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
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
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)
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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
The Pictorial History of the Holocaust. Ed. by
Yitzhak Arad. Macmillan Publishing
Berenbaum and Gutman. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death
Camp. Indiana University Press. Indiana. 1994