Policeman-turned-Phd-student Robin O'Neil's research took him to Belzec, where in 1942, 700,000 Jews died at the hands of another ex-policeman. Steve Farrar reports.
Robin O'Neil has seen more than his fair share of the darker side of humanity. Murders, kidnappings and air crashes - the former detective spent 22 years tackling crime and catastrophe with the Metropolitan Police and Surrey Constabulary. Since retiring a decade ago, he has been on the trail of those responsible for one of the greatest crimes of all, the Holocaust.
At the age of 60, O'Neil, who left school without any qualifications, is about to gain a PhD at University College London for his work under professors John Klier and Michael Berkowitz. Driven, not by family ties or personal experience, but by pure outrage, he has turned talents he used in the police - a flair for ferreting out information, interviewing criminals and an unflappable demeanour - to track down the perpetrators of genocide. "It is so horrific I just cannot let it go. It has to be recorded," he says.
O'Neil's research has focused on "Action Reinhard" - the systematic destruction of Jewry in three extermination camps set up to spare Nazi troops the trauma of massacring civilians. In particular, he has looked at Belzec, the prototype camp in Poland where the first victims of the gas chambers perished.
But it was during his investigation of the men who worked in the camp that O'Neil's task became especially unsettling. The role of former police officers became evident, while the personality of the man in charge, Christian Wirth, took centre stage. Wirth, the linchpin of the entire project, had before the war been a talented detective like O'Neil.
A silver cigarette case is one of the most poignant archaeological relics. Recovered at Belzec in October 1997, it bears the name Max Munk and an address in Vienna. The park where it was found presents little evidence that an extermination camp once stood on the outskirts of the Polish village - it was completely dismantled by the Nazis.
The camp had been simple: a rectangle of land several times the size of a football pitch next to a railway track. It was surrounded by barbed wire fences, overlooked by five watch towers and contained barracks, ancillary buildings and three gas chambers.
These crude, purpose-built blocks were connected to the exhaust of a Soviet tank engine. Victims were herded inside under the premise that they were to be washed - false shower heads were fitted - and then locked inside to be suffocated by the toxic fumes.
On the morning of March 17 1942, the first train load of terrified, naked Jews from the Polish city of Lublin pulled into the station. Within an hour, almost all were dead. This mechanised murder soon became routine.
O'Neil tracked the careful clearances of 400 Galician Jewish communities, first into transit ghettos and then on to Belzec. "It was like an abattoir," he says. "A transport of 6,000 could come into Belzec at 10am and by midday they were all gone."
In November, a month before the gas chambers ceased working, orders came that no trace of the crime could be left. Bodies were exhumed, burned in vast pyres and reburied. The camp, like its countless victims, disappeared. Witnesses, however, survived - Polish villagers, German staff and a handful of Jews who managed to escape.
In 1997, a team from the Nicholas Copernicus University, led by Andrzej Kola, assisted by Jacek Nowakowski of the American Holocaust National Museum, and British experts Michael Tregenza and O'Neil, surveyed the site in unprecedented detail.
More than 1,700 bore holes were drilled and 33 mass graves located, the largest measuring 70m by 20m by 6m deep. Inside were layers of human ash, burnt fat and crushed bone. Two pits still contained corpses. The Polish war crimes investigation of 1945 concluded that 600,000 perished at Belzec - archaeologists believe the total was 700,000.
Max Munk's cigarette case goes beyond such incomprehensible statistics. O'Neil has traced a Jewish man of the same name who was born in Vienna, transported to a transit ghetto and then, towards the end of 1942, disappeared. He has even identified an Orthodox rabbi in London who claims to have known the man. Yet exactly how the cigarette case came to be buried at Belzec is unlikely ever to be known. It is that uncertainty that makes this most mundane object a powerful focus for the despair of all those nameless victims.
Who could carry out such crimes? The answer O'Neil's research offers is disturbing.
It emerges that the 30 Germans who ran Belzec were not fanatical military men. "They were, in the majority, civilians and police officers, who only a short period before were ordinary men doing ordinary jobs," says O'Neil. Most were in their mid-20s and had been brought together several years earlier to join a euthanasia programme that sought to rid the Reich of the mentally handicapped.
Dubbed T4 after its operational headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse 4, Berlin, the outfit recruited its staff in utmost secrecy through personal recommendations.
By the time the candidates, a mixture of police officers, concentration camp guards, male nurses and other tradesmen, realised what they would have to do, it was too late. Internment in a concentration camp awaited protesters. Only a select group of high-ranking Nazis was aware of what lay ahead. Among them was Christian Wirth.
Wirth, the Stuttgart police superintendent, was a long-standing member of the Nazi Party who had a reputation as an effective investigator but also as an abrasive bully. Heinrich Himmler recruited him to T4 to administer the "practical" end of the programme - the killing and the disposal of bodies.
By the time the plug was pulled on the slaughter, some 70,000 mentally handicapped adults and children had died. But the state had not finished with the T4 staff yet.
For a time they were sent to hospitals on the eastern front while Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leadership plotted the Final Solution. The T4 men only learned of the new task designated to them once they reached the newly constructed Action Reinhard murder camps.
Several committed suicide at Sobibor and Treblinka, others turned to the bottle, while a few responded with extreme sadism. Most gritted their teeth and followed orders. At Belzec, they were assisted by 80 press-ganged Ukrainian guards, though most of the work, from emptying the gas chambers to burying the dead, was carried out by 500 Jews.
Inside Belzec and, ultimately, the other murder camps, Wirth's rule was absolute - inside the barbed wire, not even his immediate superiors could challenge his authority.
"His personality was stamped and engraved not only on every procedure devised in both the euthanasia institutions and the mass murder camps, but also in the hearts and minds, even the very souls of the men who worked under him," says O'Neil.
Wirth's self-discipline and police training, coupled with his brutal anti-Semitism enabled him to create an almost self-perpetuating killing machine. Nevertheless, his hand-picked staff were a mixed bunch.
Some attempted to ape their leader. Kurt Franz was a chef in Berlin before being recruited as a cook on the T4 euthanasia programme. His new-found power unleashed appaling cruelty in him and his enthusiasm gained him Wirth's favour. Ultimately he became deputy commandant at Treblinka.
Others were not so immune to their surroundings. Erich Fuchs, a mechanic, was recruited to T4 as a driver, while at Belzec he worked in the motor pool as well as trouble shooting problems with the gassing facilities. His mental health deteriorated until he was transferred to another post. He later recalled: "Many are the nights I have not slept; I still see the pictures, naked people, naked corpses, people who had committed no crime."
O'Neil believes Fuch's regret was genuine but observes: "Cruelty had become endemic in all of them, a trait they could not help but adopt, either in fear of Wirth, or by being numbed into submission by repetition of their murderous duties." He believes the camaraderie of the former police officers among the staff, mutual support he knows well from his time in uniform, helped most handle the stress, isolation and inhumanity.
Belzec closed in November 1942, its task complete, while the other Action Reinhard camps shut ten months later. Many of the staff feared they knew too much for the state to tolerate their survival. Suspicions grew when they were transferred to a new death camp at San Sabba in Italy, in active partisan country on the Adriatic coast. Wirth and several others were subsequently killed by rebels.
For most of the surviving Belzec Germans, the end of the war was a release. They returned to their ordinary lives.
In the 1960s, nine were tried for their crimes but just one, Joseph Oberhauser, was convicted. He received a three-year sentence. Their victims were not so fortunate - fewer than a dozen of the 700,000 Jews sent to Belzec escaped. O'Neil tracked down the only German survivor hoping for a little more light on those murderous months at Belzec.
The two men met in Germany. The former guard was blind, in his late 80s and suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He was incoherent. O'Neil hid his feelings but it soon became obvious that there was little the German could add to what he had already learned.
That there has been no reckoning for those responsible for Action Reinhard upsets him a great deal. The only way O'Neil can reconcile himself to this is to make sure the crime is recorded and never forgotten.
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