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Gas Chambers

A gas chamber is a room or structure used to suffocate people by using poison gas. The use of gas chambers to systematically exterminate a group of people was instituted by the Nazis during World War II. The Nazis used this method to kill millions of Jews and others. It was an expedient and callous means to destroy a people.

The Nazis began using gas chambers against the mentally ill, Jews, homosexual, gypsies, and physically disabled. Initially, they used mobile gas vans to kill, but this method was psychologically taxing on the guards who had to unload tens of hundreds of corpses. Also, the technical malfunctions frustrated the van's operators. As a result, the Nazis moved to the second stage of their diabolical plan. The first gas chamber was built in Chemlo, Poland, about fifty miles outside of Lodz. Three mobile gas trucks were used from December 1941 to January 1945, killing between 200,000 and 320,000 people.The introduction of gas chambers solved three problems for the Nazis. First, it allowed them to kill without expending ammunition, which was expensive. Furthermore, it allowed guards to kill without conscience, because they didn't have to kill at close range. Finally, murder in gas chambers took less time than shooting victims at point blank range. The introduction of gas chambers dehumanized the mass murder of millions for the Nazis.

Poison Gas

Carbon monoxide, an orderless, colorless gas, and hydrogen cyanide, were used to poison millions of camp prisoners. Carbon monoxide robs the victim's organs of oxygen, while hydrogen cyanide blocks the absorption of oxygen by the bodies tissues. In camps at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, carbon monoxide was used as the primary gas in the chambers. The SS were deceitful in luring victims to their deaths. The Jews were told that they were in route to labor camps and must be disinfected and bathe. The women and children were separated, undressed and forced into the showers. Those who inhaled either gas suffered tremendously. They were dead in 20-30 minutes. Majdanek camp was the only extermination camp to use carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas. It was reported that about 1,000 Jews a day were put to death. Carbon monoxide was pumped through storage containers while Zyklon B pellets were dropped through holes in the ceiling. This extermination camp consumed 7711 kilograms of Zyklon B gas. Auschwitz camp also used Zylkon B as their primary poison gas, because it was inexpensive and easy to deliver. Most importantly, it killed faster than carbon monoxide. The gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz were filled with victims. Over 1.25 million people were exterminated at Auschwitz, the vast majority were Jews.

The Gassing Begins

It is believed that on November 15, 1939, 1100 people were murdered in the first mass gassing at Owinski Psychiatric Hospital near Pazon. This was the beginning of what the Nazis called, " Operation Euthanasia". After receiving Hitler's approval, it was decided by the Commander, Phillip Bowler, that carbon monoxide would be used regularly to exterminate selected groups with close medical supervision. As a result of this decision, in 1940, tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in gas chambers. In the years that followed, millions more would die in gas chambers.

In 1941, this operation was expanded to the huge camps in Germany. The victims were the disabled, unfit for labor, Soviet prisoners of war, Jews and individuals of mixed heritage. In 1943, Himmler decreed that only the mentally ill would be exterminated, but doctors continued to gas individuals who belonged to the so-called "unfit" groups. The second phase of this " operation" began in 1944, when the order to resume killing prisoners was officially given. In this phase, victims were selected by medical staff instead of doctors. From 1940-1944, tens of thousands were taken from Sachenhausen, Auschwitz, and Mathausen and murdered in "centers" in Hartheim, Brandenberg, Bernburg, Grafeneck, Sonnenstein and Hadamar. The mass gassings continued at Hartheim until the facility was destroyed in December 1944. The specific number of victims murdered in "Operation Euthanasia" is not known, but it is believed to be somewhere between 71,088 to over 100,000.

Operation Reinhard, was the code name given to the Nazi's plan to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe. In 1942, gassing of Jews took place in three camps in Poland. The first was Belzec, where approximately 600,000 Jews were murdered. The next camp at Sobibor, about 100,000 Jews were gassed. The worst slaughter occurred in Treblinka, where over 870,000 people were sent to the gas chambers.

The End of Operations

Operation Euthanasia was terminated on September 1,1941, but the so-called euthanasia killings continued. The gas vans were not used after 1942, when gas chambers were used en mass. In 1944, at Chelmno, mass cremation and burial of corpses began. Many of these burial pits are still visible today. In a further effort to cover up evidence, the Germans dismantled the gas chambers of Sobibor and Treblinka. Yet, they were unable to work quickly enough to destroy all of the gas chambers at Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The remains of the gas chambers and crematoriums are visible, but in poor condition. These remnants serve as evidence of the atrocities that occurred in these death camps. Gas chambers were just one of the methods the Nazis used to exterminate 11 million people. Many of these structures may have been destroyed, but the mass murder committed in them will never be forgotten.

Grief, Gideon. "Gas Chambers." The Holocaust Encyclopedia. Ed.
Walter Laqueur. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001

Keren, Daniel, McCarthy, Jamie and Mazal, Harry W. "The Ruins of Gas Chambers: A Forensic Investigation
of Crematoriums at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau." Holocaust and Genocide Studies, V18 N1. Spring 2004.

Berger, Alan L. "Gas Chambers". Encyclopedia of Genocide Vol. I.
Ed. Israel W. Charny. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

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