> Holocaust Studies > People

Belzec: A Survivor

August 2, 2012 | by Sam Halpern

The Jews were packed into cattle cars and covered with lime, which burned their flesh right off the bones.

Upon learning that his wife and children had been taken from their hiding place into the transport, one member of the Judenrat, Shmuel Weissbrod, decided to join his family. He could not know then that, instead of transporting these thousand Jews to Kamionka, the SS planned to take them to Belzec, a death camp about 50 miles outside Lvov.

There they were not to be put to work. Before the Germans packed every cattle car with about 120 Jews, squeezing them one against the other like herring, they lined the floors in the train with three inches of caustic quicklime. Normally used in construction, this lime burns the flesh on contact. Therefore, most of the Jews died before the transport ever arrived in Belzec. Those who managed to survive this horrible ordeal were shot once the doors of the cattle cars were opened. All the bodies were then burned in the crematoria, and the ashes were buried in the surrounding forest.

... My father's death was the first tragic loss for our family. When I found out the terrible way in which my father lost his life, I could not eat or sleep. I cried constantly. Even though death was all around me, I still could not accept this loss. My father, such a gentle and giving man, was only 54 years old. He had written to me in camp to keep up my morale. I would work all day on the road, thinking of him and crying.

I have visited Belzec many times since the 1970s. The death camp is right next to the small city of Belzec and is completely surrounded by dense forests. A block of granite near the entrance of the fenced-off site reads, in Polish: "Here in Belzec, from the beginning of 1942 until the end of 1942, 600,000 Jews and 1,500 Gentiles who helped Jews, were killed."

My father was one of these 600,000. My uncles, aunts, and cousins were also among the murdered. Our entire section of eastern Galicia, with many towns and cities like Chortkow, Chorostkow, Tarnopol, Lvov and Zolkiew, was made Judenrein, with Belzec serving as the Jews' final destination. Since there is no actual grave over which to pray in Belzec, when I visit, I say Kaddish near another memorial on the site, the statue of a skeletal figure supporting another, which bears the Polish inscription: "In memory of the victims of Hitler's terror murdered from 1942 to 1943."

The story of how Jews were murdered and burned at Belzec is known primarily because of Jan Karski, currently a professor at Georgetown University. In 1942 he wrote a book, The Story of the Secret State, in which he recounted what he had personally witnessed both in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Belzec death camp. Karski was a recent graduate of the Lvov law school and was also a member of the Polish underground. A Catholic, he responded to a request by the Warsaw Judenrat by volunteering to risk his life to tell the world what the Nazis were doing to Polish Jewry. He was smuggled into Belzec dressed in an Estonian guard's uniform, and for two weeks he made a mental record of all the he saw. In his book he writes:

"Alternately swinging and firing with their rifles, the policemen forced still more people into the two cars, which were already over-full. The shots continued to ring out in the rear, the driven mob surged forward, exerting an irresistible pressure against those nearest the train...

"These were helpless since they had the weight of the entire advancing throng against them and responded with howls of anguish to those who, clutching their hair and clothes for support, trampling on necks, faces and shoulders, breaking bones and shouting with insensate fure, attempted to clamber over them. After the cars had already been filled beyond normal capacity, more than a score of human beings, men, women and children, gained admittance in this fashion. Then the policemen slammed the doors across the hastily withdrawn limbs that still protruded and pushed the iron bars in place....

"The floors of the cars had been covered with a thick, white powder. It was quicklime.

"The moist flesh coming into contact with the lime is rapidly dehydrated and burned. The occupants of the cars would be literally burned to death before long, the flesh eaten away from the bones. Secondly, the lime would prevent decomposing bodies from spreading disease.

"It was twilight when the 46 (I counted them) cars were packed. From one end to the other, the train, its quivering cargo of flesh, seemed to throb, vibrate, rock, and jump as if bewitched. Inside the camp a few score dead bodies remained and a few in the final throes of death. German policemen walked around at leisure with smoking guns, pumping bullets into anything that by a moan or motion betrayed an excess of vitality. Soon, not a single one was left alive."

Jan Karski published his book in London so that the English-speakers, most importantly in the United States – the only country with the power to stop the German slaughter of innocents – could learn what was taking place in Europe. When American Jews say they had no idea about the killings, I always think of Karski's book and wonder how intelligent people could have ignored the atrocities. Why didn't they read everything they could about Europe's Jews once there was a hint of persecution? Not only did American Jewry fail to learn what has happening to their brothers and sisters in Europe, Americans did not press their government to act even when news of the atrocities was confirmed.

Karski did not solely rely on his book to inform leaders in London and the United States about the mass murders being committed by the Nazis. In November, Karski met with the British undersecretary for foreign affairs, Lord Selborne, and personally recounted what he had witnessed. In the United States, Karski briefed President Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and Stephen Wise, among other leaders. Tragically, nothing came out of these meetings.

When my son David was still a small boy, he came into my room one Shabbat afternoon and found me reading Karski's book. I was crying. I had just finished the section on the murderous rampages at Belzec and could not contain my emotion. David, who was accustomed to seeing his father smiling, became distressed.

"What's wrong, Dad?" he asked.

I was not sure how to respond to the innocent inquiry. Unlike other survivors, I often spoke about the Holocaust with my children, knowing it was too important to ignore. My children had a right to know what had happened to their family, to their people. But Karski's book was so graphic, and David was so young. I decided to let him read a couple of pages, and then we'd talk about them.

"Here," I said handing David the open book. "This is what happened to your grandfather."

David read the pages quietly and then cried. I held him in my arms and answered as best I could his questions about how the world could let this happen. I did not have very good answers, for I had been asking myself the very same questions. Where was the world? Where was America? Where were America's Jews as 6 million were slaughtered?

In 1990, at the International Leadership Reunion of the United States Jewish Appeal held in Geneva, people gave generously and spoke devotedly of commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. Before I pledged my donation, I stood up to say a few words. Rather than give the usual speech about how special Israel was and how important it was to contribute, however, I decided to turn back the clock and ask some questions that had been lying quietly, for many years, deep in my heart.

"Distinguished ladies and gentlemen," I said to the caucus of major givers. "First, I want to thank you for all you do on behalf of the country of Israel and your fellow Jews. I am always impressed by your generosity, your commitment. You give your money and of yourselves so freely that it's truly wonderful to see. But I have to ask you something, a painful question, which I have lived with for decades now: Where were you, as a community of American Jews, during the Holocaust?" My voice became louder as my emotions grew stronger.

"Europe's Jews were desperate for your help. You had means, you had power. As we dropped off, one by one in the labor and concentration camps, or hid in haylofts, behind false walls, in cellars and attics, starving, frightened almost beyond hope, as we survived on forged Gentile papers, we waited daily, even hourly, in the ghettos and camps, for our brethren in America to do all they could to help liberate us. But where were you?...."

The audience was taken aback by my speech and the strong emotion I apparently displayed. There I was, with my Polish accent and the images of the Holocaust in my mind and the imprint of the blows on my body, a living witness among distinguished company, almost all of whom had been old enough during the war to be involved. Gladys, sitting beside me, was self-conscious and upset, for she felt that my statement may have been too strong. But I had not been able to contain myself. I was compelled to speak by what I recognized at that moment, by a room full of wealthy and powerful Jews who once did so little to help those desperately in need.

from: "Darkness and Hope," pp. 51-57, by Sam Halpern, Shengold Publishers, Inc., New York, 1996

buy this book from


Leave a Reply

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram