Preliminary stages: Engineering of death
While the gas chambers of Auschwitz are the focal point of modern day articles about the Holocaust, the whole process from start to finish was structured like a manufacturing project. We will now take a look at some of the initial actions carried out by the Nazis as they developed an industrial killing machine which has left its mark on history.
Euthanasia killing centres
A special commission of doctors arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp on 28 July 1941 to select unfit prisoners to be murdered in one of the so-called “euthanasia killing centres”. Dr Horst Schumann, the director of the Euthanasia Centre at Sonnenstein, was prominent in this group of doctors who chose 573 inmates to test their new killing machine. The majority of the inmates were Polish prisoners although there were two Kapos (SS assigned prisoners in charge of forced labour units) one of which was killed during the journey and the other committed suicide.
The prisoners were taken to the Euthanasia Centre at Sonnenstein where they were shown into specially adapted bathrooms under the impression they were to be cleansed and deloused. Unbeknown to the prisoners carbon monoxide gas was pumped through the showerheads with brutal efficiency and minimum force. This was the beginning of the Nazi killing machine which went on to take millions of lives.
Testing different gases
While the carbon monoxide gas used to kill the Polish prisoners was deadly in the extreme, pumped directly through the showerheads, the sadistic members of the Reich sought to reduce the killing time and finally chose Zyklon B as their gas of choice.
Consisting of hydrogen cyanide and a cautionary eye irritant, Zyklon was a pesticide originally invented in Germany in the 1920s although the use of hydrogen cyanide as a pesticide dates back to the 1880s in California. In simple terms, hydrogen cyanide interferes with the transfer of oxygen into blood cells starving the body of much-needed fuel leading to a painful death. The original Zyklon research unit at Degesch was acquired by Degussa in 1922. At this point a team of chemists including Walter Heerdt and Bruno Tesch (executed in 1946 for selling Zyklon B to the Nazis) began their infamous quest. The quest was to create hydrogen cyanide which could be packaged within sealed containers together with cautionary eye irritant and absorbent stabilisers. The eye irritant was simply added so that it was possible to tell when the invisible killer gas had been released.
Refining Zyklon gas to create Zyklon B
Zyklon B was originally used in delousing clothing, disinfecting ships, warehouses and trains although in early 1942 this deadly substance was chosen as the preferred killing tool of the Nazis. Such a refinement to Zyklon gas created a substance which would become part of the most brutal killing machine of all time. It is astounding to learn that Zyklon B is still available today in countries around the world although it is now produced under a different name to distance itself from the Nazi death camps.
First experimental gassing
In August 1941 and September 1941 Zyklon B was used to kill Russian prisoners of war in the cellar of the infamous “Block 11” at the Sonnenstein euthanasia centre. It is believed that around 600 prisoners of war were herded into the cellar with no idea of what awaited them. They were pushed into the cells at which point the SS threw Zyklon B gas canisters into the crowds then locked and sealed the doors. It is unthinkable to believe that these prisoners of war were treated like lab mice, in one of the most horrendous experiments ever carried out, but that was the brutal truth of the SS killing fields.
Second experimental gassing
The second experimental gassing began on 3 September 1941 and when the doors of the chamber were reopened on 4 September 1941 Roll Call leader Gerhard Palitzsch found one POW still alive. Without hesitation, more Zyklon B canisters were thrown into the cellar, the doors locked securely and on 5 September 1941 prisons of the penal colony and orderlies from the camp hospital were summoned for “special work” in the courtyard of Block 11. Little did they know they would be forced to put on gas masks and clear hundreds of bodies brutally killed by the SS from the cellar of Block 11. They were even ordered to strip the bodies of all military uniform before they were taken to the crematorium. After clearing the cellar those summoned for “special work” were taken to hospital and killed by lethal injection.
Final experimental gassing
On 16 September 1941 we know that 900 Russian prisoners of war were gassed in the morgue of the crematorium. Again, they were told they were being deloused but, in a cynical development of this ruthless killing machine, holes were drilled through the earth and concrete ceiling of the mortuary and the gas was forced down through the holes. Memoirs have been found of those who were involved in the gas chambers describing a “humming sound” prior to the gas being released. Then amid cries of “gas”, panic set in as the reality of the situation began to dawn on the prisoners. Many reports describe the harrowing cries of the prisoners of war and the crushing of bodies against the doors as they attempted to escape. These attempts were futile as the doors were sealed and only opened several hours later after which there was no chance of anyone surviving.
Final location, Auschwitz concentration camp
Many people may not be aware that the Auschwitz concentration camp was originally supposed to be a quarantine camp when building began in 1940. The original plans were never implemented and it was changed into a concentration camp with the idea of slowly withdrawing living standards, food and water leading to a cruel death for prisoners. At its peak in 1944 Auschwitz covered a staggering 40 km² with more than 40 “branch camps” within a several hundred mile radius. Those held at the camps included Jews, Poles and Gypsies with Auschwitz holding 135,000 prisoners prior to closure ahead of an expected Russian offensive in 1944. However, Auschwitz will forever be associated with the Nazi gas chambers which were active between early 1942 and October 1944. We will never know how many Jews, Poles and Gypsies were killed but we do know we can count them in the millions.
Mass production stages
During the primary stages the Nazis tried different locations, different types of gas, different structured buildings and even different gas release systems. In a relatively short space of time this engineering of death was ready for mass production with consideration given to every element of the killing process.
Stage 1: The selection process
As the wagon loads of prisoners of war began to arrive at the many concentration camps within and around Auschwitz a brutal selection process began. Men were separated from women and children and an SS doctor literally went up and down the never-ending line of people pointing left or right denoting those fit to work in the forced labour camps and those who would be killed. Even this brutal selection process was hidden from the prisoners with those selected to die informed they were being taken away to be deloused and fed. Little did they know that a simple drop of the hands and the SS doctor would be signing their death warrant.
Stage 2: Transporting prisoners to die
Even the process of transporting prisoners from various camps on Auschwitz to the morgue/crematorium was carried out in a cold precise manner. To maintain complete secrecy, all surrounding roads were cleared and closed and the prisoners were shipped in by rail. Under the impression they were going to the showers, after which they would receive a meal and work instructions, they were all oblivious to what was coming. The victims were undressed with the guards even said to have comforted some of those who were distressed at the time – while collecting their personal belongings which they would “return later”.
To avoid panic and concern amongst the prisoners, SS guards were under strict instructions to be friendly and comforting to those headed to the deadly gas chambers. Those who may “cause trouble” in the opinion of the SS guards were quietly taken away and executed out of sight.
Stage 3: Entering the gas chambers and execution
Under the impression they were simply going for a shower before a meal and work instructions, hundreds of Jewish prisoners of war were led into the mortuary. As the doors of the mortuary where locked tight and the gas began to seep into the “shower room” there are eyewitness accounts which describe screams of desperation as the prisoners began to gasp for breath as the gas took hold. A further example of the brutal minute attention to detail emerged when it was revealed large lorries revved their engines to drown out the ear piecing cries of the dying prisoners. So, not only were the prisoners chosen to die shipped in under extreme secrecy but even their last cries for help were drowned out.
Stage 4: Stripping the bodies of ID and riches
The prisoners who were ordered to clear the gas chambers of corpses were, under guard, initially shown to a separate room. There they were forced to remove identification, hair, gold teeth and fillings before the bodies were disposed of. Greed took over for many of those involved in the engineering of death process as we know bodies were pillaged and camp guards stole some of the gold.
In yet another astounding element to this overall process, the rest of the gold was melted down and deposited in SS bank accounts which later came to light. Human hair from the corpses was bought by private businesses back in Germany and used to make products such as ship rope and mattresses. Even though many of the high-ranking personnel involved in the whole process have been brought to account, the actual trail leads from the very top of the Nazis right the way down to private businesses.
Stage 5: Disposing of bodies
Initially the bodies of those gassed to death were burnt on large bonfires, or buried in shallow graves, but as larger crematoriums were built even this system was refined. The new crematoriums were designed with the undressing rooms and gas chambers on the same level but underground. There was also relatively quick access to the furnaces into which dead bodies would be thrown.
In another example of extreme micromanagement by the Nazi high-ranking officers, three “test bodies” were burned in a furnace. Initially it took 40 minutes for each body to be cremated leading to a new approach for the future. Orders were given to ensure that the furnaces were pre-heated for a fortnight prior to their “use” to maximise the number of bodies burned each day. The new crematorium buildings could accommodate up to 5000 corpses in their furnaces over a 24-hour period. Indeed, in 1944 the Nazis gassed and cremated an unbelievable 24,000 Hungarian Jews in just one day!
It even got to such a stage that the furnaces were not able to accommodate the number of bodies which led to a return of the “burning pits” used in the early days.
Stage 6: Maximising efficiency
While it is bizarre to be writing about a process which brought about the death of millions of people, the precision with which the Nazis carried out their operations was brutal. Not content with killing hundreds of Jewish people at a time they built additional larger crematoriums which could literally take thousands of people at a time. Initially the dead bodies of those gassed to death were stripped of all personal items even down to metal fillings and then burned on enormous bonfires. Thousands of bodies were laid layer by layer with highly flammable materials in between and then literally burnt to cinders.
We also know that the initial killing process lasted several hours until the room was safe to clear and ventilate. There is some uncertainty, but we also know that the time taken to gas prisoners was reduced down to at least one hour with some suggesting just 30 minutes or 10 minutes at peak killing times.
Stage 7: Hiding the killings
It is difficult to imagine how on earth the Nazis managed to keep the death of millions of people “secret” for so many years. The process from start to finish only involved a handful of SS personnel and high-ranking officers. They were sworn to secrecy, gas chambers were shrouded in mystery and the prisoners forced to help “clear” the hundreds and thousands of bodies were then quietly led away and killed by lethal injection. This was the final process of the engineering of death, a process which was completed more times than we can ever verify, resulting in the death of millions of people.
Will we ever know the truth?
It is unbelievable that even today we do not know the exact number of victims of the engineering of death process carried out by the Nazis. Each element of the process, from the very start to the very end, was structured like an engineering project. Even today, in light of brutal ethnic cleansing and civil war in parts of the world, the death of millions of Jewish prisoners of war at the hands of the Nazi killing machine attracts disgust and disbelief in equal measures. Why did they do it? How did they get away with it? Even today the true facts remain unknown and this is likely to remain so forever.