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CHAPTER 2 THE QUEEN OF THE DEAD THE INVESTIGATION AND TRIAL OF THE BELZEC DEATH CAMP This column has A hole. Can you see The Queen of the Dead? —George Seferis Buchenwald survivor David Rousset called the Nazi system of oppression and death a “concentrationary universe,” a counter-cosmic nightmare operating in accordance with its own perverse, inhuman laws.1 We might think of the Operation Reinhard death camps in view of Rousset’s astronomy metaphor: if Auschwitz-Birkenau was the outsized, malign pole star of this universe, then its black hole was Belzec. Light glinted off Auschwitz-Birkenau because not all those deported to it perished; numerous survivors lived to describe their harrowing experiences there. The physical structure of the camp likewise survived the war as an enduring monument to Nazi inhumanity. For these reasons, Auschwitz has become the infamous symbol par excellence of the Holocaust. Belzec , on the other hand, destroyed nearly all its six hundred thousand deportees before voiding itself from history, leaving scarcely a trace behind. Belzec is the dark star of the concentrationary universe, the charnel black hole at its center. In the Nazis’ kingdom of corpses, it was the Queen of the Dead. Central Office employees assigned to the Belzec investigation faced the arduous chore of finding survivors who could testify as witnesses against former camp staff. After a worldwide hunt, they found only one: seventyseven -year-old Rudolf Reder, living at the time in Toronto, Canada. He was one of two deportees miraculously to survive the death camp. The other survivor, Chaim Herszman, was killed in a pogrom in Poland after the war. By the time of the Belzec investigation and trial, only Rudolf Reder was available to illuminate the ghastly crimes committed at the camp. Ultimately, his testimony The Queen of the Dead 36 was insufficient by itself to overcome seven of the eight defendants’ protests of duress. The Hunt for Witnesses The Belzec investigation officially began on July 28, 1959. Up until that time, the Central Office had devoted its energy and time to investigating the Treblinka and Chelmno death camps.2 In the course of these probes, Central Office employees repeatedly encountered the Belzec and Sobibor death camps, noting that neither had been the object of sustained, in-depth investigation. In fact, a small handful of death camp personnel had already been tried in West German courts in the early 1950s. Allied Control Council Law No. 10 (issued in December 1945) enabled German courts to try Nazi crimes involving German perpetrators and German victims but prohibited German jurisdiction over Nazi crimes on Allied nationals.3 This restriction opened the door to German jurisdiction over euthanasia-related crimes. Because the T-4 program involved German perpetrators and German victims (that is, the disabled), Nazi euthanasia became by default the first organized mass murders of the Third Reich to be tried in German courts. Not until German criminal justice authorities began to investigate the T-4 program did the outlines of Operation Reinhard as a distinct subset of the Final Solution begin to emerge for the first time. The key investigation centered on Josef Hirtreiter, a mechanic arrested in Frankfurt on suspicion of involvement in the murder of the mentally ill at the Hadamar mental hospital in Hessen-Nassau. During his interrogation, Hirtreiter described his assignment to the Treblinka death camp (which Hirtreiter called “Malkinia”), where Jews were murdered in gas chambers. Hirtreiter was dismissed from the Hadamar case for lack of evidence. (Later, he was given a tenyear sentence to hard labor by a denazification court for his involvement in murdering four to five thousand Jews as an SS guard at Treblinka.)4 Frankfurt prosecutors traced the names Hirtreiter had originally identified during his interrogations in the Hadamar case. These persons had been with Hirtreiter at Hadamar, and like him they were transferred to the General Government (Generalgouvernement) to administer the Polish death camps. Two of his former coworkers, Hubert Gomerski and Johann Klier, had been guards at the Sobibor camp. Another was Erich Bauer, the gassing technician (Gasmeister ) of Sobibor. Bauer was tried in 1950, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death, a punishment subsequently commuted to a life term (he was released in 1971). Gomerski’s and Klier’s trials followed in August 1950. The disparate outcomes for the two codefendants foreshadow the Operation Reinhard trials of the 1960s. Klier invoked a defense of duress, claiming that he feared for his life unless he obeyed orders to participate in...


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