Although knowledge of the Holocaust was fairly widespread by mid-1942, many of the Jews sent to extermination camps still harboured the faint hope of survival. Rudolf Reder was deported to Bełżec from Lwów in August 1942. He later described what happened when his train arrived.
Several dozen SS men yelling “Come on” opened the trucks, chasing people out with whips and rifle butts... The sick, the old, and small children – in other words, all those who could not walk on their own – were thrown onto stretchers and taken to pits... As soon as the train was empty, all the victims were assembled in the courtyard... There was a deathly silence. Irrmann [an SS officer] stood close to the crowd. Everybody wanted to hear him. We all suddenly hoped that, if we were spoken to, then perhaps it meant that there would be work to do, that we would live after all... Irrmann spoke loudly and clearly: “You are going to take a bath now, afterwards you will be sent to work.” That was all.
The crowd rejoiced; the people were relieved that they would be going to work. They applauded. I remember his words repeated day after day – three times on average, during the time I was there. It was a moment of hope, of illusion. The crowd was peaceful. And in silence they all went forward.
Almost everybody on the transport, and on all others to Bełżec, was immediately sent to the camp’s gas chambers; only a small number of men, like Rudolf Reder, were selected to work and most of them were murdered after a few days. Bełżec operated for just nine months in 1942. During that time, approximately 434,500 Jews were deported there; Rudolf was one of only two who survived. The camp was then destroyed by the Nazis: the photograph shows the modern memorial at the site.
Photo: memorial, Bełżec; Holocaust Educational Trust
Testimony: Rudolf Reder, Bełżec (Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna w Polsce, 1946)