Comments on the Recent Excavations at Belzec, 30/07/1998

Published: 1998-07-30


The communication that follows below has appeared on the Nizkor Internet site and consists of a note (hereinafter referred to as R2) from a participant (Robin O'Neil, University College London) in the recent dig at the site of the Belzec concentration camp, as well as a further note from a German student requesting information.

This latest communication is somewhat more detailed than the Reuters report of two weeks ago (hereinafter, R1) although there is still much detail lacking, and together there still remain some contradictions. Nevertheless, although it is certainly still premature, it should be possible to make some observations.

  1. At least 33 mass graves have been located at the site.
  2. According to R2, the largest of these graves measure 70m x 20m and 36m x 18m. According to R1, these largest graves contained unburned remains.
  3. According to R1, the boring methodology involved core samples to a depth of 6 meters at sampling distances of 15 meters.
  4. According to R2, the implied cover to these graves is between 2 to 3 to 4 meters, which means that the actual depth of the graves averages about 2 meters.
  5. Bearing in mind the surface area claimed in #2, and the methodology of #3, as well as the relative thinness of the corpse layer it seems likely that the two largest graves are in fact a series of strip graves.
  6. Estimates from either R1 or R2 for the total number of dead discovered in these 33 mass graves are in the "thousands" — this suggests periodic burials of comparatively small numbers, which would be consistent with either epidemics, shootings, or small "gassings", but not consistent with the numbers, or the procedures, usually claimed.
  7. It is worth keeping in mind that the traditional estimate of 600,000 for Belzec has no documentary foundation. According to Yitzhak Arad's book on the Aktion Reinhardt camps, about 250,000 Jews are documented to have been deported to the Belzec camp location. Nevertheless he persisted in that text on insisting on the traditional number of deportees, all of whom were assumed to have been killed at the site.
  8. R2 indicates that there are problems with the water table at Belzec, a layer of unburned bodies was found below a layer of water. From R1 we know this to have been one of the largest graves.
  9. Corpses can contaminate the water table, a traditional method for dealing with this problem was to carbonize the bodies through pit burning, for example, this was a method apparently used by both sides in the Gallipoli campaign.
  10. This may explain the fact that, while there are a large number of unburned human remains, there was obviously an attempt to engage in _some_ burning, this evidenced by the human ash, carbonized wood, and black fat deposits found in some mass graves. But at the same time the last two elements described here indicate incomplete combustion, and the water table discussed in #8 would obviously frustrate complete combustion in any case.
  11. R2 records some crushed bone. Again, the reason for this is unclear, but it does not appear to have been the general condition of the bones located.
  12. Therefore, in amplification of R1, we now know that of the 33 graves and thousands of bodies estimated, some were at least partially burned, and some bones were crushed. The relative proportions for the graves will of course be important to find out.
  13. At the same time it seems clear that many of the bodies are relatively intact, having probably converted to a form of graveswax (essentially conversion to fat) at this point. This process could have contributed to the fat deposits as well.
  14. Metal detectors were used: in one mass grave German and Russian ammunition were found. I frankly do not understand why Russian ammunition would be found. It is unclear whether metal detectors indicated anything for the majority of the mass graves: if not, then we must conclude that the victims in these graves died either from disease or from being "gassed", but not by shooting.
  15. However, while four building structures were found, "we found no traces of the gassing barracks", according to R2. Nor is there any trace of the "huge aircraft engine" used to generate the gas, according to R1.
  16. It is interesting to note that, according to R2, Robin O'Neil believes that, in addition to the "gas chambers" there was a fake hospital "Lazerat" exclusively used for the execution of the elderly and infirm through shooting, presumably while the young and healthy were gassed. The logic of this arrangement completely escapes me.
  17. If no ammunition was retrieved from the majority of graves, and since there was no trace of the "gassing barracks" the greatest likelihood is that the victims buried here are those who died of disease, starvation, or in transit to the camp.
  18. Three of the structures uncovered had concrete cellars — which is suggestive in an air raid shelter context. One of the structures is suggested to have been the camp generator building; power was normally generated through the use of diesel engines in such remote facilities.
  19. The letter from the German student suggests that an article recovered from the site may have belonged to a Viennese Jewish deportee, this would suggest that some Viennese Jews passed through the camp, which would reinforce the interpretation of the camp as a transit camp.
  20. Revisionists argue that Belzec functioned as a labor camp (forestry) and as a transit camp. It is generally conceded that thousands died here either from disease or malnutrition, that thousands probably died in transit, and that others were shot or otherwise liquidated. However they have always rejected the argument that the camp was designed as an extermination camp, that mass gassings were conducted there, or that the total number who perished was anywhere near the alleged total of 600,000.

There is nothing in the recent revelations to contradict this interpretation. Although the number of graves seems sizable, the current estimates given by the survey participants range in the thousands, and, estimating from the size and depth of the graves, one concludes that at most tens of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands, of people are buried here. This is consistent with John Ball's aerial analyses of some years ago.

No evidence of systematic mass shootings has so far been presented, although there is evidence of some shootings. No evidence of gassing has been presented, indeed, the "gassing barracks" could not be located. There is evidence of some attempts at burning at least partially some of the bodies. Since this practice appears to have been local, rather than general, and involved incomplete combustion, it suggests an attempt to control hygiene rather than an attempt to "hide the traces" of Nazi crimes. This in turn suggests that contagious diseases were the cause of many deaths.

We await further details on these most interesting excavations. The Reports follow.

Best Regards,

Samuel Crowell
July 30, 1998

REPORT #2 (July 29, 1998 - R2)

Nizkor FTP File (once at

I have recently returned from Belzec where I was part of an archaeological team led by Professor Mieczslaw Gora of the Torun University, Warsaw. We carried out an extensive survey of the camp area drilling over 1700 bore-holes and examining soil samples to a depth of 6m. 33 mass graves were found of various dimensions, the largest measuring 70m x 20m x 6m deep. In the south east part of the camp five mass graves were found, the largest measuring 36m x 18m x 6m deep. Two of the graves contained unburnt, naked human corpses below a layer of water at 3-4m below ground.

At varying depths was found burnt human ash, burnt wood, crushed pieces of bone etc. At the extremity of drilling in grave marked No,1, there were several c.m. of burnt human fat. Three graves contained a mixture of ash, carbonised wood and crushed bone. Near to the East boundary fence a grave measuring 5m x 5m x 2m deep was located, spent and live rounds of German and Russian ammunition was found. This may have been the site of the 'lazerat' (bogus Red Cross location) where the old, and sick were taken for execution. With metal detectors and excavations over 600 items of property were found and logged.

Four building structures were exposed. Three of the sites were excavated to a depth of 3m, and revealed burnt structures, possibly the location of the death brigade barracks. These building sites contained concrete cellars. A number of human bones, skulls etc were found in one of these sites and probably the remains of of several people shot on site and dumped. A fourth building was exposed near the West corner of the camp which may have been the camp generator building. We found no traces of the gassing barracks. The ramp and stopping place for the transports was located. (The team: Prof. A. Kola, Prof M. Gora, R.Kazmierczak, W. Azulta, Z. Wieczorkowski, M. Tregenza and 12 local workers from Belzec village).

I have 9 x 90min. film cassettes of the whole operation over the period 28.4. - 4.6.98. (in need of some professional editing?)

We are due to re-commence work at Belzec this October and extend our investigation outside the present camp wire.

Robin O'Neil Hebrew and Jewish Department, University College London (currently engaged PhD research Jews of Galicia/Rabka SD School/transports to Belzec).

From: Peter Witte

I would like to add a tiny detail to Robin O'Neil's exciting report on Belzec. I was told that by metal detecting operations a silver cigarette case was found in the camp site bearing the engraved name of M a x M u n k from Vienna. Here we have a first piece of evidence that people from Vienna have been transported to Belzec. Has anybody ever heard about Max Munk? I have been doing a lot of research on deportations into the district of Lublin and would very much appreciate any further information. You can privately contact me off the list. Thank you

Peter Witte: [email protected]

REPORT #1 (July 9, 1998 - R1)

Poland plans to build Holocaust museum at site of former Nazi death camp

WASHINGTON (July 9, 1998 8:27 p.m. EDT ) - Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek toured the U.S. Holocaust Museum Thursday and said a new memorial would be built on the site of a Nazi extermination camp in Poland which was crumbling and neglected.

Buzek, who will meet President Clinton at the White House Friday, handed two silver spoons as a symbolic gift to museum chairman Miles Lerman. The spoons were found this year at the site of the Belzec extermination camp during part of an unprecedented archeological survey.

Belzec, in eastern Poland near the Ukrainian border, was the first camp in which the Nazis erected permanent gas chambers. At least 600,000 Jews were murdered there.

The Polish government and the Holocaust Museum quietly signed an agreement last year to build a new memorial there to replace a sculpture that was erected in the 1960s by the former Communist authorities of Poland.

Jewish visitors to the site had complained that it was badly neglected, overgrown with weeds and strewn with garbage. They also said the existing memorial was inappropriate and was falling apart.

"Construction will begin in the near future. Archeological work is going on at that site and new discoveries are being made systematically," Buzek told reporters.

Lerman said Belzec was a place of great personal significance to him.

"My entire family, my mother, perished in Belzec," he said. "We are underway ... I am convinced in the near future practical work (on a new memorial) will begin."

A Polish team recently carried out the most comprehensive archeological survey ever conducted on a major Holocaust site and located 33 previously unknown mass graves.

"This was the first archeological survey on this scale done systematically on a grid system and we have learned many new things," said Jacek Nowakowski, associate director of the Holocaust Museum, coordinating the project from the U.S. side.

According to a report by Robin O'Neill, a British scholar who took part in the survey, the team bored holes to a depth of some 18 feet at 15-yard intervals throughout the site.

"The largest mass graves ... contained unburned human remains (parts and pieces of skulls with hair and skin attached). The bottom layer of the graves consisted of several inches thick of black human fat. One grave contained uncrushed human bones so closely packed that the drill could not penetrate," O'Neill wrote.

Belzec was one of six extermination camps erected by the Nazis. The other five were Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Chelmno.

The camp began operating in March 1942. Victims were packed tightly into four gas chambers and killed by carbon monoxide generated from a huge aircraft engine, with some taking as long as 35 minutes to die. Their naked bodies were dumped in trenches. There were only five recorded survivors, none of whom is still alive.

The Nazis had built Belzec to destroy the centuries-old Jewish communities of southern and eastern Poland. In 1942, that job done, they closed the camp. They later tried to hide their crime, burning the bodies and grinding up the bones.

Nowakowski said the unburned bodies that had been discovered this year numbered in the thousands and were probably the remains of Jews brought to the site to burn the remains of victims of the gas chambers.

"The fact that there were many more people employed in burning the bodies than we thought suggests they had many more bodies to burn. We may have to revise upward the estimate of the number who died at Belzec and that only increases the huge significance of the site," he said.


Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Samuel Crowell
Title: Comments on the Recent Excavations at Belzec, 30/07/1998
Published: 1998-07-30
First posted on CODOH: July 28, 1998, 7 p.m.
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