Birkenau (Auschwitz) Concentration and Extermination Camp
Part 2 - Selection, Gas Chambers, Crematoria
Gas chambers were initially used at Birkenau to kill prisoners beginning in the spring of 1942. Two farm buildings on the outskirts of the camp were converted for use as gas chambers, before the construction of four dual-purpose gas chamber buildings with crematoria. These first two gas chambers in converted buildings were called Bunker 1 and Bunker 2, or the "Little Red House" and "Little White House," and were in operation from around March 1942 until spring 1943 (and possibly used again in May 1944). The bodies of the gassed prisoners were first buried nearby, then burned in special fire pits.
Arriving transports of Jews, Gypsies, and other prisoners first went through a selection process on the arrival ramp, in which SS personnel and prisoner helpers separated the arrivals by gender (children staying with the women), and then lined them up for SS doctors to inspect. The SS doctors determined through a short visual examination who was fit for work, and would thus be admitted to the camp, and who would go immediately to the gas chambers (older people, children, women with babies, people with disabilities, etc.). From the spring of 1942 until May 1944, this selection process took place on the Judenrampe, with those designated for the gas chambers generally being driven there in trucks, while those fit for work either walked to the camp or were trucked. When the rail spur into Birkenau was finished in May 1944, the selection process took place inside the camp.
In July 1942 the first Birkenau Sonderkommando (Special Squad) was formed of Jewish prisoners, whose duties were to bury corpses killed at Bunker 1 and Bunker 2. The first Sonderkommando was housed in Barracks 2 of Lager BIb, isolated from other prisoner barracks. Later they were moved to Barracks 13 of Lager BIId. Eventually, there were Sonderkommando for each crematorium, and they lived in the crematorium buildings where they worked. The Sonderkommando were forced to help keep order while the prisoners were disrobing and passing into the gas chambers, then pulling the bodies out of the gas chambers and cutting the women's hair and searching the corpses for hidden valuables, then loading the bodies into the crematoria ovens. The Sonderkommando operated the ovens and emptied the ashes. The Sonderkommando workers were periodically executed, since they were intimately familiar with the killing process, and few survived the end of World War II.
Finding the capacity of the corpse burning pits around Bunkers 1 and 2 to be insufficient for the numbers of arriving prisoners, much larger crematoria were planned in 1942, initially based on plans for an additional crematorium that was to be built in the Auschwitz I main camp. The design for Crematorium II and Crematorium III was therefore for buildings with underground morgues and aboveground incinerators. Before they were built, the designs were changed to modify one of the morgue rooms into a gas chamber and the other into an undressing room. Two smaller facilities, Crematoria IV and V, were designed from the beginning to have integral gas chambers. (For details, see especially Ref. 3 throughout.)
The main differences between Crematoria II/III and IV/V were the underground rooms of II/III (Crematoria IV/V were built entirely aboveground), the ventilation systems and method of Zyklon B introduction for the gas chambers, the smaller double chimneys of IV/V in contrast with the single large chimneys of II/III, and the differences in incineration capacities due to the number and configuration of the ovens. Crematoria II and III each had five triple-muffle ovens, for fifteen total burning chambers, and a planned combined capacity of 2,880 bodies in 24 hours. Crematoria IV/V each had four double-muffle ovens, with eight burning chambers, and a planned daily combined capacity of 1,536 bodies; thus a daily total for all four crematoria of over 4,400 bodies. (Ref. 3, page 342; Ref. 4, page. 429) These totals could be exceeded by loading more bodies, but the resulting heat often damaged the ovens and chimneys, putting some of the buildings out of service for various periods. In the summer of 1944, during the murder of the large shipments of Jews from Hungary, the crematoria could not keep up and burning pits were again used to dispose of corpses.
Crematorium II, the first to be completed, was initially put into operation for a test firing on 5 March 1943. The gas chamber and crematorium were first used to kill and incinerate prisoners on 13 March 1943. Crematorium IV was completed second, on 22 March 1943, followed by Crematorium V on 4 April 1943, then Crematorium III on 25 June 1943. The Sonderkommando of Crematorium II participated in the revolt of 7 October 1944 (see here). But a year before that, on 23 October 1943, a group of Jewish women who were being led to the gas chamber of Crematorium II revolted against the SS guards. One of the women grabbed a pistol and shot two SS guards, one fatally. The other women attacked the guards with their bare hands, teeth, and fingernails. SS reinforcements restored order, shooting some of the women and forcing the rest into the gas chamber (see Ref. 4, page 513).
The chemical agent used to murder prisoners in the gas chambers was Zyklon B, a cyanide-based insecticide produced by the DEGESCH company (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung - German Corporation for Pest Control), partly owned by IG Farben. "Zyklon" ("Cyclone") was the company's name for the product, and the "B" stood for Blausäure, or prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). The product had been in use for years in its intended function as a pesticide for clothing, bedding, and living areas, but after testing on prisoners in the Auschwitz I main camp in late summer 1941, it was adapted for use in the gas chambers. The product was shipped in sealed cans containing granules of an absorbent material which had been soaked in hydrogen cyanide. When introduced into the open air of the gas chambers, the hydrogen cyanide was released in gaseous form.
The building designations in parentheses in the text (e.g., BW12f) were the original construction project numbers for each building.
Auschwitz III Monowitz and
surrounding labor camps, along with the IG Farben Buna-Werke factory site
Official Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum Webpage -- http://en.auschwitz.org/m/
Follow these links to visit other Third Reich in Ruins pages on concentration camp sites -- Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Nordhausen (Dora), Flossenbürg, S/III Jonastal, Mauthausen (includes Gusen), Ebensee (Austria).
Third Reich in Ruins, http://www.thirdreichruins.com/
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This page initially uploaded on 20 July 2000.