Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Revolt & Resistance
Acts of Resistance
Resistance and Escape from Belzec
Christian Wirth’s constant problem at Belzec and the other Aktion Reinhard camps was the wild, undisciplined and often drunken behaviour of the Russian volunteers sent to him from the SS- Trawniki camp as guards.
In the early days at Belzec they habitually fraternised with the local villagers, bargained with them on the black market for food, alcohol and even women and on occasions indulged in orgies.
Even when on duty at the camps these renegades were mostly drunk which made their behaviour – usually violently anti-Semitic, anyway – even more sadistic towards their victims, and insubordinate to the SS – all of which greatly hindered the smooth running of the extermination operation.
For lesser offences, Wirth had them incarcerated in small underground bunkers without food or water for several days and more serious offences – shot out of hand. They were constantly beaten and maltreated by Wirth and certain members of the SS garrison at every possible opportunity.
Wirth had two recalcitrant Ukrainian guards dressed in traditional garb and then gassed together with a transport of Jews. Josef Oberhauser was told by Ukrainian guards that Wirth had also shot some of their comrades at the SS- Trawniki training camp.
In the early summer of 1943 a group of Ukrainian guards did attempt to turn against their masters at the Belzec death camp. The incident was recounted by Belzec villagers after the war.
The Ukrainian guards had wanted to attack the Kommandantur on Tomaszowska Street but had been betrayed to the SS by one of their own comrades. Fifty Ukrainian guards were shot.
This story of an attempted revolt at Belzec was confirmed in part in 1963 by one of the former SS-NCO’s of the camp garrison, Robert Juhrs:
“Because of a serious offence, such as a planned mutiny – and such was the case, as I recall – the Ukrainian guards were dismissed, thrown out of their unit and immediately transported away. Where they went and what happened to them, I have no knowledge.”
This indiscipline within the Ukrainian guard force had fatal consequences for the SS-men who served at Belzec, as Heinrich Gley, one of the SS men on the staff at Belzec testified in 1963:
“One evening, the company commander Jirmann ordered me to go with him to a copse near the Kommandantur where a bunker was located. I did not know what he intended doing there, but on the way I learned from him that two Ukrainians were locked up there who, during their guard duty had broken into the valuables room.
As Jirrmann opened the bunker door, both Ukrainians leapt on him and knocked him to the ground. As he dropped his torch during the incident, I could not see how he – Jirrmann had fallen to the ground as the first Ukrainian came out of the bunker.
I assumed it was one of the Ukrainians and fired at him. As a matter of fact it was Jirrmann I had fatally wounded.”
Jirrmann died on the 1 March 1943 and was buried in the German military cemetery at nearby Tomaszow Lubelski, his remains were moved by the Germans to the military cemetery in Przemysl.
In terms of Jewish resistance in Belzec, a spontaneous act of resistance was staged in Belzec by a group of prisoners who worked in the removal of corpses from the gas chambers on the 13 June 1942, the Polish underground ( Polish United Workers Party) reported:
“The revolt in the camp, probably the first one, took place on June 13th when Jews were summoned to remove the corpses of murdered women and children, at the horrible sight – they were standing in the gas chambers holding each others waists and necks, presumably in the pre-natal reflexes – they attacked the Wachmannschaft (the guards) which resulted in a struggle in which 4-6 Germans and nearly all the Jews died, several Jews managed to escape.”
This event isn't mentioned in any other source.
An escape took place in Belzec at the end of March 1942, just after the mass extermination programme commenced:
“Within a few days of gassing operations starting at Belzec, Mina Astman and Malka Talenfeld, two women from the Zolkiev ghetto in the District of Galicia escaped from the camp.
In locked wagons the deportees were taken to Belzec. There they were ordered to undress. The deportees became agitated. One Jacob Segal, more courageous than others, asked an SS man present, “For what reason have we been ordered to undress?”
With sadistic pleasure the SS-man answered that they were going to their deaths. On hearing this, Segal threw himself into the arms of his wife crying, “Let us say our farewells as these are our last moments.” When the other Jews saw this, they too began to embrace each other, crying.
At that moment the SS man ordered the men to stand on one side, and women with children on the other, near a barrack. Next the women were ordered to enter the barrack. Knowing what awaited them, the women were reluctant to enter.
First went the wife of Markus Gutman, with their daughter Sophie, and then all the other women. Taking advantage of the wailing, chaos and lack of experience on the part of the Germans, Mina Astman and Malka Talenfeld jumped into a rubbish pit.
They stayed there until nightfall, under cover of darkness they sneaked out of the camp and returned back to the Zolkiev ghetto a few days later.
The subsequent fate of the two women is not known, but they almost certainly died during a later round-up. Their story was published after the war in a booklet about the fate of the Jews of Zolkiev.”
Another escape from Belzec was the dentist Bachner from Krakow. He arrived in the camp with the last transports from Krakow at the beginning of October 1942. When the transport reached the camp, he succeeded somehow in entering a latrine and found a hiding place in the excrement pit.
He stayed there a few days, one night he was able to leave the pit and escape back to Krakow. His eventual fate is unknown.
The most famous escape from the Belzec death camp was carried out by Rudolf Reder:
“At the end of November, the thug Jirrmann told me one morning that the camp needed sheet metal. Jirrmann told me with a venomous smile that I would be going under escort to Lwow to get the sheet metal – “Sollst nicht durchgehen” (Just don’t make a run for it).
I went there loaded into a truck with four Gestapo men and a sentry. In Lwow after a whole day loading sheet metal I was left alone with one hoodlum guarding me. The rest went off to have a little fun. I sat there for a few hours without thinking or moving.
Then I chanced to notice that my guard had dozed off and was snoring. By reflex, without a moments thought, I slipped out of the truck, the thug was still asleep. I stood on the sidewalk for a while longer. I pretended to be fussing with something near the sheet metal and then I moved slowly away.
Legionow Street was very busy. I pulled my cap down. The street was dark and no one saw me. I remembered where my landlady lived, a Polish woman, and made my way there. She hid me.”
The last escape from among the prisoners in Belzec was Chaim Hirszman. He escaped from the last train out of Belzec after the camp was dismantled. The remaining Jews were being taken to the Sobibor death camp for liquidation in July 1943.
Hirszman and two other prisoners decided to escape from the train by removing a plank from the box cars floor. He jumped first, the other two were to jump after him. Hirszman succeeded in escaping and later joined the partisans. The fate of the other two prisoners remains unknown.
Chaim Hirszman survived the war but was killed in 1946 by Polish anti-Semites.
Christian Wirth: Inspekteur Der SS Kommandos Aktion Reinhard by Mike Tregenza.
Belzec by Rudolf Reder, published by the Auschwitz –Birkenau Museum 1999.
Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, by Yitzhak Arad, published by Indiana University Press 1987.
Holocaust Historical Society
Belzec Memorial Museum Poland
Copyright Chris Webb H.E.A.R.T 2008