty pit to another. Ankle deep we waded through the blood of our brothers. We walked over mounds of bodies. And this was most dreadful, most horrible...
In the published account Belzec we are never told the number of pits. It seems that Reder spared that part of information for the Polish and Jewish committees and judiciary he witnessed before. In 1945, in front of the Jewish Historical Commission, he had stated that they numbered 30, each having a surface measuring 100 x 25 meters, and containing 100,000 corpses, thus allowing for the earlier mentioned total number of 3 million killed. In his interrogation by Jan Sehn in December 1945, Reder added that the graves were dug to a depth of 15 meters. As has been pointed out by Carlo Mattogno, none of the grave pits detected at the former Belzec camp site by Andrzej Kola was deeper than 5 meters, that the pit with the largest surface area measured 540 square meters (as compared to Reder’s 2,500), and that the most spacious pit measured merely 2,100 cubic meters (as compared to the 37,500 claimed by Reder). If we are to trust Reder the grave pits at Belzec had a total volume of 1,125,000 cubic meters. According to Andrzej Kola (whose figure is likely to be highly exaggerated due to expansion of the pits caused by post-war wildcat diggings) the same figure should be 21,310 cubic meters. Even more damning is the fact that the total grave area alleged by Reder – (2,500 x 30 =) 75,000 square meters or 7.5 ha – is larger than that of the entire camp (approximately 7 hectares). It should thus not surprise that Reder in the beginning of his booklet states the area of the camp to be that of four times its actual size!
The dragging of the corpses to the mass graves was reportedly carried out in the following fashion:
…the commando was also employed in emptying the gas chambers, piling the bodies on a ramp, and dragging them all the way to the pits. The ground was sandy. Two workers dragged one body. We had leather straps with metal braces, which we put round the hands of a corpse. Then we pulled, while the head of the dead man often dug deep into the sand... As regards small children, we were ordered to carry them in pairs on our backs. […] This 'work' was done only in full daylight.
As seen above Reder claims that "on average 450" (of in total 500) inmates "worked around the pits on a daily basis." Given that the rest of the daily work in the camp can hardly have been carried out by the remaining 50 inmates (as seen above Reder claims that half of the inmates were "so-called professionals"), it seems likely in context that many of the 450 were only called in temporarily for work. We might thus assume that the commando of corpse draggers could, at a given time, have numbered at most a few hundred. Still 10,000 bodies had to be transported daily from the gas chambers to the grave pits, if we are to believe Reder’s statements as quoted above. If we suppose that 200 inmates were assigned to corpse dragging on a given day lasting 12 daylight hours (without breaks), and following Reder’s description of how the work was carried out, then each worker would have to make a total of approximately 100 rounds that day, or one each 7 minutes. Each round would consist of attaching the straps, dragging the corpse to a not yet full pit, removing the straps, placing the corpse in the pit, and returning to the gas chamber building. Even if we allowed for twice the number of assigned workers, the work would be grueling. It seems hardly believable that a relatively elderly man like Reder could have endured such hard work for more than a few days at most.
Assorted greuel stories
Naturally Reder also provides his readers with descriptions of acts of random sadism perpetrated by German and Ukrainian camp personnel. Amongst other things we read:
Soon after my arrival at Belzec the Germans picked out from a transport […] several young men, including a young boy. He was the picture of youth, health, and strength. He also amazed us by his good humour. He looked round and asked most playfully, ‘Did anyone ever sneak out of here?’ And that was that. He was overheard by some Germans. As a result this young boy, practically a child, was tortured to death. They stripped him naked and hung him upside-down on the gallows. He was there for three hours – and he was still alive. So they took him down, threw him onto the ground, and pushed sand down his throat with sticks. He died.
From the above we may learn that the SS were diabolical enough to spend hours torturing to death a young boy caught committing a minor offense against the draconic camp rules. They even employed a rather strange and seemingly ineffective killing method: death by sand pushed down the victim’s throat by sticks!
That the beasts capable of such dastardly acts spent most of their time cracking their whips and ogling the suffering of prisoners should not in anyway surprise us:
Agile, thin, and quick – looking like a real cut-throat and constantly drunk – Schmidt rushed around the camp from four o'clock in the morning until night. He beat whomever he could find with evident pleasure. […] Schmidt always turned up where harassment was at its worst. He never missed an opportunity to see victims being driven to the gas chambers. He stood there listening to the terrible piercing cries of women being gassed. He was the real soul of the camp, bloodthirsty, monstrous and degenerate. It gave him real pleasure to observe the expressionless features of the death commando returning exhausted to the barracks at night. On the way back each one of us received a blow on the head from his riding-crop. If anyone tried to evade it Schmidt would run after him.
In the following passage, Reder shows that he (or Nella Rost?) has fully mastered the art of propaganda writing. If there’s anything to convince, when your actual claims do not hold up to scrutiny, it is the alleged suffering of small children:
Words are inadequate to describe our state of mind and what we felt when we heard the terrible moans of those people and the cries of the children being murdered. Three times a day we saw people going nearly mad. Nor were we far from madness either. How we survived from one day to the next I cannot say, for we had no illusions. Little by little we too were dying, together with those thousands of people who, for a short while, went through an agony of hope. Apathetic and resigned to our fate, we felt neither hunger nor cold. We all waited our turn to die an inhuman death. Only when we heard the heart-rending cries of small children – 'Mummy, mummy, but I have been a good boy' and 'Dark, dark' – did we feel something. And then nothing again.
Reder’s miraculous survival and escape
The witness describes the living conditions for the prisoners in the camp and their life expectancy in great detail:
No fewer than thirty or forty workers were shot each day. Usually it was a camp doctor who prepared a list of those too weak to work, but sometimes it was a kapo with the function of Oberzugsführer who submitted names of so-called criminals. At least thirty to forty men from the death commando were shot daily. They were taken to the pits during the lunch break and shot. The death commando was supplemented daily by other men from the incoming transports. One of the jobs of the camp's administration was to keep records of all the workers of the death commando, both past and present, in order to make sure that the figure of 500 was always kept up. But there were no records concerning the number of transports or victims. We knew, for example, that Jews built this camp and set the death machine in motion. Not one of those who worked on the original installations survived until my arrival there. It was a miracle if anyone survived for longer than five or six months at the most.
With five hundred constant members of the "death commando", thirty or forty killed per day would mean that each member was replaced on average twice per month. At the age of 61, it is a wonder that Reder himself managed to survive in the camp for nearly four months. But, like so many any Holocaust survivors, he seems for some dim reason to have been "irreplaceable" in the eyes of his sadistic masters.
Reder’s escape from the "death camp" is itself something of a miracle:
I had been in this nightmare for nearly four months when, towards the end of November, Irrmann told me that the camp would need metal sheets, and a lot of them. I was swollen and blue all over. Pus ran from open wounds. Schmidt bludgeoned me about the face with a truncheon. With an ironic smile Irrmann told me that I would go to Lemberg under escort to fetch the sheets, adding 'Sollst nicht durchgehen' ['Don't try to escape']. Off I went in a lorry with one guard and four Gestapo. After loading the whole day, I stayed in the lorry guarded by one of the thugs, while the others went away looking for fun. I sat there for a few hours without moving or thinking. Then, quite by chance, I noticed that my guard was asleep and snoring. Instinctively and without a thought, I slipped down from the lorry and stood on the pavement pretending to adjust the load. Then I slowly backed away. Legionowa Street was full of people. There was a blackout. I pushed my cap down lower and no one noticed me. I remembered the address of my Polish housekeeper and went straight to her flat. She hid me. It took twenty months for the physical injuries to heal. But what of the mental wounds? I was haunted by images of past horror, hearing the moans of the murdered and the children crying, and the throb of a running engine. Nor could I wipe from my memory the faces of those German thugs. And in such a state of continuous nightmare I survived until the liberation.
Thus despite being "swollen and blue all over", with pus running from open wounds, having suffered injuries which it took "twenty months" to heal, 61 year old Reder was chosen by the Germans for the work of loading metal sheets! One would suspect that an old man in Reder’s condition would have been chosen for the quote of 30-40 prisoner workers allegedly killed off each day, rather than for hard work, but the legend must have it otherwise. That the SS would bring a Jewish prisoner from a secret extermination camp to a town just in order to do work that could well have been done by, for example, an Ukrainian guard, is of course perplexing in itself. Regarding the details of the escape, it may suffice to say that it reads like something from The Boy’s Own Paper or an old episode of Hogan’s Heroes.
Reder’s return to Belzec
Last in our reading of Belzec we come to the description of its author’s supposed visit to the former camp site sometime soon after the war, most likely in summer 1945:
When the Red Army expelled the Germans from Lemberg and I was finally able to come out of hiding without fear, to breath fresh air and to begin to feel and think again, I was seized by a desire to go back to this place where two and a half million of our people met their terrible death. I went there soon and spoke at length with the locals. They told me that in 1943 a much smaller number of transports came to the camp. The murder centre for the Jews moved further west, to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In 1944 the Germans opened up the pits and burned the bodies with petrol. Dark, heavy smoke rising from the enormous open-air pyres hung over an area of several dozen square miles. The wind carried the stench still further, for many long days, nights, and weeks.
And later, the locals told me, the Germans pounded the remaining bones to powder, which the wind blew away over the fields and forests. The machine pounding the bones had been put together by someone named Spilke, a prisoner from Janowska camp brought to Belzec for the purpose. He told me that he found nothing in the camp except mounds of bones. All the buildings had already gone. (Spilke managed to escape, and survived the war. He now lives in Hungary. He told me all this in Lemberg, where we met after the liberation.) When the production of 'artificial fertilizer' from human bones came to a halt, the open pits were filled with soil and the blood-soaked earth scrupulously leveled. The German murderers covered this graveyard for millions of murdered Jews with fresh greenery.
I said goodbye to my informants and went along the familiar siding. The railway line was gone. Through a field I reached a young and sweet-smelling pine forest. In the middle of it was a large, sunny clearing...
It is remarkable that Reder states that there were transports to Belzec in 1943 and that the grave pits were opened and the bodies burned in 1944, even if this is attributed to hearsay. As seen above, the witness gives "the end of November" as the approximate date for his escape. According to the former SS-Oberscharführer Heinrich Gley the gassings were stopped "at the end of 1942". Yitzhak Arad also supports the notion that transports were stopped in November 1942. From German records, we know that the last transport took place at the very latest in mid-December 1942.
Let us next briefly discuss "Spilke" (or "Szpilke"). To the knowledge of this author, there exist no evidence whatsoever which corroborates the existence of this individual. Robin O’Neil in his online study on Belzec repeats the Szpilke story but provides no other source than Reder’s book. Arad does not mention him at all. If "Szpilke" had really survived the war, how come he never came forth and testified, or searched out by war crime tribunal attorneys, or later, by historians? It even seems that no-one has bothered to investigate whether the existence of such a prisoner and a transfer in 1943 could be verified using (possibly surviving) records from the Janowska concentration camp.
What did the former Belzec camp site look like in 1945 and 1946? On this issue, Arad quotes the testimony of a Polish inhabitant of Belzec, Edward Luczynski:
After leveling and cleaning the area of the extermination camp, the Germans planted the area with small pines and left. At that moment, the whole area was plucked to pieces by the neighboring population, who were searching for gold and valuables. That’s why the whole surface of the camp was covered with human bones, hair, ashes from cremated corpses, dentures, pots, and other objects.
Revisionist historian Carlo Mattogno quotes the Zamosz prosecutor who headed the Polish inquiry into the Belzec "death camp" soon after the war:
At the moment [= April 11, 1946], the camp site has been completely dug up by the local population in their search for valuables. This has brought to the surface ash from the corpses and from wood, charred bones as well as bones that were only partially charred.
It is hard to determine whether the effects of the wild cat digs for hidden treasure are visible on a ground photo (or rather a panorama created by combining two photos) of the former camp site that was taken from its northwestern corner after the camp’s liquidation, most likely in 1945 or 1946 (Illustration 4). It seems curious in the light of the above quoted Polish witness accounts that Reder, if he had really visited the site in 1945, would have described the scenery observable there as simply "a large, sunny clearing." Furthermore, the ground photo shows that there were no trees left standing between the railway and the former camp area, so technically speaking there was no "clearing", i.e. an open area surrounded by woods, to see at the site. The photo likewise makes it clear that if the German’s had actually planted pines or furs at the former camp site, then those young trees had all been uprooted at the time it was taken.
Illustration 4: The former Belzec camp site after liquidation, as seen from the northwestern corner of the camp perimeter.
Rudolf Reder is the only former inmate of Belzec to have left substantial accounts of his alleged experiences in this camp. His text Belzec, originally published in Polish in 1946, should reasonably be the most important and most trustworthy account of the supposed mass murder of Jews at that camp, considering that the witness spent nearly four months in close proximity to the alleged gas chambers and mass graves, and that the account itself was written down merely four years after the events. Instead we find a tale riddled with patently ludicrous elements, as well as numerous statements that at closer examination blatantly contradicts the testimonies of other witnesses as well as orthodox historiography and what we in fact know about the Belzec camp. Thus we have Reder presenting for us a Belzec vastly larger than the actual camp site; thirty mass graves, each of them as large as nearly all of the 33 grave pits detected by Andrzej Kola put together; a large inscription on the front of the "gas chamber" building which reads completely different than reported by Kurt Gerstein; French, Greek and Norwegian Jews that never set their feet in the camp; a strangely confused description of the killing agent; gassings with exhaust fumes leaving no smell; victims of said gassings displaying no symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning; and finally, an absurd escape story worthy the pen of an elementary school student.
In the light of the above listed contradictions and absurdities it should not surprise that, as reported by Carlo Mattogno, some exterminationist scholars have decided to throw Reder’s (as well as Gerstein’s) testimony overboard, or at least refrain from quoting it, in favor of minor witnesses, of whom the majority testified about the Belzec "gas chambers" in the 1960’s or even later. The problem with this behavior is of course, that the later witnesses, alternatively their lawyers or interrogators, may very well have had access to the writings of Reder and Gerstein and based their "recollections" at least partly thereon. Detailed and absurd early testimonies may thus directly have given rise to the vague and more tempered later accounts through a process of selection and coordination. That the first and most detailed accounts of the alleged gas chambers at Belzec are filled with absurdities and contradictions should in any case give rise to suspicion regarding the origins of the officially sanctioned Belzec historiography.
By translating and presenting Belzec M.M. Rubel has done us all a favor. That it was published in a rather obscure scholarly journal with few readers outside academia should not be blamed on him. It is however significant that the public are fed innumerable accounts of minor witnesses to the "death camps", witnesses who at the very most describes a few flaming chimneys, dark smoke and Dr. Mengele. The actual words of the most crucial "Holocaust" witnesses, such as Reder, Gerstein, Wiernik, Tauber et al. are apparently, for some inexplicable reason, not suitable for the minds of the general public. Wouldn’t it be the height of "Holocaust" education if Reder’s and Gerstein’s words were printed and distributed to all school children and college students in the western world?
- According to Henryk Pajak, Konspiracja mlodziezy szkolnej 1945-1955 (Lublin: Retro, 1994), pp. 130 – 131, Hirszman was killed because he was an "active and dangerous functionary of the Provincial UB in Lublin"; cf. Tadeusz Piotrowski, Poland's Holocaust: Ethnic Strife, Collaboration with Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947, p. 341.
- Cf. Henri Roques, The "Confessions" of Kurt Gerstein, Institute for Historical Review, Costa Mesa 1989; Carlo Mattogno, Belzec in Propaganda, Testimonies, Archeological Research, and History, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2004, pp. 52-62; as well as Thomas Kues, "Some Remarks on the Gerstein Reports", online http://www.codoh.com/newrevoices/nrtkgerstein.html.
- Reder’s life is wrapped in obscurity. It is representative that not a single photograph of the man appears to be available. Further research into Reder’s life may indeed prove fertile. Did he, for example, leave behind any further writings or statements on the subject of Belzec? Had he any connections to Polish underground movements or Soviet intelligence?
- Rudolf Reder, "Belzec", with an introduction by M.M. Rubel, Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, volume 13, 2000, p. 270.
- Ibid, p. 272.
- "Mapa Taktyczna Polski 1:100 000", Wojskowy Instytut Geograficzny 1937, Online: http://www.mapywig.org/m/wig100k/P47_S37_TOMASZOW_LUBELSKI.jpg
- Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, University of Indiana Press, Bloomington 1987, p. 27.
- Polin, p. 285.
- Ibid, p. 282.
- Ibid, p. 273.
- Ibid, p .276.
- Arad, p. 112.
- Polin, p. 274.
- It should be noted that Treblinka witness Jankiel Wiernik likewise describes a foliage camouflage for the gas chamber building at Treblinka. Since Wiernik’s book A Year in Treblinka originally was published in Polish in 1944, it is fully plausible that Reder plagiarized Wiernik on this point. It would indeed be very interesting to know whether Soviet air force in 1942 or 1943 carried out reconnaissance flights over the area of eastern Poland which contained the Reinhardt camps. Is it possible that Soviet air photos of the camps in operation exists but have not yet been discovered (or released)?
- Polin, p. 287.
- Ibid, p. 273.
- Ibid, p. 273
- Ibid, p. 274.
- Ibid, p. 274.
- Cf. Roques, p. 22, 31, 40, 60, 76.
- Polin, pp. 274-5.
- Cf. Roques, p. 23, 31, 42, 62, 79.
- Polin, pp. 276-7.
- Ibid, p. 281.
- Rudolf Reder, Belzec, Ksiazki Wojewodzkiej Zydowskiej Komisji Historycznej w Krakowie, Krakow 1946, p. 41.
- Roques, p. 19, 73.
- Ibid, p. 123.
- Ibid, p. 110.
- Ibid, p. 157.
- Carlo Mattogno, The Bunkers of Auschwitz. Black Propaganda versus History, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2004, p. 136.
- Polin, p. 284.
- Ibid, p. 276.
- Arad, p. 73, 383-389.
- Ibid, p. 127.
- Polin, p. 277.
- Arad, p. 187.
- Ibid, pp. 147-148.
- Polin, p. 275.
- Roques, p. 23, 31, 42, 62, 79.
- Polin, p. 277.
- Roques, p. 23, 31, 42, 62, 79.
- AGK, OKBZN Kraków, 111, pp. 4-4a; quoted in Mattogno, Belzec, pp. 37-38.
- Mr. Berg has posted a number of pictures of CO poisoning victims in a thread at the CODOH online debate forum: http://forum.yourforum.org/viewtopic.php?t=4520 Cf. also http://www.nazigassings.com/TheEyewitnessesLied.html. Sensitive viewers are hereby forewarned of the graphical nature of some of the photos.
- The skeptical reader may suspect that Reder, or perhaps more likely Nella Post, revised the previous statements to bring the published account more in harmony with the then more or less finished (or stabilized) official account of the Reinhardt camps, which maintained that gassing with engine exhaust fumes had been the method of murder.
- Polin, p. 276.
- Ibid, p. 280.
- As summarized in Mattogno, Belzec, p. 74.
- Cf. Ibid, p. 73.
- Polin, p. 281.
- Ibid, p. 284.
- Ibid, pp. 286-7.
- Ibid, p. 287.
- Ibid, pp. 280-1.
- Ibid, pp. 287-8.
- Ibid, pp.288-9.
- ZStL, 208 AR-Z 252/59, vol. 9, pp. 1697-8 (Testimony of Henrich Gley).
- The so-called Höfle telegram gives the number of Jews deported to the respective Reinhardt camps up to December 31, 1942, as well as the number of Jews deported to the aforementioned camps during the second half of December. For Belzec, the latter number is given as "0"; cf. Mattogno, Belzec, p. 127.
- Arad, p. 371.
- Mattogno, Belzec, p. 89.
- This panorama is viewable online at the website of the Belzec Museum, where it is merely stated (in Polish) that it was taken after the liquidation of the camp; http://www.belzec.org.pl/historia.php?site=likwidacja,
- Mattogno, Belzec, pp.41-42, 51-52, 93.
Additional information about this document
|Title:||Rudolf Reder's "Belzec", A critical reading|
|First posted on CODOH:||April 24, 2008, 7 p.m.|