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One of the most recent additions to the body of films on the Holocaust, this French film documents the history of a little-known Nazi concentration camp called Belzec, Located in the southeast of Poland, near a small village of the same name, Belzec was one of Poland’s first death camps.
In the early 1940s, the Nazis set up a number of labor camps in and around the village, to house Jewish workers building the “Otto Line,” a series of fortifications between the Bug and San rivers, on the border with the Soviet Union. These Jewish labour camps were disbanded in October 1940, and construction of the concentration camp – by workers from nearby Lublin – began on the site shortly thereafter, in November of 1941. By late winter of 1942, the facilities were completed, and in March, Belzec received its first transport of Jews, as part of what would come to be known as Operation Reinhard. Historical details regarding the various transports of the Jews from Lublin and the role of the “blacks”--Ukrainians in black uniforms--are painstakingly researched and revealed in the film, and add powerful imagery to the existing literature on the Holocaust and to the history of Belzec itself, one of the “smaller,” but horrifically “efficient” death camps.
In operation for only 10 months, from March to December 1942, the camp’s physical existence, as well as its memory, has largely disappeared from view. The Nazis eliminated all traces of the camp once the Soviet counterattacks began, razing it, relocating a local manor house to the site, and planting trees and crops in its place, in order to disguise it as a farm. Remains of human bodies were found after a visit to the site in 1945, but it wasn’t until excavations in 1997 were being done in preparation for the creation of a monument that the extent of the killings was uncovered. Thirty-one mass graves were discovered, and although it is impossible to determine an official number for the dead at Belzec, it is estimated that at least 600,000 Jews were killed there, including many of the Jewish workers who were forced to eliminate evidence of the site after its closure. With virtually no eyewitnesses to the events inside this particular camp, the documentary attempts to reconstruct the events leading up to its creation, the conditions at the height of its operation, and its ultimate destruction of it by the Nazis.
There were only four survivors of this death camp, and one of these is a main focus of Moscovitz’ documentary: Braha Rauffmann, who as a child, escaped from Belzec and spent twenty months hiding in harsh conditions such as a cemetery, a wheat field, and a pigsty, after being secreted away by a sympathetic Polish woman. When she was finally liberated from her hiding space, Rauffmann recalled looking up at the heavens and asking those around her what the stars were. They cried, she remembered, at the reality of a nine-year-old girl who had no memory of the sky. Her dignity and demeanor on screen are in sharp contrast, however, to these terrors of her childhood, and she provides compelling testimony to the realities of the film’s narrative.
The film attests to the unwitting role that many Polish citizens played in the operation of this camp. The Poles interviewed for the film include [End Page 83] people who lived close to the camps and those who were hired (some forcibly) by the Germans to build them. Those who did the construction for the camp were kept in the dark as to the purpose of their building, and the workers were even locked up at night; none of the builders came out alive. The daily transports of four trains a day, on which Jews from all over Europe were brought, were known to some extent by those who lived near the camp. Local residents were, to varying degrees, aware of the camp’s atrocities, and numerous sources of Holocaust history contain transcripts of interviews and testimonies...