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Andres Szmuelwicz

The Technology of Death

Background: As the war began in 1939, Hitler initiated an order to kill institutionalized, handicapped patients deemed incurable. Special commissions of physicians reviewed questionnaires filled out by all state hospitals and then decided if a patient should be killed. The doomed were then transferred to six institutions in Germany and Austria, where specially constructed gas chambers were used to kill them. After public protests in 1941, the Nazi leadership continued this euphemistically termed "euthanasia" program in secret. Babies, small children, and other victims were thereafter killed by lethal injection and by forced starvation. The "euthanasia" program contained all the elements later required for mass murder of European Jews and Gypsies in Nazi death camps: an articulated decision to annihilate, specially trained personnel, the apparatus for killing by gas, and the use of euphemistic language like "euthanasia" which psychologically distanced the murderers from their victims and hid the criminal character of the killings from the public.

Different Methods: It is important to understand the different methods used by the Nazis. The three main forms of killing were labor camps, death camps, and mass executions. Labor camps were simply large camps were prisoner, mainly Jews, were forced to work in sub-human conditions. Exhaustion, disease, and starvation were the killers, as the never-ending supply of workers allowed the captors to work the prisoners to death. Death camps are just that: camps of death. They simply receive prisoners and keep them only as long as it took to "process" them. Mass executions were mostly held by the killing squads that followed the German army into conquered territories. The main difference between mass executions and death camps is that they were not an institution, but rather an event; they did not require special equipment and locations, but rather were performed by the Einsatzgruppen as they moved through conquered lands.

Death Camps: Most death camps used gas chambers to exterminate their prisoners. The most common type at the beginning was the simple carbon-monoxide chamber which suffocated its victims. Later on, gas chambers began to use Zyklon B, a more efficient gas. Carbon-monoxide was created by diesel engines, either stationary ones or those in "special vans." Zyklon B was instead transported in canisters. The disposal of bodies quickly became a problem due to the sheer number present. Furnaces were used to burn the bodies, but these were quickly overwhelmed, so bodies were often burned in pits, or simply buried in mass graves as was more common for mass executions.

Selected Death Camps: Kulmhof i.e. Chelmno (in the then Wartheland), where between December 1941 and fall 1942 and again from May until August 1944 gassings by means of carbon monoxide from motor exhaust gas took place. Altogether more than 150,000 Jews as well as 5000 gypsies have hereby been killed. Belzec (in the district Lublin of the then general governments): from March to December 1942 in the beginning in three, later in six large gas chambers by means of carbon monoxide from motor exhaust gas altogether about 600,000 Jews were killed here. Sobibor (district Lublin, general government) received in April 1942 three, later in September 1942 six gas chambers and until October 1943 it was "in operation". During this period at least 200,000 Jews have been murdered through carbon monoxide gas. Treblinka (district Warschau, general government) from the end of July 1942 on had three gas chambers and received at the start of September 1942 furthermore ten larger gas chambers. Up to the dissolution of the camp in November 1943 altogether 700,000 Jews were killed here by carbon monoxide. Majdanek (district Lublin, general government): The concentration camp existing since September 1941 turned into an extermination camp when between April 1942 and November 1943 mass shootings took place to which 24,000 Jews fell victim. In October 1942 also two, later three gas chambers were built.

In the beginning the killings in these were done by means of carbon monoxide, soon however one was using Zyklon B (a highly poisonous insecticide made from cyan hydrogen). Up until the dissolution of the camp in March 1944 about 50,000 Jews have been gassed. Auschwitz-Birkenau (in the formerly polish, in 1939 adjoined to the "Reich" upper eastern Silesian area, south eastern of Kattowitz): The extermination camp in Birkenau, established in the second half of 1941, was joined to the concentration camp Auschwitz, existing since May 1940. From January 1942 on in five gas chambers and from the end of June 1943 in four additional large gassing-rooms gassings with Zyklon B have been undertaken. Up until November 1944 more than one million Jews and at least 4000 gypsies have been murdered by gas.



Wiernik , Jacob. A Yor in Treblinke (A Year in Treblinka). New York, 1944, pp.20-21.