Thursday, July 30, 1998 Published at 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
Poland's unknown death camp
6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust - many at concentration camps in Poland
The Polish government has recently announced that it's to build a memorial at the site of the former Nazi extermination camp at Belzec. Our Warsaw correspondent, James Coomarasamy, has just been to see the forgotten Nazi camp for himself.
Michael Tregenza winced as the young girl wheeled her bicycle across the patch of wasteland. 'We found another mass grave on that spot just a couple of months ago', he said.
I was standing with the British historian at what was once the Belzec death camp -- site of some of the largest-scale but least well-known Nazi atrocities. If you haven't heard of Belzec, it's not surprising. It's had none of the publicity of its more notorious cousin, Auschwitz-Birkenau. For a start, it's hard to find.
A small, rusting sign on the main Lublin to Lvov road announces the turn-off to the camp. You cross a small railway track and there it is -- a plain dark gate, bearing the dates 1942-1943. Walk inside and you're standing in a patch of parkland that's been allowed to go to seed; a place which locals use as a short cut or even as a picnic spot.
At Birkenau, you're confronted by the orderly rows of ruined gas chambers -- a sight which gives the camp's horrors a real, physical presence. At Belzec, the horror is in the absence -- the absence of any relics of the wartime atrocities, the absence of any visitors who care about its history.
Belzec wasn't liberated, it was abandoned. The Nazis destroyed their gas chambers and barracks with the same ruthless efficiency as they built and used them.
Today, the site's centrepiece is a garish, communist-era monument, covered with what look like yellowing bath tiles. At the far end stand four crumbling, anonymous blocks of stone -- monuments waiting to be fashioned, but which never were. They mark the spot of the four known mass graves -- although one is now thought to be in the wrong place -- but there are no names carved on them, no flowers placed beside them; anonymous monuments to hundreds of thousands of anonymous victims.
Revealing the past
And apart from that, there is nothing -- except, that is, for the piles of earth which mark the recent excavation work. This is where Michael Tregenza, together with a team of Polish archaeologists, has been working, unearthing piles of bones and revealing the true extent of what happened at Belzec.
The camp has an especially grim place in the history of the Holocaust. It was, perhaps, the most cruelly efficient of all the extermination camps, with a commandant, Wirth, who achieved his demonic goal of building the first functioning gas chambers. He wasn't just fast though, he was thorough.
Over several months, up to a million Jews are thought to have been gassed at the camp. Only two of its inmates cheated death so, unlike Auschwitz, with its many more survivors, Belzec has had no returnees to keep the memories alive, no testimonies to the full horror, no one to lobby for a fitting monument.
Years of neglect
Not surprisingly, the camp's condition has appalled the few visitors who've made the pilgrimage. And finally, after years of stalling, the Polish government has announced it's going to build a new, more appropriate monument -- a replica of Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.
But as you stand at Belzec and look around, you wonder how it was allowed to become so run down. Of course, Poland's communist regime hid the full extent of wartime atrocities, but there are other factors: for example, the banal, geographical one.
Until the early 1990s, there was no main road leading to Belzec. Its ghosts remained a dark secret, lurking in the borderland between Poland and Ukraine. But it was a secret shared by the local people; and their complicated relationship with the past is another important factor.
Remembering the war
Most of those still alive who remember the war were, in some way, involved with the camp, like seventy-eight-year-old Bronislaw Czachor, a wizened man, whose sandpaper-rough hands bear witness to his profession. He was a carpenter, forced by the Nazis to help build the camp. Today, he lives with his daughter-in-law and a nervous black Alsatian, but his closest companions are his memories.
He recently had a stroke and his speech is muddled -- until, that is, he begins talking about the war. It all comes flooding back. He told me in great detail the types of wood he used and where the Germans forced him to carry it. 'But', I asked him, 'Did you know at the time what you were building?' He grew confused and started contradicting himself. 'He knew alright', his daughter-in-law whispered, but without any malice.
Everyone here has demons of their own. At the bakery down the road, they baked bread for the camp -- six hundred loaves a day. 'What else could we do?', asked Lisa who, as a child, helped her father knead the dough -- 'we had to earn a living'.
Looking to the future
It would be wrong to judge these people, placed in such an awkward position and -- at the same time -- wrong to ignore the latent anti-Semitism that remains in eastern Poland. But Jewish leaders, mindful of Poland's struggle to come to terms with its past, say they're not placing blame, just looking to the future. They're pleased that the monument will be built and that the memory of Belzec's victims will be preserved for future generations. The fact that they could so easily have been forgotten is a potent reminder to us all.