The Holocaust was not an event which could be entirely hidden from the people of Europe. Wilhelm Cornides was a German army officer who was travelling by rail through Poland in August 1942. On the train, he got talking to a German policeman and the wife of another policeman. They promised to show him Bełżec extermination camp when the train passed it. Cornides recorded his experiences in his diary.
31 August 1942
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”, said the woman. “Oh nonsense, it is only the gas”, laughed the railway policeman. Meanwhile – we had gone on about 200 metres – the sweetish odour was transformed into a strong smell of something burning. “That is from the crematory”, said the policeman. A short distance further 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 about 250 metres away. A freight car happened to be standing on the table. Several Jews were busy turning the disk. SS guards, rifles under arms, stood by. One of the sheds was open; one could distinctly see that it was filled to the ceiling with bundles of clothing.
Cornides’s diary reveals that the Holocaust in Poland was an ‘open secret’: the camp was visible from a major railway line whilst the fact that there were Germans, like his fellow passengers, who were willing to tell others about Bełżec suggests that many people must have known about it. Their reactions also suggest that not all non-Jews reacted sympathetically to the plight to the victims.
Map: Karl Baedeker, Das Generalgouvernement (Baedeker, 1943)
Diary extract: Raul Hilberg (ed.), Documents of Destruction: Germany and Jewry 1933-1945 (W.H. Allen, 1972)