The Gas Chambers Within the Bounds of Auschwitz (Fall 2012)
“Clean is Good”,” Lice can kill”, “Wash Yourself”, “To the disinfection area” (Auschwitz Concentration Camp). Filip Muller vividly described the horrid scene of an Auschwitz gassing for the Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. He said that those phrases were translated into many different languages and they posted them on the insides of the chambers in the undressing area to lure people into the gassing room. In many cases prisoners who were killed with the gas were originally told that they were going to take showers within the building. Against Muller’s will he was a member of one of the death camp prisoner groups, Sonderkommando, at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Sonderkommando groups were composed of mostly all Jewish people. They were forced to assist with the disposal of gas chamber victims. People within the camps who were assigned to this job could not oppose it because they were doing it on their own death threats (Sonderkommando).
The time between 1930 and 1940 proved to be an extremely difficult time in Germany. This time was a time of devastation. Millions of innocent lives were lost. One-third of the world’s Jewish population was wiped out. 1.5 million children were killed. Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 as the chancellor (Introduction to the Holocaust). The Holocaust was a result of his power in the politics and government of Germany. In many cases he was viewed as a mastermind to the German population. Some scholars believe that he brainwashed his followers into thinking that Jewish people were inhumane. Gypsies and the disabled were also dampers on society. Therefore, he wanted to get rid of all the “problems” and create what he thought was a perfect society. Hitler created a massacring plan called the “Final Solution” in his attempt to better Germany. The Final Solution was to eliminate the Jewish culture, which Hitler referred to as a race (Final Solution). Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D were mobile Nazi groups sent out by Hitler to murder Jewish people. These units were instructed to gather Jews, strip them of their clothing, line them up and then open fire on them. After they were all dead they were told to push them into the ditches they previously dug. In the mean time, “the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies” (The Holocaust).
By 1942 the Nazis had established six death camps in Poland, one of them being Auschwitz. All of the camps were built alongside railroads so Jews could be easily transported there daily (Introduction to the Holocaust). The amount of power and control that Hitler had was unbelievable. For about ten years Germany witnessed and heard horror stories of brutal treatment and cruel massacres. One of the most common ways of extermination was with the famous gas chambers of the Auschwitz death camp.
Within the walls of Auschwitz there were five or more buildings where the gas executions occurred. The official names of these buildings were the Crematoriums. There was Crematorium I, II, III, IV, and V. One of the Crematoriums was referred to as the "Red House because of its red, unplastered walls, was located at the north border of the Birkenau camp” (The Seven Gas Chambers). Sketches of the Crematorium show that there was not much in the building besides the changing room for the victims and the small chambers where they were killed. Surrounding the building, on the edges of camp, were wire fences to make escaping nearly impossible (The Stammlager). Not many people successfully snuck out, “only five people are known to have succeeded to escape from Auschwitz” (Katz).
Virtually all ages were represented at the death camps. Families were snatched from their homes and thrown into trucks to take them to camps. The elderly, young children, infants and pregnant mothers were all among the innocent people who were captured (Auschwitz Concentration Camp). In some cases the trucks that transported prisoners to the camps were gas trucks. Whoever was placed into the gas trucks were killed before they even reached the concentration camp. Masterminds of the Holocaust insisted that this gassing technique was less costly (Gassing Operations). Fifteen year old, Janda Weiss illustrated her experience at Auschwitz. When she arrived she was fourteen years old. She had vivid memories of the time she spent at the concentration camp. Some of the most disturbing recollections she had were those of the gas chamber deaths. In The Buchenwald Report Janda revealed her story, “In front of the gas chamber was a dressing room. On its walls was written in all languages: "Put shoes into the cubbyholes and tie them together so you will not lose them. After the showers you will receive hot coffee." Here the poor victims undressed themselves and went into the chamber. There were three columns for the ventilators, through which the gas poured in. A special work detail with truncheons drove the people into the chamber. When the room was full, small children were thrown in through a window. Moll grabbed infants by their little legs and smashed their skulls against the wall. Then the gas was let into the chamber. The lungs of the victims slowly burst, and after three minutes a loud clamoring could be heard. Then the chamber was opened, and those who still showed signs of life were beaten to death” (Hackett). It was extremely common for young people like Janda to witness scenes similar to this every day. Children who were aware of what was going on inside the “showers” were frightened. They constantly anticipated the day when they would be forced to undress and walk into the gas chambers. Unfortunately, they knew they could not do anything to prevent it for happening they simply had to wait.
At the beginning of the Holocaust there were no ventilation systems in the gas chambers. Therefore the killings took much longer. Gassing occurred over night for hours and hours. Sometimes even when the guards would open up the chamber doors and people would still be alive and gasping for air (Auschwitz Concentration Camp). In that case they would lock the doors once again and start the process over. In their eyes they were wasting valuable time and they were loosing money by needing to gas people twice. The Nazi’s began to rethink their ways of execution.
Research was done and the Nazi’s looked into other gassing techniques. In the end they thought their best option was to switch the kind of gas they used. According to The Nizkor Project’s article, Zyklon B, “zyklon-B is a powerful insecticide which serves as a carrier for the gas Hydrocyanic acid, or HCN. It usually comes in the shape of small pellets or disks. While interacting with iron and concrete, it creates Hydrocyanic compounds” (Zyklon B). This gas they chose to use was extremely poisonous to humans. When the Nazi’s began to use Zyklon B they realized how powerful it truly was. They started packing people into the chambers more tightly to exterminate them in a faster manner. Prisoners were filled into the chambers and they were told to put their hands above their heads. The more people that were packed into the chambers the more quickly they suffocated (Gassing Operations). As said by, Hans Stark who handled new prisoners coming into Auschwitz, “during a gassing Zyklon B had to be poured through both openings of the gas-chamber room at the same time. This gassing was also a transport of 200-250 Jews, once again men, women and children. As the Zyklon B -- as already mentioned -- was in granular form, it trickled down over the people as it was being poured in” (Zyklon B). More victims were being crammed into gassing rooms, victims were still being brought by the thousands to the concentration camps, and the methods in which the Nazi’s executed victims was becoming more efficient. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “at the height of the deportations, up to 6,000 Jews were gassed each day at Auschwitz” (Gassing Operations).
If the numbers the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimate are in fact true, one may wonder how the Nazi’s covered up the evidence of millions of people’s deaths. If 6,000 people were gassed every day plus the deaths of other causes such as starvation, illness, and old age where did their bodies all go? Of the major Crematoriums that were used, Crematoriums I, II, III, IV, and V, all of them had gassing rooms as well as furnaces for burning the bodies. As found by the Jewish Virtual Library, the first Crematorium could burn 340 corpses in twenty-four hours using three furnaces. In twenty-four hours, Crematoriums II and III could rid of 1,440 bodies each, and Crematoriums IV and V could each burn 768 bodies. “According to the testimony of former prisoners, the figure was higher” (Crematoria and Gas Chambers). Survivor of Auschwitz and survivor of a death march, Eliezer Hauser Shimoni shared his experiences with About.com’s Religion and Spirituality section. As summarized by About.com, “1.5 million people were slaughtered in Auschwitz. What to do with the 1.5 million dead bodies? The Nazis burned the bodies in ovens. Jewish prisoners were forced to work in the crematoria. To cover up the workings of the crematoria, the Nazis would kill the Jews who worked in the crematoria workers every few months. One of Eliezer's brothers, Yehuda, was forced to work in the crematoria and then murdered. According to Eliezer, the smell of burning bodies from the crematoria was constantly in the air” (Katz).
The majority of people involved in the Holocaust were not as fortunate to have lived through it as Eliezer Hauser Shimoni did. As the Holocaust came to an end it was estimated that about 6 million Jewish people were killed. One million Jewish children, two million Jewish women, and three million Jewish men were victims. In order to have an even more accurate death toll the total of Jewish lives lost was to be added to the group of other victims such as gypsies and the disabled. The final death toll count, including all groups has been estimated at 7 million (Introduction to the Holocaust). As previously mentioned, the creation of gas chambers sped up the process of exterminating Jews in hopes of completing the Final Solution. Throughout the first few years when gas chambers were starting to be used developers were continually trying to improve the chamber’s methods to make the procedure even more efficient. In the end, the development of the Crematoriums in Auschwitz led to millions of deaths. Nazi’s tried their best to cover up the evidence of the Holocaust by burning bodies in furnaces, however, the stories of those who survived carry the truth about what happened. Eliezer Hauser Shimoni could not have said it better, according to Katz, “memories of the horrors he experienced and witnessed in the Holocaust have haunted Eliezer throughout his life. He prays never again" (Katz).
- “Auschwitz Concentration Camp, The Gas Chambers & Crematoria, Mass Extermination.” Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. Holocaust Research Project, 2007. Web. 2 December. 2012.
- “Crematoria and Gas Chambers.” Jewish Virtual Library. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2012. Web. 4 December. 2012.
- “Final Solution: Overview.” Holocaust Encylopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2012. Web. 7 December. 2012.
- “Gassing Operations.” Holocaust Encylopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2012. Web. 4 December. 2012.
- Hackett, David. “Experiences of a Fifteen year old in Birkenau.” The Buchenwald Report. The International Campaign for Real History, 2003. Web. 7 December. 2012.
- “Introduction to the Holocaust.” Holocaust Encylopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2012. Web. 4 December. 2012.
- Katz, Lisa. “Tour Auschwitz with Survivor Eliezer Hauser Shimoni.” Religion & Spirituality-Judaism. About.com, 2012. Web. 7 December. 2012.
- “Sonderkommando.” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 19 November 2012. Web. 7 December. 2012.
- “The Holocaust: An Introductory History.” Jewish Virtual Library. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2012. Web. 4 December. 2012.
- “The Seven Gas Chambers at Auschwitz.” Aktion Reinhard Camps. ARC, 2006. Web. 2 December. 2012.
- “The Stammlager Delousing Installations.” Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers. The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 2005. Web. 7 December. 2012.
- “Zyklon B.” The Nizkor Project, 2012. Web. 8 December. 2012.