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Christopher Li

Process of Extermination

Auschwitz was a death factory. It holds its mythical place in history as a center for mass murder. At this point in history, as the First World War showed, there was no theoretical limit to warfare. Total war was a terrible reality. The Nazis transcended this idea to genocide. There is a theoretical limit to genocide though: the complete annihilation of the race being annihilated. Genocide experienced leaps of advancement with Auschwitz. 
 The pragmatic objectives of the camp were carried out to their utmost boundaries and limitations, killing nearly 1.35 million Jews in roughly four years by way of starvation, gas, shooting, torture, medical experimentation, and slave-labor. 1.35 million deaths tallies almost one quarter of all those killed in the Holocaust. (Berenbaum 72) 
Cruelty and brutality were frightening realities and sympathy was nonexistent. Suicide became an inviting option to ponder as pain and fatigue seemed to be the only absolutions other than death. It is difficult to study this without wondering how those whom supervised it rarely sympathized upon contemplating what was being done. Anti-Semitism, fear of being branded traitors or weak-hearted, and Hitler's "final solution"1 blinded them. Hitler's Nazis were the largest cult following in history. Killing Jews was the fulfillment of their responsibility as a member of that cult. A million dead was to them, as it was to Stalin, a mere statistic. 
 The process of extermination consisted of two stages: gassing and cremation. Both evolved to function as efficiently as possible. 

The Gas Chambers 

      The gas chambers were sites of systematic and unceasing murder of Jews who were brought in mass transports from various German-occupied European countries. Once there, the process called "selections," some of the more healthy-looking men and women were picked for work in the camp. In some cases, all were taken to the crematoria where they were told that the healthy would go to work and the sick, women, and children would remain in the barracks and go to first take a bath. The majority of the prisoners, including all the elderly, the children, and many women were consigned for immediate extermination. 
      The victims were told before taking up residence that they would undergo a "disinfection" consisting of a bath and delousing. They were told to undress and under beatings and the pursuit of attack dogs forced into what they believed to be shower rooms. 
 The first gas chambers were in bunkers underground. The most utilized chambers were eventually constructed in the crematoriums. 
      Once full, the chambers were sealed shut and Zyklon B gas was released through the fake shower heads. All were dead within only several minutes after the induction of the gas. Rudolf Hoss, commandant of the camp, personally observed the killing and described the process: 

"It could be observed that those who were closest to the induction vents were killed at once. It can be said that about one-third died straightaway. The remainder staggered about and began to scream and struggle for air. The screaming, however, soon changed to the death rattle and in a few minutes all lay still." (Berenbaum 170) 

"Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard and it was clear that they fought for their lives"
(Berenbaum 163). 

The time required for the gas to diffuse inside the chamber depended on various factors that might have affected the evaporation of the gas: temperature, humidity, the congestion of people inside the chamber, etc. It was usually opened about there minutes after the gas was administered to be sure that there were no survivors. Ventilation was turned on and Sonderkommando5 prisoners were allowed to start moving the bodies to the mass graves and cremation. 

The Sonderkommando prisoners worked in several teams. The first group was in charge of removing the bodies from the gas chambers. They wore gas masks so that unventilated gas would not harm them. Before they transported the corpses with trolleys to deep pits, gold teeth and ant other precious metals or jewelry were removed from the bodies. If in the course of the sporadic inspections it was established that not all gold had been extracted, the Sonderkommando prisoner responsible was punished by being thrown alive into the cremation furnace. Once the bodies reached the graves, they were stacked and layered to await incineration. Since the entire area was floodlit, the work could be carried out day and night. Each time the chambers were emptied, Sonderkommando prisoners whitewashed the walls and washed the floors. 
The Germans tried to keep the potential victims from suspecting what was to happen to them. To further convince them that they were to bathe, SS guards reminded victims to remember where they had placed their belongings so that they could reclaim them after the showers (Berenbaum 162). This was done to prevent revolt and the divulging of the Nazi crimes. Mass graves were camouflaged and isolated from the view of those still alive. Unless they were told by a Sonderkommando prisoner or an SS guard, they knew nothing of what was in store for them. (Berenbaum 166, 171) 

Cremation of the corpses was either done inside the crematoriums with furnaces or outside in the mass graves. Depending on its capacity,  it took a few hours to empty the gas chamber. Initially the corpses were taken to the crematorium storage rooms where executions also took place. Once filled, the rest of the bodies were taken outside where they would be incinerated using gasoline or any other flammable substances available. 
Victims were told to undress before "bathing" because a naked corpse would completely incinerate more quickly than one that was wearing clothes. Undressing the dead would delay the process and yield lesser efficiency; less corpses would be destroyed in the same time interval; the Germans attempted to be as efficient and practical as possible. 

The incinerators were specifically constructed to turn human remains into ashes. Bodies were placed on a stretcher and slid into the furnace onto a grill. Most furnaces had the capacity of incinerating three corpses in 20 minutes. This process was actually accelerated to cremate four to five corpses in 25 to 30 minutes. The remains of corpses would fall through the grill into the ash pit. The ashes would be emptied into pits outside the crematorium, disposed of in nearby ponds or rivers, used to prepare compost, or used to fertilize the fields of the camp farms. Human ashes were used as plant food. With unimpeded operation, the furnaces were able to cremate a combined approximation of five thousand corpses daily (Berenbaum 166). 
The acceleration of the cremation process caused the breakdown of the furnaces, ventilators, and chimneys. In this case, corpses were taken to the nearest crematoriums and/or incinerated outside in pits.

Overloading of the furnaces caused the camp authorities to improvise and burn corpses outdoors. This was done at the same rate as the collective use of all the furnaces: about five thousand in 24 hours per pit. Therefore the combined capacity of all the incineration installations reached a staggering number of 20,000 victims by the summer of 1944. (Berenbaum 173-174) 
Hitler's use of the German word die Vernichtung, in a speech to the Reichstag in 1939, is exemplified in the process of cremation. Die Vernichtung literally means "the making of something not," as if to totally remove something from existence as if it had never existed. Hitler wished to remove the Jews from history; "to make them not" was his ultimate goal. Incinerating them by the millions fulfilled his maniacal wishes. Cremation turned victims into ashes that were disposed of like unwanted garbage. 
Hiding the Crimes 

In light of Germany's deteriorating situation on the war fronts, Heinrich Himmler6 ordered the discontinuation of the gassing of prisoners. On November 25, 1944, Himmler ordered the demolition of the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria. The same day, the dismantling began. 
Prisoners were put to work to take apart the installations. Openings were made for dynamite charges to blow up the entire structure. The last crematorium was blown up a day before the liberation of the camp. Some were to remove the ashes from the incineration pits and cover them with turf. 
The Nazis were only partially successful in obliterating the traces of their crimes. They had no time to remove the ruins of the dynamited compounds. The underground "undressing rooms" and gas chambers of two crematoria remained relatively intact.

The Number of Victims 

The number of victims killed at Auschwitz has been debated for many years. Documents discovered by the Soviets when the camp was liberated confirmed only 100,000 deaths. This unreliable figure was inflated to four million by testimonies and studies concerning the capability of the machines of mass murder. This number was also unreliable. 
In the 1990s, it is estimated that at Auschwitz alone, there were 1.35 million Jewish victims and a total of 1.5 million Auschwitz victims. This is a staggering number since roughly 6 million died in the Holocaust. (Berenbaum 61, 72) 


1 Hitler's "Final Solution" ordered the extermination of all Jewry by way   of gassing and cremation. 
3 "delousing" meant that the victims would have all their hair shaved off. 
4 Zyklon B was a pesticide used to fumigate that came in pellets. The gas that emanated from the evaporation of these pellets was terribly lethal. 
5 Prisoners that were mostly not Jewish. Many of them were POWs 
6 Himmler controlled the camps. He was the architect and executor of the "Final Solution." 

Works Cited 

The Pictorial History of the Holocaust. Ed. by Yitzhak Arad. Macmillan  Publishing              Company. NY. 1990. 

Berenbaum and Gutman. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana    University Press. Indiana. 1994 


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