Group portrait of ethnic German guards at the Belzec concentration camp, one of whom plays a mandolin, 1942-43. USHMM (10263), courtesy of Instytut Pamieci Narodowej.
Photo of Szymon Laks.

On 1 November 1941, in a small town in the southeastern part of Poland’s Lublin district, beside the Bug River, a group of Polish workers began construction of several wooden barracks.  The small site was to be the first Nazi camp to house a permanent gas chamber, and would be the model camp for Operation Reinhard, the code name for three of the death camps intended to annihilate the Jews of Poland.  Of the more than 400,000 Jews who arrived at the imitation railroad station set up at Bełżec, named after the neighbouring town, only one eyewitness survived.

It was through experiments carried out at Bełżec that the most efficient methods of transporting, processing and killing Jews were developed under the command of SS officer Christian Wirth, who had become familiar with techniques of murder through his work in the Nazi euthanasia program known as T-4.  Providing the model for the other Operation Reinhard camps Sobibor and Treblinka, Bełżec was divided into two sections.  Camp I housed the administration buildings and staff quarters, and Camp II contained the gas chambers.  In its first phase, the camp had three small gas chambers, located in a single barracks. These were first tested at the end of February 1942, and  the following month, full-scale operation began.  On 17 March 1942, shipments of Jews from Lublin and Lvov began to arrive, followed by transports from Krakow and Eastern Galicia; the trains kept arriving regularly until December of that year.  It was during these summer shipments from Krakow to Bełżec that the famed Yiddish songwriter and poet Mordechai Gebirtig was killed.  Under the increased pressure of coping with large numbers of victims, the camp's killing facilities were modified and expanded.  The camp was finally dismantled and destroyed in the winter of 1943.

The limited information that we have today about the experience of Bełżec is almost entirely from the reports of the surviving witness Rudolf Reder, who spent four months in the camp until he escaped in the summer of 1942 by jumping from a truck and hiding with a Christian family.  Reder published his memoirs about Bełżec in Polish in 1946, and in them he noted several examples of music being used to torture and disorient Jewish victims.

As in the other death camps, Bełżec had a small orchestra that played primarily during the extermination process, as well as for the entertainment of the SS during their regular bouts of drinking and debauchery.  On Sunday evenings, the musicians would be brought to the SS barracks to play.  In addition, before the prisoners who had been selected as temporary workers were handed their meagre rations, they were forced to sing for the SS to the accompaniment of the orchestra.  The band had six members, including a violinist, flutist and accordionist, and usually played in the space between the gas chambers and the massive burial pits.  In this way, the removal of corpses from one site to the other could be done to music.  They also played as the trains pulled in, so as to deceive the newly arriving Jews that they had arrived at a labour camp.  The turnover for the orchestra must have been high; the entire group was murdered in the spring of 1942, and was then reassembled, presumably something that happened several times over the camp's short existence.  There are no records of any names of musicians, nor a sense of how many in total played at these ‘concerts’.  Reder does mention a violinist, who had been a general of the Royal Austrian Army, a Knight of the Iron Cross and the camp elder for the Jewish work commando.  Reder also described the torment and murder of the Chairman of the Judenrat from Zamosc, which was done to the music of the band.  It seems that it was frequent policy here to separate Jewish leaders and to torture them as their communities were killed before their eyes, while the orchestra played the song ‘Everything Passes, Everything Goes By’.

Postwar sketch of the layout of the Belzec death camp by Belzec survivor Rudolf Reder, 1945-46. USHMM (74376), courtesy of Zydowski Instytut Historyczny Instytut.
Photo of Szymon Laks.

Sources

Arad, Y., 1987. Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Extermination Camps, Bloomington and Indiananapolis: Indiana University Press.  

1990. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan Pub. Co.  

Gilbert, S., 2005. Music in the Holocaust: Confronting Life in the Nazi Ghettos and Camps, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Laqueur, W. ed., 2001. The Holocaust encyclopedia, New Haven: Yale University Press.  

Dahm, A., 1997. Musik in den nationalsozialistischen Vernichtungszentren Belsec, Sobibor und Treblinka. mr-Mitteilungen, 23, 1-11.