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Nazi extermination camps

Nazi Extermination camp where millions of Jews were murdered
Auschwitz: Nazi Extermination camp where millions of Jews were murdered

Extermination camps were one type of facility that Nazi Germany built during World War II for the systematic killing of millions of people in what has become known as the Holocaust. Extermination camps were built during a later phase of the program of annihilation, during the war period. Victims’ bodies were usually cremated or buried in mass graves. Groups the Nazis sought to exterminate were primarily the Jews and Roma (Gypsies), but also Soviet prisoners of war, gay men and certain segments of Poland’s population. The majority of prisoners brought to extermination camps were not expected to survive more than 24 hours beyond arrival.


Extermination camp (German: Vernichtungslager) and death camp (Todeslager) are usually interchangeable and specifically refer to camps whose primary function is or was genocide.

In a generic sense, a death camp is a concentration camp that has been established for the purpose of killing prisoners delivered there. They are not intended as sites for punishing criminal actions; rather, they are intended to facilitate genocide. Historically, the most infamous death camps were the extermination camps built by the Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. Extermination camp is also sometimes used hyperbolically by political protesters to describe prison camps they want to deride.

Nazi-German extermination camps are distinguished from Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau and Belsen, which were mostly intended as places of incarceration and forced labor for a variety of "enemies of the state" - the Nazi label for people they deemed undesirable. In the early years of the Holocaust, the Jews were primarily sent to these camps, but from 1942 onward they were mostly deported to the extermination camps.

Extermination camps should also be distinguished from forced labor camps (Arbeitslager), which were set up in all German-occupied countries to exploit the labor of prisoners of various kinds, including prisoners of war. Many Jews were worked to death in these camps, but eventually the Jewish labor force, no matter how useful to the German war effort, was destined for extermination. In most Nazi camps (with the exception of POW camps for the non-Soviet soldiers and certain labor camps), there were usually very high death rates as a result of executions, starvation, disease, exhaustion, and extreme brutality; nevertheless, only the extermination camps were intended specifically for mass killing.

The distinction between extermination camps and concentration camps was recognized by Germans themselves (although not expressed in the official nomenclature of the camps). As early as September 1942, an SS doctor witnessed a gassing and wrote in his diary: "They don't call Auschwitz the camp of annihilation (das Lager der Vernichtung) for nothing!" When one of Adolf Eichmann’s deputies, Dieter Wisliceny, was interrogated at Nuremberg, he was asked for the names of extermination camps; his answer referred to Auschwitz and Majdanek as such. When asked "How do you classify the camps Mauthausen, Dachau and Buchenwald?" he replied, "They were normal concentration camps from the point of view of the department of Eichmann.

The Nazi extermination camps

Most accounts of the Holocaust recognize six extermination camps, all located in occupied Poland:

  • Auschwitz-Birkenau
  • Chelmno
  • Belzec
  • Majdanek
  • Sobibór
  • Treblinka
  • Jasenovac

Of these, Auschwitz II and Chelmno were located within areas of western Poland annexed by Germany; the other four were located in the General Government area.

Another death camp, the much-less-known Maly Trostenets, was located in present-day Belarus, near or in the Lokot Republic. The extent and nature of the killings in Warsaw remain the matter of controversy.

The euphemism "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage) was used by the Nazis to describe the systematic killing of Europe’s Jews. The decision to undertake the operation was made at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and carried out under the administrative control of Adolf Eichmann. Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibór were constructed during Operation Reinhard, the codename for the extermination of Poland’s Jews.

While Auschwitz II was part of a labor camp complex, and Majdanek also had a labor camp, the Operation Reinhard camps and Chelmno were pure extermination camps - in other words, they were built solely and specifically to kill vast numbers of people, primarily Jews, within hours of arrival. The only prisoners sent to these camps not immediately killed were those needed as slave labor directly connected with the extermination process (for example, to remove corpses from the gas chambers). These camps were small in size - only several hundred meters on each side - as only minimal housing and support facilities were required. Arriving persons were told that they were merely at a transit stop for relocation further east or at a work camp.

Non-Jews were also killed in these camps, including many gentile Poles and Soviet prisoners of war

Number of victims

Major deportation routes to the extermination camps
Major deportation routes to the extermination camps

The number of people killed at these death camps has been estimated as follows.

  • Auschwitz II: about 1,100,000
  • Treblinka: at least 700,000
  • Belzec: about 434,500
  • Sobibór: about 167,000
  • Chelmno: about 152,000
  • Majdanek: 78,000
  • Maly Trostenets: at least 65,000
  • Jasenovac: between 80,000 - 700,000 people (there is 77 000 known names)

This gives a total of over 2.5 million, of which over 80% were Jews. These camps thus accounted for about half the total number of Jews killed by the entire Nazi Holocaust, including almost the whole Jewish population of Poland.

Entrance to Auschwitz Nazi Extermination camp
Entrance to Auschwitz Nazi Extermination camp

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs numerous Polonia organizations, as well as all Polish governments since 1989, have attributed to ignorance or malice the act of calling Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland "Polish death camps," and they monitor and discourage the use of this expression in favor of "(Nazi) death camps in (Nazi-)occupied Poland": Poland had been conquered by Nazi Germany during 1939 Defensive War, and its government went into exile in London; no Polish puppet state collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II; and the decision to place extermination camps in Poland was a German one. The reasons for locating the camps in occupied Poland were simple:

  • Poland was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe
  • The entire railway network in Eastern Europe was overwhelmed by the Nazi war effort; it was logistically impossible to organize on the back of the Eastern Front, the largest military operation the world has ever seen, tens of thousands of trains to transport the Jewish victims over longer distances.
  • The extermination camps could be kept in greater secrecy from German citizens.
  • Contrary to popular belief the level of antisemitism in pre-war Poland had no influence on the German decision. Any kind of assistance to hiding Jews incurred the death penalty. All household members were punished by death if a hidden Jew was found in their house. This was the most severe legislation in occupied Europe. Nonetheless, Poland has the highest number of Righteous among the Nations titles granted by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum for non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis.

Operations of Nazi extermination camps

Roll call at Auschwitz Nazi Extermination camp
Roll call at Auschwitz Nazi Extermination camp

The method of killing at these camps was typically poison gas, usually in gas chambers, although many prisoners died in mass shootings, by starvation or by sadistic torture. Rudolf Höss (German spelling: Höß; not to be confused with Rudolf Hess), the commandant of Auschwitz, wrote after the war that many of the Einsatzkommandos involved in the mass shootings went mad or committed suicide, "unable to endure wading through blood any longer." The bodies of those killed were destroyed in crematoria (except at Sobibór, where they were cremated on outdoor pyres), and the ashes buried or scattered. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the number of corpses defied burial or burning on pyres: the only way to dispose of them was in purpose-designed furnaces built on contract by Topf und Söhne, which ran day and night.

The camps differed slightly in operation, but all were designed to kill as efficiently as possible. For example Kurt Gerstein, an Obersturmführer in the SS medical service, testified to a Swedish diplomat during the war about what he had seen at the camps. He describes how he arrived at Belzec on August 19, 1942, (at the time, the camp was still using in its gas chambers primarily carbon monoxide from a gasoline engine) where he was proudly shown the unloading of 45 train cars stuffed with 6,700 Jews, many of whom were already dead, but the rest were marched naked to the gas chambers, where, he said:

Unterscharführer Hackenholt was making great efforts to get the engine running. But it doesn’t go. Captain Wirth comes up. I can see he is afraid because I am present at a disaster. Yes, I see it all and I wait. My stopwatch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the diesel did not start. The people wait inside the gas chambers. In vain. They can be heard weeping, "like in the synagogue," says Professor Pfannenstiel, his eyes glued to a window in the wooden door. Furious, Captain Wirth lashes the Ukrainian assisting Hackenholt twelve, thirteen times, in the face. After 2 hours and 49 minutes - the stopwatch recorded it all - the diesel started. Up to that moment, the people shut up in those four crowded chambers were still alive, four times 750 persons in four times 45 cubic meters. Another 25 minutes elapsed. Many were already dead, that could be seen through the small window because an electric lamp inside lit up the chamber for a few moments. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead… Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. He was in his element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: "See for yourself the weight of that gold! It’s only from yesterday and the day before. You can’t imagine what we find every day - dollars, diamonds, gold. You’ll see for yourself!"

According to Höss, the first time Zyklon B was used on the Jews, many suspected they would be killed, despite being led to believe that they were only being deloused. As a result, pains were taken to single out possibly "difficult individuals" in future gassings, so they could be separated and shot unobtrusively. Members of a Special Detachment (Sonderkommando) - a group of prisoners from the camp assigned to help carry out the exterminations - were also made to accompany the Jews into the gas chamber and remain with them until the doors closed. A guard from the SS also stood at the door to perpetuate the "calming effect". To avoid giving the prisoners time to think about their fate, they were urged to undress as speedily as possible, with the Special Detachment helping those who might slow down the process.

The Special Detachment reassured the Jews being gassed by talking of life in the camp, and tried to persuade them that everything would be all right. Many Jewish women hid their infants beneath their clothes once they had undressed, because they feared the disinfectant would harm them. Höss wrote that the "men of the Special Detachment were particularly on the look-out for this," and would encourage the womenfolk to bring their children along. The Special Detachment men were also responsible for comforting older children that might cry "because of the strangeness of being undressed in this fashion".

These measures did not deceive all, however. Höss reported of several Jews "who either guessed or knew what awaited them nevertheless" but still "found the courage to joke with the children to encourage them, despite the mortal terror visible in their own eyes." Some women would suddenly "give the most terrible shrieks while undressing, or tear their hair, or scream like maniacs." These were immediately led away by the Special Detachment men to be shot. Some others instead "revealed the addresses of those members of their race still in hiding" before being led into the gas chamber.

Once the door was sealed with the victims inside, powdered Zyklon B would be shaken down through special holes in the roof of the chamber. The camp commandant was required to witness every gassing carried out through a peephole, and supervise both the preparations and the aftermath. Höss reported that the gassed corpses "showed no signs of convulsion"; the doctors at Auschwitz attributed this to the "paralyzing effect on the lungs" that Zyklon B had, which ensured death came on before convulsions could begin.

After the gassings had been carried out, the Special Detachment men would remove the bodies, extract the gold teeth and shave the hair of the corpses before bringing them to the crematoria or the pits. In either case, the bodies would be cremated, with the men of the Special Detachment responsible for stoking the fires, draining off the surplus fat, and turning over the "mountain of burning corpses" so that the flames would constantly be fanned. Höss found the attitude and dedication of the Special Detachment amazing. Despite them being "well aware that … they, too, would meet exactly the same fate," they managed to carry out their duties "in such a matter-of-course manner that they might themselves have been the exterminators." According to Höss, many of the Special Detachment men ate and smoked while they worked, "even when engaged on the grisly job of burning corpses." Occasionally, they would come across the body of a close relative, but although they "were obviously affected by this, … it never led to any incident." Höss cited the case of a man who, while carrying bodies from the gas chamber to the fire pit, found the corpse of his wife, but behaved "as though nothing had happened."

Some high-ranking leaders from the Nazi Party and the SS were sent to Auschwitz on occasion to witness the gassings. Höss wrote that although "all were deeply impressed by what they saw," some "who had previously spoken most loudly about the necessity for this extermination fell silent once they had actually seen the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem’." Höss was repeatedly asked how he could stomach the exterminations. He justified them by explaining "the iron determination with which we must carry out Hitler’s orders," but found that even "[Adolf] Eichmann, who [was] certainly tough enough, had no wish to change places with me."

Use of dead bodies

The Special Detachments (Sonderkommando) were very industrious at plundering the corpses of murdered Jews, removing clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses, hair, gold teeth and fillings - anything that could be reused or recycled. However, there are other stories that are dubious. Some claim that the Nazis made lampshades out of human skin; this is physically possible - Martin Bormann’s son, also called Martin, said in an interview that, as a child, he had seen a chair made of human bones and a book bound in human skin. Tattooed skin was sometimes removed and preserved. A shrunken head was made at Buchenwald, using a technique copied from the Jivaro tribe, and admitted as evidence at the Nuremberg trials

Post war

As Soviet armed forces advanced into Poland in 1944, the camps were closed and partly or completely dismantled by the Nazis to conceal what had taken place in them. The postwar Polish communist government further partly dismantled the camps and generally allowed the sites to decay. Monuments of various kinds were erected at the sites of the former camps, but they usually did not mention that most of the people killed in them were Jews.

After the fall of communism in 1989, the camp sites became more accessible and have become centres of tourism, particularly at the most-recognized, Auschwitz (Polish: Oswiecim). There has been a series of disputes between the Jewish organizations and the Polish about what is appropriate at these sites. Some Jewish groups have objected strongly to the erection of Christian memorials at the camps. In the most notable case - that of the Auschwitz cross - a cross was located near Auschwitz I, where most of the victims were Poles, rather than near Auschwitz II, which was used for exterminating Jews.

Holocaust denial

Some groups and individuals deny that the Nazis killed anyone using extermination camps, or they question the manner or extent of the Holocaust. For example, Robert Faurisson claimed in 1979 that "Hitler’s ‘gas chambers’ never existed." He contended that the notion of the gas chambers was "essentially of Zionist origin". Another famous denier is British historian David Irving, who was sentenced to prison in Austria for his Holocaust denials: Holocaust denial is a criminal offense in Austria.

Scholars and historians point out that Holocaust denial is contradicted by the testimonies of survivors and perpetrators, material evidence, and photographs, as well as by the Nazis’ own record-keeping. Efforts such as the Nizkor Project, the work of Deborah Lipstadt, Simon Wiesenthal and his Simon Wiesenthal Center, and more at Holocaust resources, all track and explain Holocaust denial. The work of credible historians such as Raul Hilberg (who published The Destruction of the European Jews), Lucy Davidowicz (The War Against the Jews), Ian Kershaw, and many others relegate Holocaust denial to a minority fringe. Antisemitic political motivation is often attributed to those who deny the Holocaust.

Further reading

  • Holocaust Journey: Travelling in Search of the Past, Martin Gilbert, Phoenix 1997, gives an account of the sites of the extermination camps as they are today, plus a great deal of historical information about them and about the fate of the Jews of Poland.

External links

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