With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the systematic mass murder of the Jews began. It became clear after a short time that the methods used, primarily shooting the Jewish populace where they lived, were not adequate to deal with the millions of anticipated victims. Concerns for secrecy and for speeding up the process forced SS authorities to develop a different and more efficient murder technique.
The method decided upon was gassing. The Nazis had already gained much experience in this area with their work on the euthanasia program. Thousands of the mentally and chronically ill had been gassed at institutions around Germany in "Operation T4," started in 1939, and codenamed after the address in Berlin-Tiergartenstrasse 4-where the Euthanasia Program, under the aegis of the Reich Chancellery, had its headquarters. Now these methods and technologies would be expanded to a network of specially constructed camps (Vernichtungslager) where mass murder would be honed to a fine edge.
The killing would be carried out at six isolated sites in Poland, in the very heart of Jewish Europe, all accessible by rail. Victims from throughout occupied Europe were brought to these killing centers. The first to open was Chelmno, in the Lodz district, in December 1941. Here, victims met their deaths in the back of gas vans, whose exhaust pipes had been altered to assure that fumes were directed into the rear of the vehicle. By the time the van had reached the site of the mass grave a hundred or more people had choked to death.
To kill the Jews in the Lublin and Lwow areas of eastern Poland, Belzec was established in March 1942. Sobibor was operational in May. It was the final destination for Jews from many districts in Poland, including many foreign Jews. Just northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka was opened in July. The killing at these three sites was more sophisticated than at Chelmno. These camps used carbon monoxide gas generated by a gasoline or diesel engine to dispatch victims who had been forced into specially constructed, hermetically sealed buildings.
Victims from twenty-eight countries and belonging to fifty-four different nationalities, passed through Majdanek, near Lublin. Here, mass shootings as well as the use of carbon monoxide and Zyklon B gas were used in the extermination process. The most infamous of all the camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau, not far from Krakow.
Begun in 1940 as a concentration camp for Poles and Soviet POWs, by March 1942 Auschwitz-Birkenau was functioning as an extermination center. More than two million people were murdered there, including Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war. With an efficiency the Germans prided themselves on, Zyklon B gas (prussic acid) in crystal form was used in the gas chambers. Although estimates vary, Rudolf Hoess, camp commander from 1940-43, claimed that during a 24 hour period the highest number of people gassed and cremated was 9,000. The simple fact was that the gas chambers could kill at a far faster rate than the ovens of the crematoriums could dispose of the human evidence. The Nazis were therefore forced to burn many of the bodies in open pits.
The extermination camps were under the jurisdiction and administration of the SS who wove an elaborate system of diversion and deception about them. Those being deported were told they were being sent to labor camps in the east and that once there they would be reunited with their families. By building the camps in isolated areas, the Nazis tried to conceal their dirty work as best they could. Even if spotted, they had the appearance of an ordinary concentration camp, and Europe was full of those. No doubt the cruelest of deceptions were the showers, or what the German called "disinfection baths," into which were led victims, for the most part unsuspecting, who carefully folded their clothes and marked the places where they had left them so they could be quickly retrieved after their "shower." Fifteen to thirty minutes later, they were dead.
Special detachments of prisoners (Sonderkommando), mostly Jews, were selected to perform the manual labor of the camp, which included herding the victims into the gas chambers and helping them undress. They removed the corpses and extracted gold teeth before taking the bodies to be cremated. They also sorted through the possessions of the dead which were shipped back to Germany. Human hair was used for mattresses on submarines. The clothes and children's toys were distributed in Germany.
Medical experimentation was carried out in several of the camps, with inmates serving as human guinea pigs. Dr. Mengele, the "Angel of Death," concentrated his "work" on twins and dwarfs. He actually drove children in his Mercedes to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Prisoners were injected with viruses to test new drugs, and sterilization experiments, especially on women, were common.
Perhaps as many as 3.5 million Jews died in Hitler's extermination camps. This was despite the fact that attempts at secrecy and deception failed. Even though word had leaked out, and Allied planes flew above Auschwitz as early as spring of 1944, the gas chambers and crematoria below functioned at full capacity.
Feig, Konnilyn G. Hitler's Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981.
Kogon, Eugen. The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Inc., 1950.
Title: Hitler's Death Camps
Goal: Students will become aware of the extent and functioning of the Nazi extermination camp system. They will come to an appreciation of the widespread policy of brutality and exploitation directed against the Jews of Europe.
Objectives: Upon completion of this unit of study the students will be able to do the following:
1.Estimate who must have had knowledge of, and have been involved with, the extermination camp system in order to make it successful.
2.Estimate any adverse effects operating the concentration camp system may have had on the German war effort.
3.Analyze the list of items plundered by the Nazis from death camp inmates and assess the need for a program of sale and/or redistribution.
Procedure: Students will be working with two different handouts, which should be distributed separately. The first is an abridged copy of General Pohl's report of 1943 to Heinrich Himmler concerning the nature and amounts of valuables confiscated from deportees to Majdanek and Auschwitz. Have students work on this report independently. The second is a short historical narrative that expounds on the facts and fills in the gaps. It is an attempt to add the human dimension, and to color in some of the "faces" behind the cold reality of Pohl's figures. Groups work in this case is suggested.
Upon completion of the assignment, students/groups will report their findings to the entire class. At that time a teacher-led discussion could focus on the following points:
2.Shipped to Germans living outside the Reich
Men's clothing:Children's clothing:
Coats 99,000 pcsCoats 15,000 pcs
Shirts 132,000 "Shirts 3,000 "
Pants 62,000 "Dresses 9,000 "
Sweaters 9,000 "Sweaters 1,000 "
Shoes 31,000 pairsShoes 22,000 pairs
Women's clothing:Linen, etc.
Coats 155,000 pcsSheets 46,000 pcs
Dresses 119,000 "Towels 100,000 "
Shirts 125,000 "Table cloths 11,000"
Shoes 111,000 pairsHats 9,000 "
TOTAL: 211 railway cars
Read through the report carefully and answer the questions below.
1. For what purposes might these items have been collected? Take part in a brainstorming session with your class.
2. Close to 800 railway cars were needed to transport these items. What questions does this raise for you? How might it have affected the war effort? Explain your answer.
3. Is there a particular item on the list that brings home the true horror of the Holocaust? Is there an item that truly personalizes this terrible period of history for you? Discuss.
2. Hitler's Death Camps:
You have already read and discussed Gen. Pohl's report from 1943. Below are some additional facts relating to the plundering of inmates' possessions and their eventual disposition that should assist you in your understanding of this aspect of the Holocaust.
Read through this material and answer the questions below.
Jews to be "resettled" in the east had to obey strict instructions about what they could take with them. They could only take prescribed articles, e.g., clothes, blankets, kitchen utensils. It all had to fit in a single suitcase and weigh no more than 50 kg. (110 lbs.).
Upon arrival at one of the camps, the luggage, that had been so painstakingly packed, was taken from them. At Auschwitz, it was stored in a series of warehouses known as "Canada." Here, inmates, mostly Jewish women, sorted the contents. Any money, jewelry, precious stones, pearls, or the like were sent directly to the German Reich Bank. Watches, clocks, pencils, electric razors, scissors, flashlights, and wallets were distributed among the German front-line troops. Most of the clothing was earmarked for Germans who had been living outside the borders of Germany. These "racial Germans," who were being slowly resettled within the Reich, also received the bulk of any household items.
Deprived of their belongings and standing naked before the gas chambers, the deportees, unknowingly, still possessed value to their executioners. Women's hair, for example, could be sold for 50 pfennigs (50 cents) to Bavarian factories which processed it into felt, used it for mattresses on submarines, or wove it into slipper linings for these same crewmen. Gold teeth, bridges, and crowns were removed from the mouths of the corpses and melted down into molds for shipment to the German Reich Bank. At Auschwitz, as much as 5-10 kilos (12-25 lbs.) were produced a day. According to a report from Majdanek, the Nazis had calculated that by February of 1943, from this one camp alone, they had recovered over 100 million Reichsmarks in valuables.
1.The Germans, especially during the Second World War, were known for their thoroughness and attention to detail. Was this trait in evidence as the Nazis planned and carried out the destruction of European Jewry? If so, in what respects?
2.If you had been given 30 minutes to pack your belongings in a single suitcase, what item/s could you not leave behind? Why?
Paul Wieser is the Social Studies Coordinator for the Pendergast School District in Phoenix, Arizona. He taught social studies at the junior high school level for 16 years. He serves as chairman of the education committee for the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors' Association and is a member of the Anti-Defamation League's education committee in Arizona.