Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Belzec Death Camp
Eyewitness Report – Wilhelm Cornides
German War Time Map showing the Route taken by Cornides
On 30 August 1942 a Wehrmacht NCO Wilhelm Cornides was in Reichshof (Rzeszow)on his way to Cholm (Chelm) by train.
In his diary he recorded that a railway policeman in Rzeszow had told him that a marble plaque with golden letters will be erected on 1 September because then the city will be Judenfrei – free of Jews.
The railway policeman also told him “that trains filled with Jews pass almost daily through the shunting yards, are dispatched immediately on their way and return swept clean, most often the same evening”.
He added “Some 6000 Jews from Jaroslaw were recently killed in one day.”
Wilhelm Cornides then took the regular passenger train from Rzeszow to Chelm, reaching Rawa Ruska on 31 August and Cornides staying in the Deutsches Haus, which was near Rawa Ruska station, recorded in his diary:
“At ten minutes past noon I saw a transport train run into the station. On the roof and running boards sat guards with rifles. One could see from a distance that the cars were jammed full of people. I turned and walked along the whole train. It consisted of 35 cattle cars and one passenger car.
In each of the cars there were at least 60 Jews – in the case of the enlisted men’s or prisoner transports these wagons would hold 40 men, however, the benches had been removed and one could see that those who were locked in here had to stand pressed together.
Some of the doors were opened a crack, the windows criss-crossed with barbed wire. Among the people locked in there were a few men and most of them were old, everyone else was women, girls and children. Many children crowded at the windows and the narrow door openings. The youngest were surely not more than two years old.
As soon as the train halted, the Jews attempted to pass out bottles in order to get water. The train, however, was surrounded by SS guards, so that no one could come near. At that moment a train arrived from the direction of Jaroslaw – the travellers streamed toward the exit without bothering about the transport. A few Jews who were busy loading a car for the armed forces waved their caps to the people locked in.
I talked to a policeman on duty at the railway station. Upon my question as to where the Jews came from he answered:
“Those are probably the last ones from Lvow. That has been going on now for three weeks without interruption. In Jaroslaw they only let eight remain, no one knows why.”
“I asked how far are they going?”
Then he said “To Belzec”
He shrugged his shoulders, then he said
“At the beginning they always shot them I believe.”
Here in the Deutsches Haus I just talked with two soldiers from the front-line Prisoner of War camp 325. They said that these transports had lately passed through every day, mostly at night. Yesterday a 70-car one is supposed to have gone through.”
From Rawa Ruska, Cornides took the afternoon train to Cholm (Chelm).
The things he learned on this journey were so extraordinary that he made three separate entries in his diary within an hour. The first entry made at 5.30 pm.
“When we boarded at 4.40pm an entry transport had just arrived. I walked along the train twice and counted 56 cars. On the doors had been written in chalk 60, 70, once 90, occasionally 40 – obviously the number of Jews inside the cattle cars.
In my compartment I spoke with a railway policeman’s wife who was visiting her husband here. She says these transports are now passing through daily, sometimes also with German Jews. Yesterday six children’s bodies were found along the track.
The woman thinks that the Jews themselves had killed these children – but they must have succumbed during the trip. The railway policeman who was escorting the train joined us in our compartment. He confirmed the woman’s statement about the children’s bodies which were found along the track yesterday.
“Do the Jews know what is happening to them?
The woman answered
“Those who come from far won’t know anything, but here in the vicinity they know already. They attempt to run away, if they notice that someone is coming for them. So for example, most recently in Chelm, three were shot on the way through the city.”
“In the railway documents these trains run under the name of resettlement transports,” remarked the railway policeman. He then said that after the murder of Reinhard Heydrich several transports containing Czechs had passed through.
Camp Belzec is supposed to be located right on the railway line and the woman promised to show it to me when we pass it. 5.40pm – a short halt.
Opposite us a transport again stops. I speak with the policeman in front of the compartment we ride in. I ask.
“Are you going back home to the Reich?”
Grinning – he says.
“You probably know where we are coming from. Well for us the work is never finished.”
Then the transport opposite us moves away, 35 empty and cleaned wagons. In all probability this was the train that I had seen at 1pm at Rawa Ruska station.
6.20pm – we passed Camp Belzec.
Before then, we travelled for some time through a tall pine forest. When the woman called “Now it comes.”
One could see a high hedge of fir trees. A strong sweetish odour could be made out distinctly. “But they are stinking already.” – says the woman.
“Oh nonsense it is only the gas” – the railway policeman said laughing. Meanwhile – we had gone about 200 meters – the sweetish odour was transformed into a strong smell of something burning.
“That is from the crematory” – said the policeman. A short distance further on the fence stopped. In front of it one could see a guard house with an SS post.
A double track led into the camp. One track branched off from the main line the other ran over a turntable from the camp to a row of sheds some 250 meters away.
A freight car happened to stand on the turntable. Several Jews were busy turning the turntable – SS guards rifles under their arms, stood by.
One of the sheds was open, one could distinctly see that it was filled to the ceiling with bundles of clothes. As we went on , I looked back one more time – the fence was too high to see anything at all.
The woman says “that sometimes, while going by one could see smoke rising from the camp, but I did not notice anything of the sort. My estimate is that the camp measures about 800 meters by 400 meters.
In his diary Wilhelm Cornides recorded conversations he had with other witnesses:
On the evening of 30 August 1942 in the Deutsches Haus in Rawa Ruska, an engineer told me:
“Apart from Poles and Prisoners of War, Jews, who in the main have since been transported, were also employed in connection with the work on the troop drill ground, which is situated here.
The work of these building crews – which included women, achieved 30% of the level of productivity of German workers on average. Whilst some people received bread from us, others had to find it for themselves.
By chance I recently saw the loading of such a transport in Lemberg (Lvow). The railroad cars stood at the foot of an embankment. Using sticks and riding whips the SS men drove and pushed the people into the wagons.
That was a sight which I will not forget as long as I live.” Tears welled in the eyes of the man as he told his story. He was approximately 26 years of age, wearing the party badge
A Sudeten German building foreman who sat at the same table added:
“Recently a drunken SS man sat in our cafeteria, howling like a child. He said that he was serving in Belzec and that if things carried on like this for another 14 days he would kill himself, because he could no longer bear it.”
A policeman in the town-hall restaurant in Colm (Chelm) on 1 September 1942 said:
“The policemen who guard the Jewish transports are not allowed inside the camp only the SS and the Ukrainian Sonderdienst – a police formation comprising of Ukrainian auxiliaries – do so.
Thereby, they have created a good business. Recently a Ukrainian was here who had a great wad of notes, clocks and gold – everything imaginable.
They find all of this when they gather and ship the clothing. In answer to the question:
“In which way were the Jews killed?”
The policeman answered;
“Someone tells them that they must be deloused. Then they undress and enter a room into which at first a heatwave is let in, and thereby they already have received one small dose of gas.
It is enough to act as a local anaesthetic. The rest then follows and then they are immediately burned.” As to the question, why this whole action has been undertaken, the policeman stated:
“Until now, Jews were employed everywhere by the SS and the Wehrmacht, as auxiliary workers. Naturally they heard a lot of things, and furthermore they reported everything to the Russians. With all of this they had to go.
And then they also operated the entire black market and rigged prices here. When the Jews have gone, prices can again become reasonable.”
Das General Gouvernement by Dr. Max Freiherr Du Prel – published by Konrad Triltsch Verlag Wurzburg 1942.
Final Journey – The Fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany by Sir Martin Gilbert – published by Mayflower Books New York 1979.
Die Emordung der Europaischen Juden by Peter Longerich – published by Serie Piper 1060 Munchen 1989.
Copyright: 2007 SJ H.E.A.R.T