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Digging up the Holocaust - The Belzec excavation!

Belzec Archaeological Investigations


A Review By Historians: Robin O’Neil, Salisbury and Michael Tregenza, Lublin.

Acknowledgment to The Torun Team of archaeologists and the cartographer, Billy Rutherford.

Published with the exclusive permission of the author




The investigation carried out at Bełżec by leading archaeologists was historically unique, as no similar investigations had been carried out at the other two designated pure death camps of Sobibór and Treblinka.  The magnitude of what occurred in Bełżec has never been fully described in the historical literature until now. According to previous studies, which have always been inhibited by lack of eye-witness evidence, several hundred thousand Jews perished in Bełżec. The archaeological investigations confirm by overwhelming evidence that mass murder was committed here on an unprecedented scale and that there was a determined attempt to conceal the enormity of the crime.  In this the Nazis failed.  The material unearthed at Bełżec not only confirmed the crime but enabled, by scientific analysis, the historians to re-construct for the first time the probable layout of the camp in the first and second phases.


Previous Investigations

The 1997 archaeological investigations at Bełżec were initiated by an agreement between the Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom (Rada Ochrony Pamieci Walk I Meczenstwa – ROPWiM) in Warsaw in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.  How Bełżec was to be commemorated was the subject of a wide-ranging competition among artists who placed their suggestions before a selecting committee.  The successful contributors were a team of architects and artists led by Marcin Roszczyk who intended: ‘To honour the earth that harboured the ashes of the victims’.  It is within this definition that the archaeological investigations were commenced to examine the topography of the former camp and locate mass grave areas before the erection of a suitable memorial commemorating the victims murdered in Bełżec.


As a result of the work carried-out by the archaeological team from Toruń University, and an historical assessment of the findings by the author, a clearer picture   emerged of how the camp was constructed, organised and functioned in both phases of its existence. Before looking at the most recent survey, some background to previous investigations may be helpful.


The first investigation 1945.

Very shortly after the end of the war, several War Crimes Investigation Commissions were established in Poland by the Soviet-backed civil authorities. At all locations in Eastern Europe where Nazi atrocities had taken place, teams of specialist investigators descended to set up officially constituted boards of enquiry with powers to summon local people to attend and give evidence. On 10 October 1945, an Investigation Commission team lead by Judge Czesław Godzieszewski from the District Court in Zamosc entered Bełżec and commenced investigations.  In addition to hearing oral testimony from many inhabitants of Bełżc village and its environs, the team of investigators carried out an on-site investigation at the camp.  Nine pits were opened to confirm the existence of mass graves. The evidence found indicated that thousands of corpses had been cremated and any remaining bones crushed into small pieces. The human remains unearthed were re-interred in a specially built concrete crypt near the northeast corner of the camp.  Within hours of this simple ceremony to commemorate the victims, local villagers ransacked the grave area looking for treasure. This desecration of mass graves by local inhabitants continues to this day: Immediately after completion of the 1998 excavations, overnight, the excavation sites were penetrated and damaged by searches for Jewish gold. Similar acts of malicious damage have been recorded at Sobibór and Treblinka.


The second investigation 1946.

This was a continuation of the earlier investigation during which certain witnesses were re-interrogated. In view of the findings at Bełżec, the Investigation Commission published a report on 11 April 1946, which concluded that Bełżec was the second death camp to have been built or adapted by the Nazis for the specific purpose of murdering Jews. The report cites the first camp in which the mass murder took place was at Chełmno, which operated between December 1941 and early 1943. The Investigation Commission relied on the testimonies of eyewitness who had been employed in the construction of these camps, or who lived locally and had observed what was taking place.One of the Bełżc witnesses, Chaim Herszman (mentioned earlier), had escaped from the transport taking the last few members of Jewish ‘death brigade’ from Bełżec to Sobibór where they were shot.  He testified before a Lublin Court on 19 March 1946 and was due to continue his testimony in court the following day, but was murdered either by Polish antisemites or because of his connections with the NKVD before he could do so.


The Investigation Commission drew attention to the systematic destruction of the ghettos and the ‘resettlement’ transports to the transit ghettos in Izbica and Piaski from towns within the Nazi-occupied territory of Poland then known as the General Government. The Commission further noted ‘resettlement’ transports from Western Europe to Bełżec, and the inclusion in these transports of Polish Christians who had been engaged either in anti-Nazi activities or accused of assisting or hiding Jews.  The Commission concluded that 1,000-1,500 Polish Christians were murdered in Bełżec.  The final part of the Report by the Bełżec Investigation Commission dealt with winding-down activities: cremations, destruction of evidence, dismantling of the gas chambers, removal of fences, ground being ploughed-up and planted with fir trees and lupines.  The Commission verified from the evidence that a final inspection had been carried out at Bełżec by a special SS Commission to ensure that everything had been done to cover up the enormity of the crimes perpetrated in the name of Reinhardt.


The third investigation 1961

The Council declared that the former death camp at Bełżec should be commemorated as a place of remembrance. In order to preserve the site as a memorial, extensive excavations were carried out.  Approximately six hectares were levelled and fenced off (a reduction in the actual size of the original camp area) and marked out as the memorial site.  A monument was erected above the crypt where the human remains found in the first investigation in 1945 had been interred.  Immediately behind the monument, four symbolic tombs cast in concrete were placed where the mass graves were believed (incorrectly) to be located.  On the north side of the camp, six large urns intended for eternal flames were positioned on a series of elevated terraces. Over the years, further landscaping has been carried out on parts of the former camp area adjoining the timber yard.


Local labor at work during the Investigation

The fourth investigation 1997-2000.

The phases of this most recent investigation were directed by Professor Andrzej Kola, director of the Archaeological at the Nicholas Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland.  The principal Investigating officers on site were:  Dr Mieczysław Gora, Senior Curator of the Museum of Ethnology in Łódż, Poland, assisted by Dr Wojciech Szulta and Dr. Ryszard Każmierczak.  Unemployed males from Bełżec village were engaged in all three investigations to assist with the labour-intensive drilling.


The most recent investigations


The methodology of all four investigations was similar: marking out the area to be examined to a fixed grid system at 5 m. intervals (knots). Exploratory boreholes to depth of 6 m were made, obtaining core samples of the geological strata.A total of 2,001 archaeological exploratory drillings were carried out and were instrumental in locating 33 mass graves of varying sizes.


From these exploratory drillings, many graves were found to contain naked bodies in wax-fat transformation (complete) and carbonized human remains and ashes were identified The investigating personnel were divided into three teams, each working at a table to record data as soil samples were withdrawn and examined. Using a map of the area to a scale of 1: 1,000, prepared by the District Cartographic Office in Zamosc, a Central Bench Mark (BM 2007) was utilized as the reference point from which the archaeologists worked. Positive data and negative findings were recorded before replacing the soil samples in the boreholes.









Area of Mass Graves.

During its first phase, Bełżec was a temporary and experimental camp in which the procedures and logistics of mass extermination by gas and the burial of corpses were tried and tested.  The camp structures and mass graves of the first phase in Bełżec were concentrated along the northern fence, leaving the majority of the camp area unused but ready for utilisation and expansion at a later date.


Read more here: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/modern/archreview.html


The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team



Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

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