“We have done more research on the killers than the victims”: A historical monograph on the Belzec death camp

Today we are speaking with Anatoly Podolsky, the director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, about the Ukrainian translation of the Polish historian Robert Kuwałek’s book The Bełżec Death Camp.

Andriy Kobalia: Who was Kuwałek in the global historical context?

Anatoly Podolsky: He was a Polish historian and my friend; we were friends for ten years and did projects together. He was a scholarly associate of the Majdanek State Museum in Lublin. He was born in Lublin in 1966. In 2014—every time it is painful for me to say this—he died in Lviv under mysterious circumstances. But in the 48 years that were allotted to him, he managed to complete a huge amount of work. He devoted his life to researching the history of the Jews of Lublin. Robert spent his childhood in Bełżec, the large village where the death camp was located. With his unexpected and untimely departure, he also took away the history of the Lublin Jews. He talked to me about this during our many walks along the streets of Lublin. This history chose him. He himself was a Pole; he graduated from Lublin University and completed an internship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem. He read and wrote in Polish, English, and German, worked at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and was the first director of the Bełżec Museum and Memorial. He was a historian of the highest caliber, who devoted his entire life to this subject. He located people who had survived the Second World War in every corner of the world: South Africa, America; he collected information bit by bit. At one time there were 53,000 Jews in Lublin; today they are gone. These people disappeared, he said. There is a scholarly and educational organization called Grodzka Gate, with which he was also associated. It collects historical information on the Jews of Lublin. They have files for 53,000 people. You go in and see that ninety percent of these files are empty.

Andriy Kobalia: In other words, they know the names but not the stories?

Anatoly Podolsky: Most of the names are also not there. It is understandable that all these 53,000 files will never be filled. But people who visit Grodzka Gate sense that the Jewish population was a significant part of Lublin. Today we need to remember this. It is a challenge for us.

Andriy Kobalia: So, I understand correctly that inasmuch as Robert Kuwałek studied Lublin, the history of this city, Bełżec figured as a camp where most of the people who died there were Jews from Lublin.

Anatoly Podolsky: Precisely. After starting this research, Robert began traveling to Lviv, Kolomyia, Ternopil, and Chervonohrad—all the territories of Eastern Galicia. He saw how many transports there were from Lublin, and even more from Lviv. Many Jews from Ternopil and Lviv oblasts found their last refuge and were suffocated by gas in Bełżec. This was a camp only for killing, not a concentration camp. For some time, there was a work camp, a camp for Roma there, but between March and December 1942, in other words, for nearly nine months, up to 500,000 people were killed there. These were Jews from Lublin and Lviv, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Belgium. Later Kuwałek did research on the Lublin Jews and the history of the death camp in Bełżec. In 2010 his book came out in Polish; the German and English translations appeared in 2011–2012. He and I had said that a Ukrainian translation must be published because he describes the stories of Ukrainian Jews who were deported to Bełżec. I promised him this edition; we were planning it. He and I worked on a joint educational project for ten years: collaboration between the Majdanek State Museum and the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies. This was a scholarly seminar for educators from Ukraine called “The History of the Holocaust in the Lands of Western Ukraine and Eastern Poland.” In 2014, when Robert passed away, we named it after him: the Robert Kuwałek Seminar. Nearly ten years were spent with him, and nearly five years have passed without him. At the time I told his wife and daughter that this would be our contribution to the memory of Dr. Kuwałek, and we would translate his book into Ukrainian. In 2018 this translation came out thanks to the financial support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Book launches took place in Lublin—which was attended by Robert’s friends and family—and in Lviv. He told me: “My two favorite spots in the whole world are Lublin and Lviv.” Robert conducted tours through Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish Lviv, and he did this in the Ukrainian, Polish, and German languages. I don’t know whether there will ever be another guide like him.

Andriy Kobalia: What is particularly noteworthy about this work for the Ukrainian reader and historian who is interested in the history of the Holocaust and the death camps that were located on the territory of Poland?

Anatoly Podolsky: I don’t think that this book is for the general public because it is more of a specialist work, a scholarly monograph. It is intended for historians. Robert worked on it for more than ten years. He traveled to all the archives, he met with a lot of people. We translated it in his memory. We planned to launch it together, but in the end, I did it alone, together with his colleagues. It hurts me. Five years have passed, and I can’t forget it, and I will never forget.

In his book Robert Kuwałek examines the process behind the camp’s creation: how the Nazi administration did this; he writes about the mechanisms of killing. He studies documents from German courts in the 1960s that tried the SS men who were at this camp. The German camp personnel, those criminals, guilty parties—you see, we are searching for terms—they were also in other camps. Bełżec was part of Operation Reinhard. In 1942 a decision was made in Lublin to kill the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. And Bełżec, along with Treblinka and Sobibor, was a component of Operation Reinhard in these camps. Nearly two million people were killed in 1942. Later these camps were destroyed. There were uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor. The belongings of the killed people were sent to Lublin because the operational headquarters was based there. When Robert began to research this, he was horrified. So many crimes had been committed in his native city, in his native Poland. He also wrote about the Polish Righteous, who occupy first place in the list compiled by Yad Vashem. First on the list is Poland, followed by Holland, France, and Ukraine. The largest number of Righteous are from these countries. But Robert, whose background was Polish, also wrote about people who did the opposite.

Andriy Kobalia: This is my question too. Do we know about the participation of non-Germans in what was taking place in Belzec?

Anatoly Podolsky: Yes, in his work Robert Kuwałek also studies the perpetrators of crimes in the camp and about Polish perpetrators, no matter how distressing this was for him. He felt pain for the Lublin Jews because these were Polish citizens. To Robert, it was obvious that Ukrainian society is also gradually beginning to understand. Ukrainian, as well as Polish society, is multicultural, and Ukrainian Jews, Belarusians, or Armenians are also Ukrainian citizens. That’s how it was for Kuwałek. When he was researching the history of the Lublin Jews, the subject of this research was not foreign to him. These people spoke Polish, and Lublin was their native city. So Kuwałek does research on the perpetrators, the camp guards. He writes about the Trawniki camp, which held Soviet prisoners of war who were later sent as camp guards to Treblinka and Bełżec. Among these prisoners were Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians. Robert says that we must not shift the blame onto the people who are living in contemporary Poland or Ukraine. But we must be aware that during this period the Germans linked the occupied territories by means of blood. One American historian has written: “It is striking that an immense quantity of monographs and scholarly works is devoted to the study of the killers. We remember their names, we know about their positions, childhoods, education. But we do not know about the victims. We study the killers more than the victims.” Robert also wrote about this, that we must restore the names of the victims.

Only three people survived Bełżec. Here it is important to note that in Soviet historiography the crimes of communist ideology were also attributed to the Germans. One example is Katyn. The Soviet party apparatus added it to Babyn Yar, to Drohobych Yar—you know about these horrible things.

Andriy Kobalia: I wanted to ask about Polish historiography during the period of communist rule in Poland. One of the last chapters in the monograph is entitled “A Half-Century of Oblivion.” What is it about? We know that the Soviet government was silent about, for example, Babyn Yar or the shootings in Kharkiv that you mentioned—after all, Jews were exterminated in nearly every large city of Ukraine. How was it in Poland?

Anatoly Podolsky: Robert Kuwałek was born in 1966, meaning that his student years and youth passed in socialist Poland. People preferred not to talk about Bełżec and Auschwitz at the time. But, despite Moscow’s control and the fact that the People’s Republic of Poland was part of the “socialist camp,” it was impossible to conceal the murder of over ten percent of the population. Three million Polish Jews died. It was impossible to remain silent about this, as they were silent in Soviet Kyiv about Babyn Yar. But neither was it possible to do normal research. In Bełżec, for example, there was not even a memorial. People said, yes, Polish civilians had been killed there. In general, no one talked about the fact that the victims of that camp were Jews from all over Europe. In the early 1980s, when he was still a teenager, Robert collected testimonies about this camp. He was told that after the killings ended, in 1945 and 1946 people began coming there to search for gold. They knew that Jews had been killed there; that meant “there had to be gold.” This was incredibly distressing for Robert, and he was ashamed of his fellow countrymen.

So, the history of Bełżec was generally neglected; it was not studied. Monuments began to appear there in the 1960s. The inscriptions talked about the killing of people, but they did not note that they were Jews. A second important aspect is the number of victims. I think that just like in the case of the Holodomor, the use of false figures in the question of the Holocaust denigrates the memory of those who were killed. There was a figure of 600,000. It was the research done by Robert Kuwałek, as well as by the historians Dariusz Libionka and Grzegorz Motyka, which revealed the figure of 438,000. Thanks to Robert’s monographs, historians who study the Nazi death camps and the history of the Holocaust are now utilizing correct data. The earlier figure was inflated, but this does not minimize the tragedy of those people.

Andriy Kobalia: Yes, it is important to emphasize this. Robert believed that the real figure had to be named, even if it was smaller than what was disseminated by propaganda.

Anatoly Podolsky: That’s the point. These were propaganda figures. Even Yad Vashem uses different data. So, the main thing that I wanted to say about Robert is that he researched the history of both victims and executioners. He knew the stories of Lublin families. We know about the three people who survived Bełżec. Two of them died right after the war. In other words, it was incredibly difficult to locate materials for this research. Bełżec was one of the least studied Nazi camps. At one time they were just Polish geographical names, but after the Second World War, they became symbols of killings: Auschwitz, Chełmno, Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibor, Majdanek. Auschwitz and Majdanek were death camps for Jews and concentration camps for non-Jews. The rest were places to which people were brought, suffocated by gas, and their bodies burned in crematoria. As Robert and other historians have written, Bełżec is the least studied of them because practically no eyewitnesses survived and the camp itself was destroyed.

Andriy Kobalia: The book also contains a chapter devoted to the question of whether there were Roma and other nationalities in the camp. Here it is important to understand that many historians who study aspects of the Second World War which are not connected with the Jews can state that the sites of the extermination of many various nationalities are the extermination sites of the Jews. Can one say that not just Jews perished in Bełżec? Do we have any proof?

Anatoly Podolsky: Absolutely. Poles and Roma were killed there, but many fewer; these figures are not comparable. In other words, we can say that 95 percent of Bełżec were Jews. But it is important that Kuwałek also wrote about non-Jewish victims.

Finally, I would like to say that it is good that we translated this book into Ukrainian. As my colleague, the young historian Andriy Usach from the Territory of Terror Museum, said, this is the first Ukrainian book on the death camps. There was not a single Ukrainian-language study about them.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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