By Thomas Kues
It is often stated that Rudolf Reder (who later took the name Roman Robak) was the only Jew to have survived the “pure extermination camp” at Belzec. This, however, is incorrect even from an exterminationist viewpoint, since according to orthodox historiography there were in all seven survivors: Reder, Chaim Hirszman, Sara Beer, Hirsz Birder, Mordechai Bracht, Samuel Velser and “Szpilke”. The last person appears only within Reader’s account. Although Reder claims to have met “Szpilke” in Lemberg after the war, and states that he later lived in Hungary, yet this mysterious witness to the last days of the camp has left no historical trace whatsoever. As for Sara Beer, Belzec expert Michael Tregenza informs us (“Belzec – Das vergessene Lager des Holocaust”, in I. Wojak, P. Hayes (eds.), “Arisierung” im Nationalsozialismus, Volksgemeinschaft, Raub und Gedächtnis, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt / New York 2000, p. 260) that she was transferred from the “death camp” to Trawniki together with 20-25 unnamed other Jewesses, and that she survived also Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to be liberated by British troops in April 1945; she appears to have left no testimony on her stay in Belzec. Birder, Bracht and Velser are basically unknowns. Further, two women named Mina Astman and Malka Talenfeld are reported to have escaped after spending only some hours in the camp, and their brief impressions seems to have been recorded only second-hand (see Y. Arad,Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka.., p. 264). Only two of the survivors, Reder and Hirszman, left witness accounts. The former published the 74-page pamphlet Belzec in collaboration with Nella Rost in 1946, and also testified before a Polish investigative commission and in connection with the 1965 Munich Belzec trial. As for the latter, Carlo Mattogno informs us (Belzec in Propaganda, Testimonies, Archeological Research, and History, p. 51):
“On March 19, 1946, Chaim Hirszman appeared before the regional historical commission of Lublin, but he was murdered the same day after his interrogation had been adjourned. Therefore, we have only a very laconic testimony from his side (Zydowski Instytut Historiczny (Jewish Historical Institute), Warsaw, Report No. 1476). As far as its content is concerned, it is so irrelevant that it does not even appear in the extract of testimonies on Belzec presented by Marian Muszkat in the official report of the Polish government on the German crimes against Poland.”
Yet, despite its extreme brevity, it is obviously of a certain importance as the only witness account left by a former Belzec prisoner besides those of Reder’s. The fact that it has gone virtually unmentioned and unquoted by Holocaust historians is likely foremost due to the aforementioned brevity and obscurity, but it cannot be wholly excluded that it also has to do with its contents, i.e. Hirszman’s statements about the alleged mass killings at Belzec.
Yitzhak Arad informs us that Hirszman and two other, unnamed prisoners escaped from the train which was taking them from the liquidated Belzec camp to Sobibor in July 1943, supposedly to be killed there (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka…, p. 265). The orthodox claim that the remaining Belzec inmates were taken to Sobibor to be executed there does not square well with the abovementioned fact that Sara Beer and other female detainees were sent to the Trawniki labor camp.
As for the ultimate fate of Hirszman, historian Martin Gilbert writes (The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana Press, London 1987, p. 817) that:
“on March 9, one of only two survivors of the death camp at Belzec, Chaim Hirszman, gave evidence in Lublin of what he had witnessed in the death camp. He was asked to return on the following day to complete his evidence. But on his way home he was murdered, because he was a Jew.”
The Polish Historian Henryk Pajak states, however, that Hirszman was killed not because he was a Jew, but because he was an “active and dangerous functionary” of the new Communist regime (Konspiracja mlodziezy szkolnej 1945-1955, Lublin 1994, pp. 130-31, quoted in Tadeusz Piotrowski, Poland’s Holocaust, McFarland 1998, p. 341, note 306).
Chaim Hirszman’s testimony
According to his own testimony, Hirszman was deported from Zaklikow, which was in the District of Lublin, Janow county (Gilbert, The Holocaust, p. 304). Arad informs us that a transport of 2,000 Jewish deportees departed from Zaklikow on November 3, 1942 (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka…, p. 383). Gilbert reproduces the apparently most relevant part of Hirszman’s testimony as follows:
“We were entrained and taken to Belzec. The train entered a small forest. Then, the entire crew of the train was changed. SS men from the death camp replaced the railroad employees. We were not aware of this at that time.
The train entered the camp. Other SS men took us off the train. They led us all together – women, men, children – to a barrack. We were told to undress before we go to the bath. I understood immediately what that meant. After undressing we were told to form two groups, one of men and the other of women with children. An SS man, with the strike of a horsewhip, sent the men to the right or to the left, to death – to work.
I was selected to death, I didn’t know it then. Anyway, I believed that both sides meant the same – death. But, when I jumped in the indicated direction, an SS man called me and said: ‘Du bist ein Militarmensch, dich konnen wir brauchen’ [‘You have a military bearing, we could use you.’]
We, who were selected for work, were told to dress.
I and some other men were appointed to take the people to the kiln. I was sent with the women. The Ukrainian Schmidt, an Ethnic German, was standing at the entrance to the gas-chamber and hitting with a knout [a knotted whip] every entering woman. Before the door was closed, he fired a few shots from his revolver and then the door closed automatically and forty minutes later we went in and carried the bodies out to a special ramp. We shaved the hair off the bodies, which were afterwards packed into sacks and taken away by Germans.
The children were thrown into the chamber simply on the women’s heads. In one of the ‘transports’ taken out of the gas chamber, I found the body of my wife and I had to shave her hair.
The bodies were not buried on the spot, the Germans waited until more bodies were gathered. So, that day we did not bury…” (Gilbert, The Holocaust, p. 304)
We note here first and foremost that Hirszman speaks of “gas chamber” in singularis. In many eyewitness accounts, “gas chamber” is confusingly taken to mean a building containing one or more gas chambers, but judging from Hirszman’s very brief description we are in fact dealing with only one chamber: children are thrown into “the chamber” and “the door” closes automatically once the victims are inside. According to orthodox historiography, the gas chamber building used at Belzec during this period of time consisted of six chambers arranged three and three on either side of a central corridor. There is no reason why the entrance door to the building, a opposed to the doors of the individual chambers, would be “closed automatically” before the gassing. It is also noteworthy that Hirszman for some inexplicable reason uses “kiln” as synonymous with “the gas chamber”, while at the same time he implies that the building was disguised as a bath.
The claim that the hair of the victims being shaved off after their death goes completely against all other available eyewitness testimony. We may compare here with Kurt Gerstein’s statement that the women had their hair cut off and stuffed inside potato sacks before entering the gas chambers (cf. H. Roques, he ‘Confessions’ of Kurt Gerstein, IHR, Costa Mesa 1989, p. 30) or Rudolf Reder’s claim to the same effect (cf. Rudolf Reder, “Belzec” in: Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, volume 13 (2000), p. 274).
The assertion that at the day of Hirszman’s arrival “the bodies were not buried at the spot” but instead left lying on the ground and only buried once “more bodies were gathered” is spurious for two reasons. First, no other witness has attested to this procedure; rather most witnesses imply or state that the corpses were interred right after the gassing in the burial pit open for the moment, and then covered with a sand layer. Second, the archeological evidence furnished by Andrzej Kola contradicts it. Given a theoretical maximum of 8 corpses per cubic meter, the approximately 2,000 victims (if we are to trust Arad’s figure) would have occupied 250 cubic meters. Of the 33 grave pits identified by Kola at Belzec, 10 (in their present state) have a volume of 250 cubic meters or less. There is thus no reason to believe that the SS would wait for more corpses to accumulate before burying them. Besides, the idea of letting 2,000 corpses lie around in the open for a day or more seems odd. On the other hand, the procedure described by Rajchman might be realistic if the only victims from the transport were a small number of en route deaths.
The second-hand testimony of Pola Hirszman
The day after Chaim was shot, on March 20, 1946, Chaim’s wife Pola testified about what her husband had allegedly witnessed at Belzec. Her testimony is likewise kept in the archive of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Gilbert writes that “Chaim Hirszman’s experiences at Belzec were also set down in 1946 by his second wife, Pola, to whom he often retold them after the war” (ibid., p. 305). Needless to say, second-hand accounts are more or less worthless as evidence, but we will anyway take a look at some of her statements.
Mrs. Hirszman’s testimony starts out with a typical atrocity story about a transport consisting of small children – babies to three year olds – being murdered in a most unseemly manner:
“The workers were told to dig one big hole into which the children were thrown and buried alive.” (ibid., p. 305)
There is not really much to comment on here. The same goes for the next story, about a prisoner being hanged for a failed escape attempt; on the scaffold, the condemned man prophesize the fall of Hitler and his Reich. We are also told that typhus was prevailing in the camp, and that Chaim also contracted the disease but avoided being “murdered on the spot” by concealing his condition from the Germans. Pola also relates a story that is found with variations also in the Treblinka and Sobibor lore, about an Aryan (in this case a Ukrainian woman) arriving by mistake at the camp who is then gassed with the Jews, despite showing the SS men proper identification. Next we learn about the camp that
“Once you crossed the gate to the camp, there was no chance to get out of there alive. Not even any Germans, except for the camp staff, had access to the camp.” (ibid., p. 305)
This claim is contradicted by several eyewitness statements. The former camp staff member Heinrich Gley declared in 1961 that a Jewish work detail had been carrying tasks far outside the camp and Polish witness Maria D. affirmed in October 1945 that some Jews in the camp “had the right to leave the camp perimeter” (Mattogno, Belzec…, p. 44). According to orthodox Belzec expert Michael Tregenza, four Polish villagers were employed in the camp proper, while, most astoundingly, other villagers were allowed inside the camp to take photographs (ibid., p. 43).
One of the stories related by Pola concerns Jews employed outside of the camp:
“Two Czechoslovak Jewesses were working in the camp office [which was located outside of the camp]. They, too, had never entered the camp. They even enjoyed a certain freedom of movement. They often went with the SS men to town to arrange different matters. One day they were told that they would visit the camp. The SS men showed them around the camp and in a certain moment they led the women to the gas-chamber and when they were inside, the door closed behind them. They finished with them in spite of the promise that they would live.” (Gilbert, The Holocaust, pp. 305-306)
This story clearly does not make much sense. On one hand, we are told that the two Jewesses had been promised that they would live, and thus they must have known that the Jews were being exterminated at Belzec – and working at the camp office, they could hardly have escaped figuring out the “true nature” of the camp (especially since this was supposedly well-known in the Belzec community from the start; cf. Mattogno, Belzec…, p. 43). But why then would the women walk gullibly into the “gas chamber”? Furthermore, we again note the singular of “door” being used in the description of the “gas chamber”.
When not carrying out a wholesale mass murder, burying small children alive or tricking Jewish secretaries into gas chambers, the SS men in the camp spent time relaxing with their victims:
“The Germans ordered the prisoners to set up a football team and on Sundays games were being played. Jews played with SS men, the same ones who tortured and murdered them. The SS men treated this as a matter of sport, and when they lost a game, they had no complaints.” (Gilbert, The Holocaust, p. 306).
On this point, at least, there is reason to believe that Pola is relating the truth. The SS man Werner Dubois mentioned during an interrogation in 1961: “It also happened that I organized a soccer match with 22 Jews on the sports ground” (quoted in Mattogno, Belzec…, p. 66). The soccer games are also confirmed by the Polish witness Tadeusz M., who further noted that the Germans had organized a string orchestra among the inmates (ibid., p. 44)
Chaim Hirszman’s Belzec testimony is indeed largely irrelevant due to its brevity and lack of detail, but is nonetheless illuminating. Within the space of only some paragraph our witness manages to include several statements contradicting the orthodox picture of the “death camp”. Further, the second-hand recollections of his wife do not exactly help his reliability. It is a shame that Hirszman did not survive to leave a more complete testimony, as it would undoubtedly have constituted another bullet in the foot of the Belzec story. However, the stuck splinter that is Hirszman’s Belzec statement should be enough to make the defenders of the pure Shoah faith cringe with embarassment.