Suffering in the Death Camps

_____The Holocaust was death, anguish, torture and suffering combined into one. There were unspeakable horrors happening. The Nazi's used any means possible to exterminate not only the Jews but other groups as well. They needed a system to efficiently annihilate the people they targeted. Many techniques were experimented with in the beginning. Firing squads were used to take out entire ghettos but it was not effective enough. Speed and stealth were coveted. Their "Final Solution" was implemented by a combination of 3 efficient killing systems. They are: the Gas Vans at Chelmno, the Operation Reinhard camps, and the Auschwitz death camp. The utter cruelty and death that went on in these "machines" are difficult to comprehend. The Jews had to go through this nightmare, so the least we can do is learn what really happened and remember.

Gas Vans

_____The gas vans used carbon monoxide gas to kill. Arthur Nebe, the commander of Einsatzgruppe B, was looking for another method other than shooting to kill their victims. His men had enormous stress mentally from shooting women, children and ill people. He tried a technique of killing by channeling exhaust gas from a truck into a sealed chamber. The workshop foreman, Harry Wentritt described the process at a postwar trial:

"A flexible exhaust pipe was installed at the truck's exhaust, with a diameter of 58 to 60 millimeters (2.26 to 2.34 inches) and a hole of the same size was drilled in the van floor; a metal pipe was soldered into the hole from the outside to which the flexible exhaust pipe was fixed. When the various parts were connected, the truck engine was started and the exhaust fumes were channeled into the van, through the pipe leading from the exhaust to the hole in the van floor."

The first gas vans were ready in September of 1941 and were tested out in the Sachsenhausen camp. The victims were Soviet prisoners of war. The second test was attended by two chemists. A man name Leidig gave this description at a postwar trial:

"The van was opened, some bodies fell out, others were removed by prisoners. As our chemists had predicted, the bodies had the pinkish tinge typical of victims of carbon monoxide poisoning."

The first gas vans were put to use in November of 1941. In December of 1941, 3 vans were put into the Chelmno (Kulmhof) extermination camp. By June 23, 1942, twenty vehicles were in operation, with 10 others on the way. Some vans had capacities of 50 to 60 people, others were smaller with a 25 to 30 cap. They were used not only in Chelmno but also by the Einsatzgruppe in the Soviet Union. In Russian, the sealed vans were called dushegubki - "killer of souls." Anton Lauer, commander of a Sonderkommando 4a sub-unit operating in the Ukraine area testified at a postwar trial:

"They enter the (Poltava) prison courtyard, and the Jews - men, women, children - had to enter, straight from the prison cells. I was familiar with the inside of the vans; with aluminum sheets and had a wooden grating on the floor. The exhaust fumes were pumped in... the driver started the engine... then the doors were shut and the trucks left for a field outside Poltava, where the trucks came to a halt... I saw that, too... When the doors opened, a thick cloud of vapor was emitted, followed by a heap of contorted human bodies... It was a frightful sight."

After several months of use in the Soviet Union, it was found that the gas vans had technical deficiencies. Dr. August Becker of the RSHA found two major problems. One was the mental stress experienced by the SS men who had to unload the vans. Secondly, there were frequent breakdowns that were caused by poor soviet roads.

_____The extermination center at Chelmno was the first nazi-killing center. The victims were told that they would work in the east. They would have to take a bath and disinfect first. They would undress in a heated room and then walk down a corridor with a sign saying, "to the bath." At the end a large van waited. The guards explained that the van would take them to the bathhouse. The victims got into the van and the door was shut. From there the van was taken to the Rzuchow woods to be buried. By the time they reached their destination all the victims would be dead. They had 3 gas vans at Chelmno, holding 80 to 100 each. They weren't always effective. Sometimes at the end of the trip the victims would still be alive. An SS doctor told his superiors:

"The application of gas is usually not undertaken correctly. In order to come to an end as fast as possible, the driver presses the accelerator to the fullest extent. Thus the persons executed die by suffocation and not by dosing off as planned. My directions had proved that by correct adjustment of the levers, death comes faster and the prisoners fall asleep peacefully. Distorted faces and excretions, such as could be seen before, are no longer noticed."

In all the total number of victims of gas vans is around 700,000. Half of them were in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union and the other half was in the Chelmno extermination camp. This invention was the beginning or the "prototype" for the huge death factories to follow.

Operation Reinhard Camps

_____"Aktion Reinhard" was the code name for the operation who's objective is to kill all the Jews in the Generalgouvernement. It was named in memory of Reinhard Heydrich, who was the chief planner of the "Final Solution" in Europe. Their aim was to kill the 2,284,000 Jews living in the five districts of the Generalgouvernement - Warsaw, Lublin, Radom, Kraków, and Lvov. Himmler appointed Odilo Globocnik to head the program. Each camp was assigned from 90 to 120 Ukrainians. There were several factors in deciding where the camps would be built. The location of the camps had to be near a railway. It had to be isolated and near the eastern border of the G.G. to make it believable to tell the Jews that they were being transferred to work in the east. The first camp to start the killings was Belzec in March 17, 1942. The second camp was Sobibóór in early May of 1942. The third camp was Treblinka in July 23, 1942. They all used carbon monoxide, which was generated by gasoline or diesel engines placed outside sealed gas chambers. Through a series of trial and error they slowly perfected their killing machine.

_____Belzec was the camp for the initial experiments. Christopher Wirth devised the entire killing process from the reception of the victims to the burial. He decided to use the permanent gas chamber with the internal combustion car engine as gas supplier. Wirth wanted a self-contained extermination system that was not dependent on outside supplies and factors. The first two or three transports were experimental transports of four to six freight cars with 100 to 250 Jews in each of them. The experimental killings lasted a few days. When they were done they murdered the Jewish prisoners who helped build the camp. They showed no mercy to anyone. These initial experimental killings weren't done with the car engine but were carried out with bottled carbon monoxide. Afterwards, an armored car engine of 250 horsepower was installed in a shed outside the gas chamber. The system was ready to go.

Death Trains

_____Death didn't actually start at the death camps. The trains used to transport the victims themselves started the liquidation process of the Jews already. The trains were designed to carry a maximum of 60 to 70 people but they were usually packed with at least double that number. The cargo trains had no water and no sanitary facilities and were always lacking air because of the amount of people they stuffed in. Ada Lichtman described the journey to Sobibór:

"We were packed into a closed cattle train. Inside the freight cars it was so dense that it was impossible to move. There was not enough air, many people fainted, others became hysterical... In an isolated place, the train stopped. Soldiers entered the car and robbed us and even cut off fingers with rings... Days and nights passed. The air inside the car was poisoned by the smell of bodies and excrement. Nobody thought about food, only about water and air."

The most terrible transports were the trains to Treblinka at the end of July and into August of 1942. Abraham Kszepicki described one such experience of the deportees from Warsaw:

"...It is impossible to describe the tragic situation in our airless, closed freight car... Everyone tried to push his way to a small air aperture... I found a crack in one of the floorboards into which I pushed my nose in order to get a little air... People were defecating in all four corners of the car... The situation inside the car was becoming worse. Water. We begged the railroad workers. We would pay them well... I paid 500 zlotys (more than half the money I had) for a cup of water - about half a liter. As I began to drink, a woman, whose child had fainted, attacked me. I drank; I couldn't take the cup from my lips. The woman bit deep into my hand... I paid no attention to the pain. I would have undergone any pain on earth for a little more water. But I did leave a few drops at the bottom of the cup, and I watched the child drink. The situation in the car was deteriorating... the sun was already heating the car... People lay on the floor... laboring to get some air into their lungs... We have been traveling for about 20 hours."

Abraham Goldfarb testified about another transport to Treblinka where most of the passengers died:

"...the Germans forced 150 to 200 of them into a freight car designed for 60 or 70. The cars were closed from the outside with boards... Before we moved off, the Germans sprinkled chlorine in the cars. It burned the eyes... The children were so thirsty they licked their mother's sweat... There were 150 people in our freight car. During the two day trip to Treblinka, 135 suffocated."

In late August, several dozen work Jews were ordered to unload a stalled freight car. One of them described that the car had corpses of about 100 Jews. The Jews had suffocated from lack of oxygen, heat and the lime sprinkled on the freight-car floor. Many times the Jews would try to escape the train. A German soldier by the name of Hubert Pfoch saw such an experience on a transport to Treblinka at the Siedlce train station and wrote in his diary:

"...The Jews began calling out to us that they had been without food or water for days... When a few of them managed to get out of the cars through the air apertures, they were shot before they reached the ground... The pleas for water were more intense, and the guard's aimless firing continued..."


_____Secrecy and deception of the victims were the most important factors in this extermination technique. The trains arriving usually numbered from 40 to 60 freight cars. They were split into two or three sections to bring into the camp because the capacity of the ramp inside the camp was 20 cars. The camp looked peaceful. They showed no graves, pits, or gas chambers on the outside. These were all to make the victims believe they were at a transit camp. They were told to undress and would be showered for cleaning and disinfecting. They would then be sent to labor camps. The separation of sex, the undressing and even the haircuts for the women were to convince them even more that they were indeed going to a shower. At this stage (after undressing) they were hurried along and beaten to prevent any thought of escape or resistance. The men were taken to the gas chambers first, then the women and children. The gas chambers itself were made to closely resemble showers. Even if they did realize they weren't in a shower, it was too late. The building and doors were strong enough to resist any pressure from the inside. Within minutes, they would lose consciousness. A little later, they would lose their lives. Everyday a group of strong men would be taken out to do the dirty work of taking care of the gassed people. They were kept for a few days or weeks, constantly being tortured and weakened through work. Everyday some would be murdered and replaced. Besides these work Jews, rarely anyone else who arrived could comprehend what was really happening. The scene was just too well devised. Kurt Franz, who served under Wirth in Belzec, testified:

"...Wirth, in a quite convincing voice, explained to the Jews that they would be deported further and before that, for hygienic reasons, they must bathe themselves... I can still hear today, how the Jews applauded Wirth after his speech..."

SS Schluch, who was positioned at the "tube" to the gas chambers, described the aftermath of the gassing:

"...The Jews inside the gas chambers were densely packed. This is the reason that the corpses were not lying on the floor but were mixed up in disorder in all directions, some of them kneeling... The corpses were besmirched with mud and urine or with spit. I could see that the lips and the tips of the noses were a bluish color. Some of them had their eyes closed, others' eyes rolled."

Afterwards the corpses were thrown in a pit. When the pit was full they would cover it with a thin layer of dirt. Belzec had a very bad experience with the dead bodies. The heat, putrefaction, and in some cases water that penetrated into the pits caused the corpses to swell and the layer of earth would split. Franz Stangl, who visited Belzec on April of 1942 described:

"...the pits had overflowed... the corpses had rolled down the hill. I saw some of them - oh God, it was awful..."

Later on Wirth decided the three wooden gas chambers would not be enough. He had them torn down and erected a bigger more solid building. It housed six gas chambers. Karl Schluch described the inside of the gas chambers:

"...They had a friendly, bright appearance. Whether the color was yellow or gray, I don't remember... In any case, the floor and part of the walls were made so that cleaning would be easy..."

These new gas chambers could take in more than 2,000 people at a time, which was the capacity of a transport of about 20 freight cars.


_____The killing process in Sobibór was an improved version of the system in Belzec. As in Belzec, no more than 18 to 20 cars were taken into the camp at a time. The cars were opened by Ukrainians. The sick and old were told they would be taken to the Lazarett (infirmary). They were actually taken directly to the open pits and shot. If there was time, the Jews received numbers as receipts for the money and valuables they submitted, to make them believe they would actually return after the shower. Many times the whole process was accompanied by beatings and atrocities by the Germans and Ukrainians. For example: There was a dog named Barry who was trained to bite the Jews, especially when they were running naked to the gas chambers. This was all to make the Jews try and get out of their bad situation as fast as possible and to push their way through the "tube" into the supposed "showers." Sometimes the SS men gave "special treatment" in retaliation to the victims for a variety of reason. For example: On June 10, 1942, 200 Jews were selected for the "treatment." They were forced to take luggage from camp II to a train. A corridor was formed around them. They were whipped, clubbed and bitten by the dog as they ran with their luggage. Then they were gassed. For many months the extermination machine of Sobibór operated very smoothly.


_____In Treblinka the trains were again divide into 3 parts, taking about 20 cars in at a time. The arrival of the first deportation transport from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka is described by Franciszek Zabecki, a pole:

"...A smaller engine was already at the station, waiting to bring a section of the freight cars into the camp. Everything was planned and prepared in advance. The train was made up of 60 closed cars, crowded with people... The car doors were locked from the outside and the air apertures barred with barbed wire... It was hot, and most of the people in the freight cars were in a faint... As the train approached, an evil spirit seemed to take hold of the SS men who were waiting. They drew their pistols, returning them to their holsters, and whipped them out again, as if they wanted to shoot and kill."

As the train approached the camp, the engine car blew a whistle to signal the approach. This was the signal for the Ukrainians to take their guard positions around the reception area and on the roofs of the building overlooking it. The victims were moved to a fenced-in square in the camp and separated: men, women and children. There was a large sign there written in Polish and German:

Jews of Warsaw, Attention! You are in a transit camp, from which you will be sent to a labor camp. In order to avoid epidemics, you must present your clothing and belongings for immediate disinfection. Gold, money, foreign currency, and jewelry should be deposited with the cashiers in return for a receipt. They will be returned to you later when you present the receipt. Bodily cleanliness requires that everyone bathe before continuing the journey.

This whole process was very convincing. After the murder of the Jews for that day was done, the men who were selected for the various jobs were rounded up and killed. Many times the freight cars that arrived were full of half-dead people. Abraham Goldfarb recalls:

"The cars were full of corpses. The bodies had been partially consumed by chlorine. The stench from the cars caused those still alive to choke. The Germans ordered everyone to disembark from the cars; those who could were half dead..."

Abraham Kszepicki gave a detailed description of what happened in the Transport Square:

The square where we sat was guarded on all sides... another SS man demanded 60 men (for work); I was among that group... we were confronted by a staggering sight: a huge number of corpses, lying one next to the other. I estimate there was 20,000 corpses there... most of whom had suffocated in the freight cars. Their mouths remained open, as if they were grasping for another breath of air... a group of laborers were pouring chlorine on the corpses... Often we heard pistols shooting and bullets whistling. We didn't hear the screams of those shot; the Germans fired at the nape of the neck, and the victim never even moaned... At night, another transport arrived at the camp. We ran toward the cars. I was shocked. All the cars were filled only with the dead - asphyxiated. They were lying on top of one another in layers, up to the ceiling of the freight car... Occasionally, moans could be heard from the piles of clothes as people recovered consciousness and asked in a weak voice for water... Among those living I found a baby, a year or a year and a half old, who had woken and was crying loudly. I left him by the side. In the morning he was dead."

Those that were alive would be taken through the "tube" to the gas chambers. Abraham Goldfarb described what happened to those who passed through:

"On the way to the gas chambers, on both sides of the fence, stood Germans with dogs... The Germans beat the people with whips and iron bar so they would run and push to get into the showers quickly... The Germans urged the running of the victims on with yells of Faster, faster, the water's getting cold, and others have to use the showers, too."

The entrance to the gas chamber had two more Ukrainians, one armed with an iron bar and the other with a sword. They also urged people on with blows. They fit around 200 to 250 people in a chamber of 16 square meters. After 20 to 25 minutes of gassing, someone would peep through the window on the door to check if all were dead. The victims were usually all standing. They fell like a single block of flesh because of the crowding and the way they grabbed each other. To drown out the screams the SS had an orchestra playing at the camp. Even with the relative efficiency of Treblinka it wasn't enough. Improvements still had to be made. More killing had to be done.

_____Treblinka underwent construction of a new gas chamber. The new gassing rooms were two meters tall, which was 60 cm lower than the old ones. There were instances in the old chambers where little children had not been asphyxiated because the gas rose to the ceiling. Another extermination facility was the Lazarett. These were huge pits at the camp's southern fence. The dead from the train or those shot were put there. The prisoners who worked the camp were shot there also after a day or two of work. This place was also used to execute those who couldn't make it to the showers.



_____The Auschwitz complex used old forms of torture and punishment from other camps as well as other forms. 25 lashes was the punishment for a minor penalty. One guard invented the infamous necktie torture. He ordered the victim on his back. A bar would be placed over the victim's throat and he would stand on the bar with both feet on the ends. Auschwitz also had a starvation cell. The prisoner thrown in one recalled smelling the decaying corpses. After getting used to the dark he noticed a corpse in the corner with its intestines pulled out. Next to the corpse was another dead prisoner holding the liver of his dead companion. He died from eating the liver. Other torture methods the SS did involved extracting nails from fingers, inserting needles into sensitive parts of the body and into women's breasts. They also poured water down throats with a funnel. Auschwitz also had the famous torture called the "Boger swing." The SS had a victim sit on the floor. They tied his hands and pulled them over his raised knees. A heavy rod was pushed between his bent legs and knees and was rested on two tables. The victim now hung with his head above the ground, swinging back and forth, receiving a blow on his buttocks and genitals each swing. Sometimes the victim would be hit so violently he would almost make a complete somersault. If he yelled too vigorously the guards put a gas mask over him. After 15 minutes blood drenched his trousers and he went into unconsciousness. His backside would be so bloody that no further beatings could increase the pain. After reviving him the Gestapo went to the next step, which was dripping hot water into his nose. This resulted in a unbearable, burning pain. These are just some of the utmost cruel torture methods applied at Auschwitz.

_____A new gas was experimented on at Auschwitz. They started using Cyclone B (hydrogen cyanide) gas. The first attempts using this gas were in the summer of 1941. 850 people were put in the cellar of an Auschwitz block. Cyclone B was poured on the floor. A witness at a Auschwitz trial described:

"I saw people clutching hair in their fist which they had torn from their own heads or those of other. I saw people locked in a tight embrace. I saw fingers that had been bitten through..."

In Cellar 1, also called the "Red Cottage", SS brought Jews in trucks, made them undress and brought them to the gas chambers. The deaths did not come easy for the people.

"It was a ghastly sight. Naked women and children were convulsed in the most horrible attitude, their skin lacerated, their fists clenched and their limbs bleeding from biting each other in their pain. The victims died standing up, for they were so wedged together they could not fall."

The inauguration day for the Auschwitz extermination plants was in March of 1943. The most advanced design in the world consisted of two large crematoria/gas chambers and two smaller ones. Everyday trains would come now. The system was pretty much the same as the other death camps. The victims would be separated and told that they were taking a disinfection bath. They were brought to a dressing room with numbered clothing pegs. They were told to undress and to remember their numbers. Sometimes they even got towels. The SS drove the victims through the corridor to the heated gas chamber. The heating was not for the comfort of the prisoners but for better evaporation of the Cyclone B gas. They could pack as much as 2000 victims into the room. The doors would be closed and the gas would be pumped in. The Cyclone B gas causes death by internal suffocation. It causes instant death in sufficient quantities. The SS didn't bother to calculate death time so they watched through a peephole. When the doors were opened the victims were found in a half sitting position. Most of them were pink, some covered with green spots, some had foam on the lips, others with bleeding at the nose, and many with their eyes open. More than one million were murdered this way at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

_____Cruelty, hatred and heartlessness. Nothing else explains it. The victims of the Holocaust went through so much suffering. No human being deserves this kind of treatment. It shows what hatred can bring out in people. To devise the killing centers of Chelmno, Operation Reinhard, and Auschwitz, takes a certain mindset. These killing machines were so efficient that for a while, no one had any idea of the awful truth behind it. Nothing can be done to alleviate the suffering the victims of the Holocaust went through now. All we can do is remember.

Copyright TED IP 3/4/00