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Extermination Centers

Extermination Centers

Were Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and Treblinka concentration camps? Can they be mentioned or studied in the same terms as Dachau or Mauthausen? No. In order to distinguish them from "classic" concentration camps and define their dreadful uniqueness, it is not enough to substitute one simple descriptive word for another—designating them as "extermination camps" or simply "death camps". At Dachau, Buchenwald, or even Ravensbrück, human beings considered dangerous to the larger society, but nevertheless "recyclable," were confined for more or less lengthy periods. At Treblinka, however, the men, women, and children arriving there constituted an ontologically irrecoverable set of "subhumans" that, according to the Nazi perspective, encumbered the world and prevented its proper functioning. They were gassed as soon as they arrived. Not infrequently, nine thousand Jews were deported to Treblinka on a single day, with no provisions made to shelter them, or to feed them for even twenty-four hours. Treblinka performed a single, unique function: the extermination of Jews.

These different functions—on the one hand quarantine, on the other immediate death—require that a clear distinction be made between these two types of places, one that uses two sets of concepts and two vocabularies. Although the practice has been to refer to sites where German inmates were maintained alive, more or less alive (since hope remained to reintegrate them into the national community), as well as to sites where Jews were exterminated as soon as they descended from the cattle cars, as concentration camps, this is an abusive catch-all concept. The conception of homogeneous and generic units became disseminated largely as a result of the Nuremberg Trials, whose judges considered the horrendous images of the mass graves of the Bergen-Belsen camp at liberation as proof of the German extermination of the Jews. The discovery of Bergen-Belsen, writes Walter Laqueur in The Terrible Secret, "unleashed a violent wave of anger, although paradoxically it wasn't at all a camp of extermination, nor even a concentration camp, but rather a Krankenlager, a camp for sick people, where, true enough, the only treatment offered to patients . . . was death" (1981, p. 8).

Some historians, and not minor ones, try to deal with this quandary by distinguishing between extermination camps and concentration camps. They are nevertheless on the wrong track, for in respect to the Shoah (Hebrew term for the Holocaust), the very notion of "camp," whatever the word used to qualify it (death camp or extermination camp), should be proscribed. It is historically inaccurate to define Dachau and Treblinka identically through the use of a common expression when the Nazis themselves insisted on making a clear distinction between the two types of establishment. They designated Dachau, and the places modeled after it, by the term Konzentrationslager (KL), literally concentration camp. In contrast they referred to places such as Treblinka as SS Sonderkommando (SK), or "special commando of the police and the SS." There was no concern in these latter places with quartering or warehousing human beings; what concern there was involved exterminating all who were delivered methodically and systematically, on the very day of arrival and without delay. The SK were only places of transit to immediate death. Jews were led, without detour or loss of time, straight from the ghetto to the slaughterhouse.

The very notion of "camp" must be rejected in consideration of the four centers of immediate death (Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka) and the two "mixed centers" (having the double function of concentration and extermination) that were Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. Situated near railroad terminals, these places must be designated as extermination centers, or, to use the expression of Raul Hilberg, "immediate death centers," operated with the unique purpose of systematically, immediately implementing the complete destruction of European Jews. Existing apart from the Nazi concentration camp system, these centers escaped its inspection body (IKL) situated in Oranienburg, with the exception of Auschwitz and Majdanek, which had been "simple" concentration camps before they became mixed.

The Execution Centers

Starting in the summer of 1941, four Einsatzgruppen methodically carried out massacres. On September 29 and 30 alone, Group D shot 33,771 Jewish men, women, and children. The executions took place at Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev. This first phase of the genocide, which cost more than 1.3 million Jews their lives, was efficient, but also crude. Even the SS killers had a hard time getting used to what was required of them. Inside the SS the idea of exterminating Jews at fixed locations, following procedures more "humane" (for the killers), took hold.

The first solution proposed to Heinrich Himmler was that of the gas truck. The idea of extermination by gas is not new. From 1939 to 1941, the Nazis gassed about seventy thousand terminally ill, handicapped, or mental patients to death with carbon monoxide, in what was called Operation T-4 since the operation center was situated in Tiergartenstrasse number four Berlin. In November 1941 the Central Office of Reich Security (RSHA) made its first killing trials, and when they were successful, gas trucks were dispatched to the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. The method was then "perfected," first in Serbia, then in the Chelmno (Kulmhoff) camp, near Lodz (in Poland).

The First Execution Center: Chelmno

Chelmno in December 1941 marked the transition between the two types of extermination (firing squad and death by asphyxiation). Chelmno was not a camp but a former chateau, where Jews were assembled, undressed, and directly gassed. The rudimentary complex killed up to a thousand people a day, with the help of three trucks transformed into mobile gas chambers. Every afternoon the Jews of Lodz and its environs were brought to the site and physically thrust, first into the cellars, then toward the so-called shower rooms, where they would be forced to descend a ramp that would lead them directly inside the gas trucks. Those who delayed or refused to enter the trucks were beaten by the guards. When approximately fifty to seventy people were inside, the doors of the truck were shut, and the chauffeur, often a member of the schutzpolizei, drove through the Rzuchow forest toward the Waldlager pits. About ten minutes were required for the deadly gas to take effect. At the Waldlager pits Jewish prisoners, under the surveillance of the SS, prepared pyres and common graves. A team of around forty to fifty prisoners unloaded the cadavers and threw them into the mass graves. It is estimated that at least 150,000 Jews and 2,500 Romani were exterminated at Chelmno. Another team in the "chateau" sorted through the clothes and objects of value, selecting items that would be sent to the Reich. Almost 370 railroad cars of clothing would be filled in this way.

The Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka Centers

After Chelmno, three other SK centers were created: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The sites were chosen for their isolation as well as their proximity to important railroads. More than 1.5 million human beings were exterminated in these places. Belzec opened its doors in March 1942, Sobibor in April 1942, and Treblinka in July of the same year. Belzec served as a model for Sobibor and Treblinka, both of them constructed, like Belzec, within the framework of the Einsatz Reinhard (Action Reinhard).

Action Reinhard was the code name for the extermination of Polish Jewry. It's possible that this term was coined in remembrance of Reinhard Heydrich of the SS and coordinator of the Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish question)—the extermination of the Jews living in the European countries occupied by German troops during World War II. Agents of the Czech government-in-exile fatally shot Heydrich on May 27, 1942.

Those three extermination centers were constructed to "accommodate" the populations of adjacent ghettos and other victims from surrounding areas: first Belzec, then Sobibor, and finally Treblinka.

The Belzec execution center was located in the Lublin district, the heart of a region rich in Jewish cities, villages, and communities. Christian Wirth, an expolice officer who played a major role in the T-4 killing program was named to head it. Under his command were 20 to 30 SS officers, helped by 120 specially trained Ukrainian guards. Belzec, just like Sobibor and Treblinka, was an establishment of modest dimensions, equipped rather summarily. It was divided into two sections, each one encircled by a barbed wire fence, with control towers along the main perimeter. The first section was also divided into two parts: The smaller contained administrative buildings and barracks for the Ukranian guards; the larger was where the railroad line unloaded the deported prisoners, separated into two groups—men on one side, women and children on the other. In the larger part were also the buildings where prisoners were stripped and shaved, the depots where personal objects were stocked, and finally the barracks for the Jewish prisoners in charge of burning the cadavers and sorting through the baggage.

The gas chambers and pyres were located in the second section of the center, connected to the first by a long passage (which the Germans called "the tube"), flanked by high barbed wire. The extermination site proper was separated from the main camp by trees and greenery. Camouflage was one of the essential elements of the extermination procedure perfected at Belzec.

The process was simple: A convoy of forty to sixty cars, containing around 2,500 persons, entered the station. The convoy was immediately divided in such a manner that the wagons arrived at the quay in groups of ten or fifteen. The prisoners were unloaded and told that they were in a transit camp and that, for reasons of hygiene, they had to shower and have a haircut. Men were separated from women and children. After passing through the places where they undressed and their heads were shaved, the prisoners were pushed into "the tube" leading to the gas chambers. The carbon monoxide necessary to cause asphyxiation was produced by a diesel motor set up outside the chamber. Once the chamber was filled with gas, it took around thirty minutes for death to occur. Various "cleaning" crews of prisoners then entered. More or less three hours elapsed between the moment the convoy stopped in the Belzec station and conclusion of the last sorting operations.

As the second camp constructed according to plans of the Einsatz Reinhard, Sobibor was entrusted to veteran officers of the T-4 program. In less than eighteen months, 250,000 Jewish men, women, and children perished there.

The third center was Treblinka, situated about 80 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. It was reserved for Jews of the Polish capital or of nearby Central Europe. Around 700 to 1,000 Jews performed various "service functions" for their Nazi masters. A minimum of 750,000 Jews were gassed with carbon monoxide at Treblinka.

The Two Mixed Camps: Lublin-Majdanek and Auschwitz

In 1942 two new extermination centers, both outfitted with gas chambers, were added to the death machinery of the SS. They were not constructed in isolated places, but in close proximity to concentration camps: the first in the area of Lublin-Majdanek, the second nearby in the vast complex of Auschwitz, at Birkenau. The Majdanek center was equipped in September and October 1942 with three gas chambers. The gassing began forthwith and concluded November 3, 1943, with the simultaneous extermination of all Jewish prisoners in the course of an operation "poetically" baptized "harvest festival." Thereby, the last 17,000 Jews of Madjanek died, in a center that had seen between 50,000 and 200,000 victims perish.

A little after the Wannsee Conference, the conference held in January 1942 that coordinated, not decided the extermination of the European Jewry, the Birkenau site was designated as the "principal execution center." The extension of the Final Solution to the whole of Europe made Birkenau the epicenter of the extermination effort. There, on the initiative of Rudolf Hess, its ambitious ruler, a new gas was used, one much more efficient than carbon monoxide: Zyklon B. This gas, which included the rapid-acting gas hydrogen cyanide, was first used (in December 1941 in the basement of Block 11 of Auschwitz I) on two hundred and fifty tubercular detainees and around three hundred Soviet prisoners of war. Following Wirth (the promoter of carbon monoxide gassing), Hess may be regarded as one of the inventors of this method of mass execution. Patched together at first, the method transformed Auschwitz II into a very efficient death factory. During 1943, structures that coordinated and integrated the diverse phases of execution, from undressing to cremation, were put in place. Two thousand bodies could be piled into each of the Leichenkeller (cadaver rooms); the daily incineration capacity reached 4,756 bodies. By 1944 the Auschwitz equipment was complete.

The Nazi ideology found here its ultimate realization: an efficient, orderly, and clean extermination via the gas chambers, the Final Solution to the Jewish question, which shielded the Germans from having to get their hands dirty, and avoided the embarrassment of the Einsatzgruppen and their crude methods. This was a triumph of intelligence and method in service of the great plan.

In contrast to the four other extermination centers, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and to a lesser measure Lublin-Majdanek, were not authorized to carry out the asphyxiation of all arriving Jews. The scarcity of labor forced the authorities to "select" varying quantities of them to serve the war economy. The SS divided the arrivals into two categories: the suitable and the unsuitable. The former, after having been registered and given tattoos on their left forearms, were integrated into the camp and channeled into the work force. The Central Office of the Management of the Economy of the SS and its camp inspection section, under the supervision of Himmler, submitted them, like the non-Jewish detainees, to a process of "extermination by work." The others (the unsuitable) were gassed as soon as they arrived. Statistics on the Jewish population of Western Europe show that 150,511 Jews of France, Belgium, and the Lowlands were deported toward the East as part of the Final Solution. Three-quarters of these went to Auschwitz, most of the remainder to the Sobibor extermination center. In all, 93,736 were gassed as soon as they descended from the train; 55,126 were put to work. When the camps were liberated, scarcely 4,000 of these 55,126 were still alive, or less than 3 percent.

At the end of November 1944, after the appearance in English newspapers of accounts of the extermination of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Himmler ordered the destruction of active crematoria.

Nazi Camps and Extermination Centers

There is little basis for comparison between concentration camps and extermination centers. In the former there was always a slight chance of survival; in the latter such a possibility was statistically nil.

From 540,000 to 720,000 people of all persuasions perished within the framework of the concentration camp system, representing 30 to 45 percent of the 1.65 million who were deported there. In contrast, nearly all of the 2.7 million Jews deported to the six extermination centers died, most as soon as they arrived.

The recent German attempt to compare the Nazi KL system to the Soviet concentration camp system (which predated it) through affirming that "the Gulag precedes Auschwitz" is not false. It is nonetheless purposeless, for two fundamental reasons. First, the Shoah, the process of extermination of the Jews, strictly speaking stands as a thing apart from the Nazi concentration camp system; and, second, the Gulag produced nothing equivalent to the Nazi execution centers.

SEE ALSO Auschwitz; Gas; Genocide


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Dwork, Deborah and Robert Jan van Pelt (1996). Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present. New York: Norton.

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Hilberg, Raul (1973). The Destruction of the European Jews. New York: Watts.

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Joël Kotek

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