New methods of murder
|A door to a gas chamber|
Starting in December 1939, the Nazis introduced new methods of mass murder by using gas.
First experimental vans, equipped with gas cylinders and a sealed trunk compartment, were used to kill mental care clients of sanatoria in
Pomerania, East Prussia, and occupied , as part of an operation termed Aktion T4. Poland
In the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, larger vans holding up to 100 people were used in a similar way since November 1941, yet the gas did not come from a cylinder but directly from the engine's exhaust.
These vans were introduced to the Chełmno concentration camp in December 1941, and another 15 of them were used by the death squads in the occupied
These gas vans were developed and run under supervision of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Bureau), and were used to kill about 500,000 people, primarily Jews, but also Romani and others.
The vans were carefully monitored and after a month of observation a report stated that 'ninety seven thousand have been processed using three vans, without any defects showing up in the machines'.
A need for new mass murder techniques was also expressed by Hans Frank, governor of the General Government, who noted that this many people could not be simply shot. "We shall have to take steps, however, designed in some way to eliminate them." It was this dilemma which led the SS to experiment with large-scale killings using poison gas. Finally, SS Obersturmführer Christian Wirth seems to have been the inventor of the gas chamber.
At the extermination camps with gas chambers all the prisoners arrived by train. Sometimes entire trainloads were sent straight to the gas chambers, but usually the camp doctor on duty subjected individuals to selections, where a small percentage were deemed fit to work in the slave labor camps; the majority were taken directly from the platforms to a reception area where all their clothes and other possessions were seized by the Nazis to help fund the war. They were then herded naked into the gas chambers. Usually they were told these were showers or delousing chambers, and there were signs outside saying "baths" and "sauna." They were sometimes given a small piece of soap and a towel so as to avoid panic, and were told to remember where they had put their belongings for the same reason. When they asked for water because they were thirsty after the long journey in the cattle trains, they were told to hurry up, because coffee was waiting for them in the camp, and it was getting cold.
According to Rudolf Höß, commandant of
Auschwitz, bunker 1 held 800 people, and bunker 2 held 1,200.
Once the chamber was full, the doors were screwed shut and solid pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents in the side walls, releasing toxic HCN, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to Höß, who estimated that about one third of the victims died immediately.
Joann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives."
When they were removed, if the chamber had been very congested, as they often were, the victims were found half-squatting, their skin colored pink with red and green spots, some foaming at the mouth or bleeding from the ears.
The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed (which would take up to four hours), gold fillings in their teeth were extracted with pliers by dentist prisoners, and women's hair was cut.
The floor of the gas chamber was cleaned, and the walls whitewashed.The work was done by the Sonderkommando, which were work units of Jewish prisoners.
In crematoria 1 and 2, the Sonderkommando lived in an attic above the crematoria; in crematoria 3 and 4, they lived inside the gas chambers.
When the Sonderkommando had finished with the bodies, the SS conducted spot checks to make sure all the gold had been removed from the victims' mouths. If a check revealed that gold had been missed, the Sonderkommando prisoner responsible was thrown into the furnace alive as punishment.
At first, the bodies were buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In the spring of 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.