Death by Gas

Gas Vans, Gas Chambers, and Crematoriums

The Holocaust

The Nazi's systematic murdering of people through ways of gas first rose in January of 1940. It was introduced as "Euthanasia" : the extermination of "lives not worthy to live" of the handicapped, mental patients, and the terminally ill. In fall 1941, the use of gases was continued to a much larger extent. In the eastern seized areas the security, police, and SD (Sicherheitsdienst) used gas vans during the pogroms (10).

Beginning in December 1941, the concentration camp named Kulmhof, stationary gas chambers were being used to kill of Jews. In 1942 other camps began building in their own gas chambers, or even buildings that already existed were being restructured (11). Soon after gassing became popular, extermination camps arose where mass murdering of Jews would take place instead of the smaller scaled gassing done at concentration camps (12).

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Gas Vans

The simplicity of using gas to kill was one of the most searched for attributes. Gas vans were developed and supplied to the Einsatzgruppen. The idea of the vans originated from SS brigadefuhrer Artur Nebe (commander of Einstzgruppe B), who had carried out large scale shootings of Jews, communists, and other "asocial elements" in Belorussia. Nebe was a former member of the Reich's Criminal Police Department and was familiar with the euthanasia program and killing by gas (13).

Experiments with the poisonous gases were done. A room with twenty to thirty insane people were closed into a room and two pipes were driven into the walls. A car had been parked outside, and on of the metal pipes was connected to the exhaust of the car. The car engine turned on and carbon monoxide seeped into the room. After a duration of eight minutes the people were still alive. Next a second car was connected to the other pipe, and the cars were started simultaneously. A few minutes later the people in the room were dead (14).

After experimentation was done Nebe had an idea to construct a car with a hermetically sealed cabin for killing purposes. The carbon monoxide gas from the car's exhaust would channel into the sealed cabin. His idea was further adopted. The Technical Department of the Reich Security Main Office developed a special vehicle for killing purposes. It resembled an ambulance or refrigerator truck. Victims were sealed into the cabin and carbon monoxide passed into that area. The process as a whole took fifteen to thirty minutes, while the vehicle was driven from the loading site to prepared graves.

There were two types of vans built: one larger, 5.8 meters in length, and one smaller, measuring 4.5 meters. Both vans were about 2.5 meters wide and 1.7 meters high. The larger one could accommodate between 130 and 150 people and the smaller one between 80 and 100 (15).

Gas Chambers

Stationary gas chambers were quickly developed after the making of gas vans. The camps to see them first were Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, all of which were in Poland. Victims were unloaded from cattle cars and told that they had to be disinfected in the "showers". They tried to get as many people to fit in the chambers at once by beating the victims and making them raise their arms for space. The tighter the chamber was packed with humans the faster they would die (16).

It was always a constant battle trying to kill in the most efficient way. At the Auschwitz camp in Poland, experiments were done with Zyklon B, which converted to lethal gas when exposed to air. They proved this to be the quickest method and were soon mass murdering at Auschwitz (17). The maximum killings done was up to 6,000 Jews being gassed each day (18). Zyklon B became the commonly used gas in the chambers (19).


Crematoriums were common places in concentration and extermination camps. They could be distinguished at a camp by their smoke stacks. Many of the "stronger" prisoners in the camps were work in the crematoriums (20) . The crematoriums were known to be the most horrible places on the camps.

When first arriving at the camps people would be forced to throw away their luggage. Men and women were then divided into two groups. Officers would drive by in cars seeking out the strongest from each transport of about 2,000. It usually only averaged out at about 30 per transport. The remainder of the people were led out by the officer of the crematorium. The elderly folks were loaded onto dump trucks and then dumped into burning trenches while still being alive. The others were led into gas chambers, all while another transport arrived (21).

Another way the crematorium was put in action was after the gas chambers. Officers would pull all of the naked bodies out of the chamber. They would proceed to take off their rings and cut off all their hair. They would generally arrange the corpses in piles of ten. After being counted they were taken to the ovens, or if the crematoriums were insufficient they were thrown into the burning trenches.

" Once it happened that a victim crawled out of a burning trench. He was beaten to death with truncheons." -Survivor working in crematorium

"Thousands of women with shaved heads asked about their children and husband. I lied to thousands of women, telling them that their loved ones were still alive, even though I knew very well that they were all dead." -Survivor working in crematorium (22/8)