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The Holocaust: Nazi extermination and concentration camps in occupied Poland.

Extermination camps (or death camps) were camps during World War II (1939–45) built primarily but not exclusively by Nazi Germany to systematically kill millions of people by execution (primarily by gassing) and extreme work under starvation conditions. While there were victims from many groups, Jews were the main Nazi targets. This genocide of the Jewish people was the Third Reich's "Final Solution to the Jewish question".[1] The Nazi attempts at Jewish genocide are collectively known as the Holocaust.[2]

While not on the same scale as that prosecuted by the Nazis, the fascist Ustaše forces of the Independent State of Croatia operated an extermination camp policy.


Odilo Globocnik

U.S. aerial photograph of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) showing crematoria II and III

The Nazis used the euphemism Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question) to describe their systematic killing of Europe's Jews, which Nazi leaders likely decided during the first half of 1941. The initial, formal killings of the Final Solution were undertaken by the SS Einsatzgruppen (Task Forces) death squads who followed the Wehrmacht during the Operation Barbarossa invasion of the USSR in June 1941. The initial extermination method of shooting people in burial pits proved logistically and psychologically inefficient. After the war, the diary of the Auschwitz Commandant, Rudolf Höss, revealed that psychologically "unable to endure wading through blood any longer", many Einsatzkommandos – the killers – either went mad or killed themselves.[3]

Thus in late 1941, the Nazis established camps specifically for mass extermination via gas chambers. The logistical details were established in the Wannsee Conference (January 1942) and were executed by the administrator Adolf Eichmann.

In 1942, the Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler ordered the Lublin District SS- und Polizeiführer Odilo Globocnik to build the first extermination camps during "The Final Solution" (1941–43), the operation to annihilate every Jew in the General Government (occupied Poland). Initially, the victims' corpses were buried in mass graves, but later were cremated. After Russian forces began to advance, previously buried victims were also exhumed and burned in Sonderaktion 1005, a Nazi attempt to destroy evidence of the Holocaust.

The first concentration [extermination?] camps were under the direct command of SS–Polizei-führer Globocnik, and operated by SS Police battalions and Trawnikis – volunteers from Eastern Europe; whereas the SS-Totenkopfverbände managed the Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau and Ravensbrück. The Nazis did not expect the majority of prisoners taken to the Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor extermination camps to survive more than a few hours beyond arrival.[4]


The terms extermination camp (Vernichtungslager) and death camp (Todeslager) are interchangeable usages, each referring to camps whose primary function was genocide, not for punishing crime or containing political prisoners, but for the systematic killing of the prisoners delivered there.

Nazi Germany (1933–45) built the most infamous extermination camps in Occupied Poland. These differed from concentration camps, such as Dachau and Belsen, which were initially prison camps for people defined as socially or politically undesirable in Nazi society. In the early years of the Holocaust, the Jews were primarily sent to concentration camps, but from 1942 onwards they were mostly deported to the extermination camps.

Extermination camps are distinguished from the Arbeitslager (forced labor camps) established in German-occupied countries to use the prisoners, including prisoners of war, as slave labor. In most camps (excepting PoW camps for the non-Soviet soldiers and certain labor camps), the high death rates resulted from execution, starvation, disease, exhaustion, and physical brutality.

The Nazis distinguished between extermination camps and concentration camps. As early as September 1942, Dr. Johann Paul Kremer, M.D., an SS physician, witnessed a gassing of prisoners, and in his diary wrote: "They don't call Auschwitz the camp of annihilation [das Lager der Vernichtung] for nothing!"[5] The distinction was evident during the Nuremberg trials, when Dieter Wisliceny (a deputy to Adolf Eichmann) was asked to name the extermination camps, and he identified Auschwitz and Majdanek as such. Then, 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."[6]

The camps

Mass Deportations: the routes to the extermination camps

For political and logistical reasons, the extermination camps were built primarily but not exclusively by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. The Polish death factories were established where most of the intended victims lived; Poland had the greatest European Jewish populace.[7] On top of that, the camps outside of the Third Reich proper could be kept secret from the German civil populace.[8]

Operationally, there were two types of death camp.

Pure extermination camps

Jewish children rounded up for deportation to the Chełmno extermination camp.

Gas vans producing poisonous Carbon monoxide exhaust fumes were initially developed at the Chelmno extermination camp, before being used elsewhere.[9]

The camps at Treblinka, Bełżec, and Sobibor were constructed during Operation Reinhard (October 1941 – November 1943), for the extermination of Poland's Jews. Prisoners were promptly killed upon arrival. Initially, the camps used carbon monoxide gas chambers; at first, the corpses were buried, but then incinerated atop pyres. Later, gas chambers and crematoria were built in Treblinka and Belzec; Zyklon-B was used in Belzec.[10]

Whereas the Auschwitz II (Auschwitz–Birkenau) and Majdanek camps were parts of a labor camp complex, the Operation Reinhard camps and the Chełmno camp were exclusively for the quick extermination of many people (primarily Jews) within hours of their arrival.[11] Some able-bodied prisoners delivered to the death camp were not immediately killed, but were forced into labor units (Sonderkommando) to work at the extermination process, removing corpses from the gas chambers and burning them. Because the extermination camps were physically small (only several hundred metres long and wide) and equipped with minimal housing and support installations, the Nazis deceived the prisoners upon their arrival, telling them that they were at a temporary transit stop, and soon would continue to an Arbeitslager (work camp) farther east.

Concentration–extermination camps

The Nazi death camp Auschwitz built in the Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany

Some prisoners were selected for slave labor, instead of immediate death; they were kept alive as camp inmates, available to work wherever the rulers required. Three extermination camps – Auschwitz, Majdanek, and the Ustaše run Jasenovac – were later retrofitted with Zyklon-B gas chambers and crematoria, remaining operational until war's end in 1945.[10]

Jasenovac concentration camp was a complex of sub-camps in Yugoslavia and was the only extermination camp not operated by Nazis, but by the fascist Ustaše forces of the Independent State of Croatia, the majority of whose victims were Orthodox Christian Serbs, Roma, and Jews.[12][13] Many inmates arriving at Jasenovac were scheduled for systematic extermination. An important criterion for selection was the duration of a prisoner's anticipated detention. Strong men capable of labor and sentenced to less than three years of incarceration were allowed to live. All inmates with indeterminate sentences or sentences of three years or more were immediately scheduled for execution, regardless of their fitness.[14] Some of the mass executions were mechanical following Nazi methodology. Others were performed manually utilising tools such as mallets and agricultural knives.

Maly Trostenets extermination camp in the USSR initially operated as a prison camp. It became an extermination camp later in the war with victims initially under going mass shootings. This was supplemented with exhaust fume gassing in a van from October 1943.

Sajmište concentration camp operated by the Nazis in Yugoslavia had a gas van stationed for use from March to June 1942. Once the industrial killings were completed, the van was returned to Berlin. After a refit the van was then sent to Maly Trostinets for use at the camp there.

Janowska concentration camp near Lwow in Poland operated a selection process for the detainees. Some prisoners were assigned to work. Others were either transported to Belzec or victims of mass shootings on two slopes in the Piaski sand-hills behind the camp.

The Warsaw concentration camp was an associated group of the German Nazi concentration camps, possibly including an extermination camp, located in German-occupied Warsaw. The various details regarding the camp are very controversial and remain subject of historical research and public debate.

Numbers of victims


The estimated total number of people killed in the Nazi camps in the table below is over three million:

Camp Estimated deaths Operational Occupied territory Current country of location Primary means for mass killings
Auschwitz–Birkenau 1,100,000[15] May 1940 – January 1945 Poland Poland Zyklon B gas chambers
Bełżec 600,000[16] 17 March 1942 – end of June 1943 General Government district Poland Carbon monoxide gas chambers
Chełmno 320,000[17] 8 December 1941 – March 1943, June 1944 – 18 January 1945 District of Reichsgau Wartheland Poland Carbon monoxide vans
Majdanek 360,000[18] October 1, 1941 — July 22, 1944 General Government district Poland Zyklon B gas chambers
Maly Trostinets 200,000[19] Summer of 1941 to 28 June 1944 District of Reichskommissariat Ostland Belarus Mass shootings, Carbon monoxide van
Sajmište 23,000 - 47,000 28 October 1941–July 1944 Independent State of Croatia Serbia Carbon monoxide van
Sobibor 250,000[20] 16 May 1942 – 17 October 1943 General Government district Poland Carbon monoxide gas chambers
Treblinka 800,000[21] 22 July 1942 – 19 October 1943 General Government district Poland Carbon monoxide gas chambers
Total 3,395,000–3,495,000

At the Maly Trostenets extermination camp in Belarus, USSR, some 65,000 Jews were killed, whilst the estimated number of gentiles (non-Jews, i.e. communists, priests, non-religious, soldiers, etc.) varies between 100,000 to 400,000.[22]


For a number of reasons such as lack of records and political bias, estimates vary from 100,000 to 700,000 in Croatia at Jasenovac (August 1941 – April 1945).

Systematic mass killing



The English-language memorial in Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, Auschwitz II

Carpathian Ruthenian Jews arrive at Auschwitz–Birkenau, May 1944. Without being registered to the camp system, most were killed in gas chambers hours after arriving.

Each extermination camp operated differently, yet each had designs for quick and efficient industrialized killing. The formal industrial mass-killing method at the extermination camps was initially poisonous Carbon monoxide exhaust fumes. At Auschwitz and Majdanek there was a later deployment of Zyklon-B poison gas (made to order by the IG Farben chemicals company). Besides gassing, the camp guards continued killing prisoners via mass shooting, starvation, torture, etc.[23]

SS Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein, of the Institute for Hygiene of the Waffen-SS, during the war told a Swedish diplomat of life in a death camp, of how, on 19 August 1942, he arrived at Belzec extermination camp (which was equipped with carbon monoxide gas chambers) and was shown the unloading of 45 train cars filled with 6,700 Jews, many already dead, but the rest were marched naked to the gas chambers, where:

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 [engine] 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 [prisoner] 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 [then] 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!" [24]

Auschwitz Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss reported that the first time Zyklon B gas was used on the Jews, many suspected they were to be killed – despite having been deceived into believing they were to be deloused and then returned to the camp. As a result, the Nazis identified and isolated "difficult individuals" who might alert the prisoners, and removed them from the mass – lest they incite revolt among the deceived majority of prisoners en route to the gas chambers. The "difficult" prisoners were led to a site out of view to be killed off discreetly.

A prisoner Sonderkommando (Special Detachment) effected the most of the processes of extermination; they accompanied the Jews into the gas chamber (a chamber room, usually outfitted to appear as a large shower room, with (nonworking) water nozzles, tile walls, etc.) and remained with them until just before the chamber door closed. To psychologically maintain the "calming effect" of the delousing deception, an SS guard stood at the door, as if awaiting the prisoners. The Sonderkommando hurried them to undress and enter the "shower room" as quickly as possible; to that effect, they also assisted the aged and the very young in undressing.[25]

To further persuade the prisoners that nothing harmful was happening, the Sonderkommando deceived them with small talk about camp life. Fearing that the delousing "disinfectant" might harm their children, many mothers hid their infants beneath their piled clothes. Camp Commandant Höss reported that the "men of the Special Detachment were particularly on the look-out for this", and encouraged the women to take their children into the "shower room". Likewise, the Sonderkommando comforted older children who might cry "because of the strangeness of being undressed in this fashion".[26]

Yet, not every prisoner was deceived by such psychological warfare tactics; Commandant Höss reported of Jews "who either guessed, or knew, what awaited them, nevertheless ... [they] 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"; the Sonderkommando immediately took them away for execution by shooting.[27] In such circumstances, others, meaning to save themselves at the gas chamber's threshold, betrayed the identities and "revealed the addresses of those members of their race still in hiding".[28]

Once the door of the filled gas chamber was sealed, pellets of Zyklon B were dropped through special holes in the roof. Nazi regulations required that the Camp Commandant supervise the preparations, the gassing (through a peephole), and the aftermath looting of the corpses. Commandant Höss reported that the gassed victims "showed no signs of convulsion"; the Auschwitz camp physicians attributed that to the "paralyzing effect on the lungs" of the Zyklon-B gas, which killed before the victim began suffering convulsions.[29]

The remnants of "Crematorium II" used in Auschwitz-Birkenau between March 1943 and its complete destruction by the Schutzstaffel on January 20th, 1945
An artist rendition of "Crematorium II" which would have been used to burn over 1,000 bodies every 24 hours during its operation in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As a matter of political training, some high-ranked Nazi Party leaders and SS officers were sent to Auschwitz–Birkenau to witness the gassings; Höss reported that "all were deeply impressed by what they saw ... [yet 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'." As the Auschwitz Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss justified the extermination by explaining the need for "the iron determination with which we must carry out Hitler's orders"; yet saw that even "[Adolf] Eichmann, who certainly [was] tough enough, had no wish to change places with me."[30]

Corpse disposal

After the gassings, the Sonderkommando removed the corpses from the gas chamber, then extracted any gold teeth, and – to minimize the distinct smell of burning human hair – they shaved the corpses, before delivering them to the crematoria or to the fire pits, thus maintaining secret the existence of the extermination camp. The Sonderkommando were responsible for burning the corpses, and stoking the fires, draining body fat, and turning over the "mountain of burning corpses" for even combustion and a peak fire-temperature. Commandant Höss was impressed by the diligence of the Sonderkommando prisoners, despite their being "well aware that they, too, would meet exactly the same fate", yet always doing their jobs "in such a matter-of-course manner that they might, themselves, have been the exterminators". Höss further reported that the men ate and smoked "even when engaged in the grisly job of burning corpses", in the course of which they occasionally encountered the corpse of a relative, but, although they "were obviously affected by this it never led to any incident" of revolt, as in the case of a Sonderkommando who so encountered the corpse of his wife, yet behaved "as though nothing had happened".[31]

The corpses were incinerated in crematoria and the ashes either buried or scattered; yet, at Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Chelmno, the corpses were incinerated on pyres. The efficiency of industrialised killing at Auschwitz-Birkenau produced too many corpses to adequately burn or bury, so the crematoria (manufactured to specification by Topf und Söhne) were put into use to handle the disposals around the clock, day and night.[32]


The mechanical means of mass killing included following Nazi methods and the use initially of gas vans and later Zyklon B in stationery gas chambers. The Jasenovac guards have also been reported to have cremated living inmates in the crematorium.

A notable difference of the Jasenovac guards compared to the SS at the Nazi camps was the widespread use of manual methods in the mass killings. These involved instruments such as mallets and agricultural knives.

The post-war period

The Auschwitz cross before Block 11, Auschwitz I

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In 1944, as the Red Army advanced into eastern Poland, the Nazis either partly or completely dismantled the eastern-most extermination camps to conceal the mass killings done there, and the buried remains (excepting Auschwitz–Birkenau, which was partially demolished in 1947). Because most of the death camps in the far east of the country (Belzec and Sobibor) had been constructed with local lumber, the physical installations were quickly deteriorated, eroded, and destroyed, by the natural elements.

In the post-war period, the Communist government of the People's Republic of Poland (1944–90) created monuments at the extermination camp sites, that mentioned no ethnic, religious, or national particulars of the Nazi victims. The extermination camps sites have been accessible to Western visitors to Poland; the camps are tourist attractions, especially the most-infamous Nazi death camp, Auschwitz concentration camp, near the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz). March of the Living is organized yearly since 1988. In the early 1990s, Jewish Holocaust organisations disputed with Polish Catholic groups about: "What religious symbols of martyrdom are appropriate as memorials in a Nazi death camp such as Auschwitz?" The Jews opposed to the erection of Christian memorials at a quarry adjacent to the Auschwitz camp, wherein featured the Auschwitz cross – a Roman cross erected near death camp Auschwitz I, where mostly Poles were killed, rather than at Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau), where mostly Jews were killed.

Holocaust denial

Holocaust denier: David Irving at the National Archives, 2003

Documentary evidence: A Reichsbahn consignment note for delivering prisoners (Häftlinge) to Sobibor in November 1943

Holocaust deniers are people and organisations who assert that the Holocaust did not occur, or that it did not occur in the historically recognized manner and extent. Holocaust denial goes beyond respected practices of historical revisionism to distort and deny history along preconceived notions, in what is called negationism.

Extermination camp research is difficult because of extensive attempts by the SS and Nazi regime to conceal the existence of the extermination camps. As a result of Sonderaktion 1005, camps were dismantled, records destroyed, and mass graves were dug up. Furthermore, extermination camps that remained uncleared were liberated by Soviet troops, who had different standards of documentation and openness than the Western allies. The existence of the extermination camps is firmly established by testimonies of camp survivors and Final Solution perpetrators, material evidence (the remaining camps, etc.), Nazi photographs and films of the killings, and camp administration records.

Holocaust deniers often start by pointing out legitimate public misconceptions about the extermination camps. For example, widely published images in America were mostly of typhoid victims and Soviet POWs at the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps – the first to be liberated by American troops and the most available imagery in America. In early news reports and for years afterwards these images were often used by the news media somewhat inaccurately in conjunction with descriptions of extermination camps and Jewish suffering. Holocaust deniers, after pointing out such common errors, put it forward as "evidence" extermination camps did not exist and the limited evidence about them is mostly a hoax arising out of a deliberate Jewish conspiracy.

Holocaust denial is highly discredited by scholars and is a criminal offence in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland.

See also


  1. " Die Endlösung der Judenfrage" – Adolf Hitler (In English, "The final solution of the Jewish problem"). Furet, François. Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews. Schocken Books (1989), p. 182; ISBN 978-0-8052-4051-1
  2. Doris Bergen, Germany and the Camp System, part of Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, Community Television of Southern California, 2004-2005
  3. Hoss [sic], Rudolf (2005). "I, the Commandant of Auschwitz," in Lewis, Jon E. (ed.), True War Stories, p. 321. Carroll & Graf Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7867-1533-6.
  4. Minerbi, Alessandra (2005). A New Illustrated History of the Nazis: Rare Photographs of the Third Reich. David & Charles. p. 168. 
  5. "Diary of Johann Paul Kremer (September 5, 1942)". March 2, 1999. Retrieved August 27, 2013. 
  6. Overy, Richard. Interrogations, p. 356–7. Penguin 2002. ISBN 978-0-14-028454-6
  7. "The evacuation of Jews to Poland", Jewish Virtual Library.'.' Retrieved 2009-07-28.
  8. Ellen Land-Weber, "Conditions for Polish Jews During WWII" in To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescue.'.' Retrieved 2009-07-28.
  9. Lifshitz, pp. 101–102
  10. 10.0 10.1 See: M. Lifshitz, "Zionism" (משה ליפשיץ, "ציונות") p. 304. Compare with H. Abraham, "History of Israel and the nations in the era of Holocaust and uprising (חדד אברהם, "תולדות ישראל והעמים בתקופת השואה והתקומה")"
  11. Aktion Reinhard: Belzec, Sobibor & Treblinka, Nizkor Project
  12. "Encyclopedia of the holocaust"
  13. M. Shelach (ed.), "History of the holocaust: Yugoslavia".
  14. State Commission, 1946, pp. 9-11, 46-47
  15. "It is estimated that the SS and police deported at a minimum 1.3 million people to Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the camp authorities murdered 1.1 million." (Number includes victims killed in other Auschwitz camps.) Archived 17 January 2010 at WebCite
  16. Between March and December 1942, the Germans deported some 434,500 Jews, and an indeterminate number of Poles and Roma (Gypsies) to Belzec, to be killed.
  17. In total, the SS and the police killed some 152,000 people in Chelmno.
  18. A recent study reduced the estimated number of deaths at Majdanek, in "Majdanek Victims Enumerated", by Pawel P. Reszka, Lublin, in the Gazeta Wyborcza 12 December 2005, reproduced on the site of the Auschwitz–Birkenau Museum, Lublin scholar Tomasz Kranz established that figure, which the Majdanek museum staff consider authoritative. Earlier calculations were greater: ca. 360,000, in a much-cited 1948 publication by Judge Zdzislaw Lukaszkiewicz, of the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland; and ca. 235,000, in a 1992 article by Dr. Czesaw Rajca, formerly of the Majdanek museum.
  19. Yad Vashem, "Maly Trostinets" (PDF). Retrieved September 1, 2013.. 
  20. In all, the Germans and their auxiliaries killed at least 167,000 people at Sobibor.
  21. The Höfle Telegram indicates some 700,000 killed by 31 December 1942, yet the camp functioned until 1943, hence the true deaths total likely is greater. "Reinhard: Treblinka Deportations". Retrieved 2012-12-20. 
  22. See Maly Trostinec at the camps Yad Vashem website
  23. Borkin, Joseph (1978). The Crime and Punishment of IG Farben. New York: Free Press. ISBN 978-0-02-904630-2. 
  24. The Nazi Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts. Routledge. 2002. p. 354. ISBN 978-0-415-22213-6. 
  25. Höss, pp. 321–322.
  26. Höss, pp. 322–323.
  27. Höss, p. 323.
  28. Höss, p. 324.
  29. Höss, pp. 320, 328.
  30. Höss, p. 328.
  31. Höss, pp. 325–326.
  32. Berenbaum, Michael; Yisrael Gutman (1998). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-253-20884-2. 


  • Bartov, Omer (ed.). The Holocaust: origins, implementation, aftermath. London: Routledge, 2000 ISBN 0-415-15035-3
  • Gilbert, Martin. Holocaust Journey: travelling in search of the past, Phoenix, 1997. An account of the sites of the extermination camps as they are today, plus historical information about them and about the fate of the Jews of Poland.
  • Klee, Ernst. "'Turning the tap on was no big deal': the gassing doctors during the Nazi period and afterwards," in Dachau Review, vol. 2, 1990.
  • Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. London: Michael Joseph, 1986 ISBN 0-7181-3063-4

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