Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard. Chapter 5: Gas Chambers at the Aktion Reinhard Camps (1). A “Humane” Solution: Poison Gas and the Development of the Gas Chambers.

Gas Chambers at the Aktion Reinhard Camps

 [Investigation Commission]

So the day of deliverance for the patient arrives. Before an investigative committee under the direction of the asylum doctor, the personal and medical details of the patient are examined and assessed.


For archival purposes, photographs are taken of the patient.

[Gas Chamber (Cuts to turning on of the valve, gasometer, and observation by the doctor)]

In a hermetically sealed room the patient is exposed to the effects of Carbon Monoxide gas.
The incoming gas is completely odourless and initially robs the patient of their powers of judgement, and then their consciousness.
Completely unknown by the patient, without pain and without struggle, the deliverance of death takes effect.
1942 draft for a Nazi documentary on mercy killings on mentally sick persons by German director Herman Schweninger[1]

A “Humane” Solution: Poison Gas and the Development of the Gas Chambers

Poison gas had been a method chosen by Nazi leaders since 1939 for purposes of ‘racial hygiene’, to exterminate those deemed to be ‘unfit’. On December 12-13, 1939, for instance, SS chief Heinrich Himmler visited Posen, probably in the company of RKPA deputy chief Werner, and was shown a model gassing at the experimental euthanasia facility in Fort VII, Posen. His adjutant Joachim Peiper recalled this in two accounts given in 1967 and 1970.[2] In the genocidal climate that reigned during the late summer/autumn of 1941, the idea to extend the use of poison gas on a widespread scale against social and political enemies grew in popularity among Nazi officials.[3] On July 16, 1941, SS-Sturmbannführer Rolf-Heinz Höppner, head of the Security Service (SD) in Poznan, wrote a memo to Adolf Eichmann regarding possible solutions to problems inside the Warthegau. Höppner suggested to Eichmann the following:[4]
A danger persists this winter that not all of the Jews (of the Warthegau) can be fed. It should be seriously considered if the most humane solution is not to finish off those Jews incapable of work by some quick working means. In any case, this would be more pleasant than letting them starve to death.
The wording of the document clearly refers to some type of poisoning act. Höppner also recommended that employable Jewish women capable of bearing children in the Lodz ghetto be sterilized, in order to “solve the Jewish problem within this generation” (damit mit dieser Generation tatsächlich das Judenproblem restlos gelöst wird).[5] With the memo to Eichmann, Höppner was pushing for the complete extermination of any Warthegau Jew not employed at that point in time.[6]
While Höppner was reacting to local circumstances inside the Warthegau, poison gas was also seen as a solution to the problems in the occupied Soviet territories. As the open-air shootings escalated to include more Jewish women and children among the victims, the psychological effects grew immensely upon the shooters. Poison gas was seen as a means to overcome the trauma experienced by the executioners in these shootings. This is supported by, among other things, the memoirs Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Höss who records a discussion with Eichmann:
We further discussed how the mass annihilation was to be carried out. Only gas was suitable since killing by shooting the huge numbers expected would be absolutely impossible and would also be a tremendous strain on the SS soldiers who would have to carry out the order as far as the women and children were concerned.[7]
Walter Rauff similar testified voluntarily in 1972 about the development of gas vans:
The main issue for me at the time was that the shootings were a considerable burden for the men who were in charge thereof, and this burden was taken off them through the use of the gas vans.[8]
The testimony of Dr. August Becker, inspector of the gas wagons, confirms Rauff’s statement:
The leaders of the Einsatzgruppen in the East increasingly complained that the shooting commandos couldn’t withstand the psychological and moral stress of the mass shootings in the long run. I know that the people of the commands were even in mental houses, and that therefore a new and better killing method needed to be found (…) When I was transferred to Rauff in December 1941, he explained to me the situation that the psychological and moral stress on the shooting commandos was no longer sustainable and that therefore the gassing operation had been started.[9]
As early as August 11, 1941, in a travel report on the economic situation in the Baltic, Major von Payr included a description of the “Jewish question” in Riga. Von Payr recorded the execution of Jewish men in the area (“mehrere tausend Juden ‘liquidiert’”) as well as talk that the Jewish women were “later to be eliminated by gassing.”[10] 
In early-mid August, developments regarding homicidal gassings also developed in the occupied Belorussian territory. Reichsführer-SS Himmler visited the area in this timeframe, witnessing a morning execution in Minsk of “Jews and partisans” on August 15, followed by a tour of the psychiatric asylum of Novinki, just north of the Belorussian capital.[11] Just prior to Himmler’s visit Einsatzgruppe B commander Arthur Nebe ordered the assistance of a chemist from the Criminal Technical Institute (KTI) in Berlin.[12] Shortly after Himmler’s visit, HSSPF Bach-Zelewski also twice requested the assistance of SS-Sturmbannführer Lange, who had experience with poison gas technology in occupied Poland.[13]
In mid-September 1941, following further requests for KTI personnel, discussions were held regarding how to kill the inmates at the Novinki asylum. Nebe requested that the experts consider using explosives or poison gas. As chemist Dr. Albert Widmann discussed with his superior, Heeß, Carbon Monoxide bottles were ruled out due to the probable transport problems.[14] Instead, the idea of sealing victims into a building and pumping engine exhaust inside was accepted as a method worth exploring. Along with two experiments with explosives at Novinki, exhaust gas was successfully tested on mental patients in Mogilev, following the request of Einsatzkommando 8.[15] There also are multiple testimonies that Himmler visited the Mogilev site during the testing period.[16]
From these experiments, and with the need of the Einsatzgruppen to remain as mobile as possible, work soon began on homicidal gas vans, which would cycle their engine exhaust into an attached cabin filled with people.[17] RSHA chief Reinhard Heydrich quickly turned to Walter Rauff, head of the RSHA office of technical affairs (including motor vehicles), who in turn summoned motor pool chief Friedrich Pradel to discuss the possibility of such vehicles. Rauff mentioned that a “more humane method of execution” was needed in the East.[18] Such a method was described in a May 1942 letter to Rauff as “death by dozing off” instead of suffocation.[19]
Pradel then commissioned Security Police chief mechanic Harry Wentritt, who testified about the set-up of the vans:
A flexible exhaust pipe was installed at the truck’s exhaust, with a diameter of 58 to 60 millimeters (2.26 to 2.34 inches), and a hole of the same size was drilled in the van floor; a metal pipe was soldered into the hole from the outside to which the flexible exhaust pipe was fixed. When the various parts were connected, the truck engine was started and the exhaust fumes were channeled into the van, through the pipe leading from the exhaust to the hole in the van floor.[20]
After gaseous samples were taken to test the Carbon Monoxide concentration in the engine exhaust, in early-mid November 1941 an experimental gassing with some thirty persons was conducted at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where the KTI had a workshop. KTI chemists Leidig and Hoffman as well as KTI head Heeß were present. Leidig testified that after the gassing, “the corpses had, as we chemists determined, the pink appearance which is typical for people who have died of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.”[21]
By year’s end, half a dozen such vans had been produced and distributed to various units and locations (one with Einsatzgruppe C, one with Einsatzgruppe D, two to Riga, and two to Chelmno), with more ordered around that time. Eye-witnesses in the occupied territories reported the appearance of gas vans late in 1941, serving to assist in the murder of Jews.[22] At the beginning of June 1942, automotive official Willy Just of the Security Police recorded that since December 1941 “ninety-seven thousand have been processed, using three vans without any defects showing up in the vehicles.” Just was coldly referring to victims of three gas vans in the Warthegau.[23]
The planning of murders with poison gas gathered pace in October 1941 due to the imminent deportation of Jews from the Reich and the Protectorate. In a speech in Prague, Heydrich had referred to the need “to gather the plans and the raw material” and to “test the material.”[24] The gas vans were highly valued for Riga as on October 25, 1941, the Ostministerium Jewish expert, Erhard Wetzel, drafted a letter in Minister Rosenberg’s name to be sent to Reich Kommissar for the Ostland Hinrich Lohse. The letter concerned discussions that Wetzel had with Viktor Brack and Adolf Eichmann.[25] Brack, former head of the T4 institution, declared his willingness to aid in the “production of the required shelters and gassing apparatuses (“Vergassungsapparate”)” in Riga, which was considered more efficient than transporting some from the Reich.[26] For Eichmann’s part, he must have agreed to the killing of Jews unfit for work in Riga in the gassing units, as there were no objections “if those Jews who are not fit for work are removed by Brack’s device.” On the same day that Wetzel drafted the letter, Lohse showed up in Berlin to protest the imminent deportations of Reich Jews to Riga. During his stay, Lohse almost certainly discussed the relevant points of the letter with Ostministerium officials.[27] Either way, gas vans were soon sent from Berlin to Riga.  
The push for alternative methods of murder was fuelled by the circumstances and experience of numerous Nazi officials across Eastern Europe. The July 16, 1941 memo by Poznan Security Services chief Höppner highlights the horrible state of Jewish living conditions in the Warthegau, with the enormous expected losses due to starvation. Too squeamish to watch the Jews slowly perish from deprivation, Höppner pushed for another way to achieve the end result upon those Jews unfit for work. Lohse was similarly presented in Berlin with the more “humane” option against Jews unfit for work in order to ease the acceptance of Jewish deportations from the Reich to Riga. The mental stamina of the Nazi executioners in the open-air shootings in the occupied Soviet territories was also wearing thin at this time especially as more Jewish women and children were being included among the liquidations. A less personal, less direct method was requested for all parties involved with the “Jewish Question.” Formerly general ideas of a “quick-working means” soon cemented into the use of engine exhaust. As shown, these developments paved the road to the construction of homicidal gas vans. Parallel to the origins of the gas vans are the stationary homicidal gas chambers which would come into service in the spring of 1942, also employing engine exhaust. They are the subject of the next section. 
While gas vans were being constructed in Berlin to aid in the mobile killing actions in the occupied Soviet territories, agreements were also made regarding the murder of Jews in the district of Lublin, part of the General Government in occupied Poland.[28] Following the decision in October 1941 to construct an extermination camp in Belzec, the SS Zentralbauleitung (Central Building Directorate) acquired twenty local Polish residents and several Ukrainians to take part in the construction of the camp, located off the main Lublin-to-Lwow railway line, southeast of the main Belzec station. Polish labourer Stanislaw Kozak later testified to a postwar Polish investigative committee about the construction of three barracks at the Belzec camp site in November and December 1941:[29]
Next to this we built a third, 12 meters long and 8 meters wide. This building was divided into three timber partitions, rendering each section 4 meters wide and 8 meters long. They were 2 meters in height. The internal walls of the barracks were constructed by nailing the boards onto the frame and filling in the cavity with sand. On the inside of the barracks, the walls were covered with board, and the floors and walls were then covered with zinc up to a height of 1.10 meters. (…) The north facing side of each section had a door, which was about 1.80 meters high and 1.10 meters wide. The doors had rubber seals. All the doors opened outwards. The doors were very strong, made out of 7-cm-thick boards, and, to avoid them being pushed open from the inside, they were secured by a wooden bar resting in two iron hooks put up specifically for the purpose.
The Belzec barracks that Kozak most likely refers to are the living quarters for Jewish prisoners, the undressing barrack, and the gas chamber, with three chambers measuring close to 8 x 4 meters. 
After the completion of the three buildings described by Kozak, and as a result of Heinrich Himmler’s agreement with Philip Bouhler in mid-December 1941 to make former Euthanasia personnel available to Odilo Globocnik, head of Aktion Reinhard, an initial wave of former T4 personnel arrived in Belzec towards the end of December 1941. Among this first wave of personnel was Polizeihauptmann Christian Wirth, who was given command of the Belzec extermination camp. SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs went with Wirth to Belzec:
One day in the winter of 1941 Wirth arranged a transport to Poland. I was picked together with about eight or ten other men and transferred to Belzec in three cars…Wirth told us that in Belzec “all the Jews will be bumped off.” For this purpose barracks were built as gas chambers. In the gas chambers I installed shower heads. The nozzles were not connected to any water pipes because they would only serve as camouflage for the gas chamber. For the Jews who were gassed it would seem as if they were being taken to baths and for disinfection.[30] 
The background of Wirth is crucial. In early 1940, Wirth and Eberl had attended a test gassing at Brandenburg.[31] Stangl and Wirth had commanded the Hartheim ‘euthanasia’ camp before their spells in Aktion Reinhard. Stangl had testified about gassing protocols at Hartheim during his interrogation in Linz in 1947.[32] In September 1945, Hartheim stoker Vinzenz Nohel revealed that Wirth had shot four Jewish women who were too sick to walk to the gas chamber.[33] Hermann Merta and Karl Harrer also stated that they received the belongings of gassed victims as gifts from Wirth.[34]
The affidavit of Gorgass makes an explicit connection between these gassing activities and Wirth’s transfer to Aktion Reinhard:
Police Captain WIRTH, whom I knew personally and who was administrative director in several Euthanasia institutions, told me late in summer 1941 that he had been transferred by the "foundation" to a Euthanasia institute in the Lublin area.[35]
It is likely that around the same time construction was underway for the Belzec extermination camp, preparations and planning had also begun at the site of the future Sobibor camp, also in the Lublin district. Polish railway worker Jan Piwonski testified:
In the autumn of 1941 German officers arrived at the station of Sobibor on three occasions. During their visit to the station they took measurements of the platform, and the sidings leading away from the platform, and then went into the woods nearby. I have no idea what they were doing there. Sometime later some very thick doors, which had rubber strips around them, arrived by train. We speculated on what purpose the doors might be serving, and it dawned on us that the Germans were building something here, especially when trainloads of bricks were also being delivered, and they started to bring Jews over as well.[36] 
SS-Scharführer Fuchs, after helping with the installation of gas chambers at Belzec, was then employed in the construction of the Sobibor gas chambers in early spring 1942:
Sometime in the spring of 1942 I drove a truck to Lemberg on Wirth’s orders and picked up a gassing engine, which I took to Sobibor. Upon my arrival at Sobibor I found near the station an area with a concrete structure and several permanent houses. The special commando there was led by Thomalla. Other SS men present included Floss, Bauer, Stangl, Friedl, Schwarz and Barbl. We unloaded the engine. It was a heavy Russian petrol engine (presumably an armoured vehicle or traction engine), at least 200 HP (V-engine, 8-cylinder, water cooled). We installed the engine on a concrete base and connected the exhaust to the pipeline. Then I tried the engine. It hardly worked. I repaired the ignition and the valves, and finally got the engine to start.[37] 
Along with the homicidal gas vans, the gas chambers at Sobibor and Belzec were based upon the lethal effects of engine exhaust introduced into an area where human beings were trapped. Carbon Monoxide, one of the toxins in engine exhaust, was a favoured method in its bottled form in mobile and stationary gas chambers against mentally ill patients following the occupation of Poland in 1939.
The use of engine exhaust for mass murder had also been exemplified since 8 December 1941 in Chelmno, where Warthegau officials stationed several gas vans employing such means to gas thousands of Jews. Gassings by Sonderkommando Lange (including at the Soldau “transit camp) during 1940 were discussed in Chapter 2, where we showed how these paved the way for the same unit’s involvement in the gassing at Chelmno. Thus, when T4 personnel were assigned to help establish homicidal gas chambers at the Reinhard camps, the idea of engine exhaust was the method most offering itself.   
Of course, there were other gaseous methods accessible to Nazi officials to use in order to poison unwanted persons. For the Auschwitz camp staff, the newly available cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon-B presented itself as a suitable method to dispose of the increasing number of Soviet prisoners of war, sick prisoners, and Jewish laborers who were “unfit for work.”[38] In early September 1941, a provisional gassing test was undertaken in cell block 11 in the main Auschwitz camp. After sealing the block and making it airtight, several hundred Soviet prisoners of war, in addition to a large group of sick inmates were brought into the basement cells, where several SS officers with gas masks dispensed the Zyklon-B.[39] Several more gassings in the main camp were performed with the pesticide in the autumn/winter 1941-1942.
Unfortunately for MGK, the use of different methods by different actors in different situations to mass murder people in different locations does not preclude the truth of those events. Such complexities are not unusual to recorded human history, and in no way cast doubt on the independent sources of evidence regarding those different methods. Instead of properly addressing that evidence, MGK instead ignore, distort, and straw man the current research on the development of the Nazi gas chambers, which highlight the influence and importance of local circumstances and actions in the progression of Nazi policy against the Jews. For instance, MGK argue that it “cannot be explained why the euthanasia personnel” built gas chambers for the Reinhard camps, but not for Auschwitz-Birkenau.[40] Such poor quality arguments of incredulity stem from MGK’s ignorance and incomprehension of the literature, for historians have indeed explained such matters, as we have above.

[1] NARA T-1021, Record Group 242/338, Roll 12, ‘Entwurf für den wissenschaftlichen Dokumentarfilm G.K.’, 29.10.1942, p. 127171. The script is marked ‘Geheime Reichssache!’
[2] Volker Riess, Die Anfänge der Vernichtung “lebensunwerten Leben” in den Reichsgauen Danzig-Westpreussen und Wartheland 1939/40. Frankfurt am Main, 1995, p.307, citing Peiper testimony, 1970.
[3] This is a subject that is almost entirely ignored by MGK in their publications.
[4] Höppner an Eichmann, 16.7.41, T/219, also published in VEJ 4, pp.680-1.
[5] Ibid.
[6] It is noteworthy that Höppner was close to both Warthegau Gauleiter Arthur Greiser and Warthegau SS and Police Chief Wilhelm Koppe. Kershaw, ‘Improvised Genocide?’, p.66.
[7] Höss, Death Dealer, p.28.
[8] Rauff deposition to West German investigators, Santiago, Chile, 28.6.72. The deposition is on-line; English translation by Roberto Muehlenkamp: http://nizkor.org/ftp.cgi/people/r/rauff.walter/Rauff-deposition-translation (ZSL, II 415 AR-Z 1310/63-E32, Bl.534-549, StA Hamburg Az. 147 Js 31/67).
[9] Klee/Dressen, Schöne Zeiten, p.71.
[10] “Man sprach davon, dass sie spaeter durch Vergasung beseitigt werden sollen.” Reisebericht des Ia des Wehrwirtschafts- und Ruestungsamts des OKW ueber seinen Besuch im Abschnitt der Wirtschaftsinspektion Nord, 11. August 1941, published in Kulka/Jaeckel (eds), Die Juden in den geheimen Stimmungsberichten 1933-1945, p.454.
[11] Dienstkalender, p.195 (15.8.1941).
[12] Engelmann an KdS Warschau, 8.8.41, BA Dahlwitz-Hoppegarten ZR 7, Bl. 120; cf. Browning, Origins, p.513 n. 329. Nebe was director of Amt V of the RSHA (Chief of the Reich Criminal Police Office), to which the KTI was subordinated.
[13] FS von dem Bach an Koppe, dates, PRO HW16/32; cf. Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde, p.648; Lange, for whatever reason, was unable to help HSSP Bach-Zelewski.
[14] Interrogation of Dr. Albert Widmann on 11 January 1960, Archives of the Holocaust Vol.22, p.478.; cf. Beer, ‘Development of the Gas-Van.’
[15] Angrick, Besatzungspolitik und Massenmord, p.368 ff. and Christian Gerlach also suggests a gassing experiment at Novinki, see Gerlach, ‘Mogilew’, p.65.
[16] Beer, ‘Development of the Gas-Van,’ citing Karl Schulz, Nebe's adjutant, deposition on 9.3.59, StA Stuttgart, Az.13 Js 328/60; ZSL, Az.439 AR-Z 18a/1960, Bl.48; deposition by B.Wehners on 26.1.60, StA Bremen, Az.6 Js 3/6; ZSL, Az.202 AR-Z 152/1959, Bl.57f..
[17] Beer, ‘Development of the Gas-Van,’ cutting deposition by A. Widmann on 27.1.59 and on 12.1.60.
[18] Browning, Origins, p.355, citing Pradel/Wentritt trial, Pradel testimony and Rauff testimony.
[19] Becker an Rauff, 16.5.1942, 501-PS.
[20] Beer, ‘Development of the Gas-Van’; Deposition by H. Wentritt on 2.2.61, (n.46), B1.260d ff.
[21] Beer, ‘Die Entwicklung der Gaswagen’, 411; Deposition by Leidig on 6.2.59 (note 52), B1.49.
[22] Beer, ‘Die Entwicklung der Gaswagen.’
[23] Just an Rauff, 5.6.1942, BA R 58/871, also T/1390; cf. Kogon, Nazi Mass Murder, pp.228-335.
[24] Heydrich, Rede, 2.10.1941, published in Karny et al (eds), Politik im 'Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren' unter Reinhard Heydrich 1941-1942, pp. 107-22.
[25] RMO, Sachbearbeiter AGR Dr. Wetzel, Lösung der Judenfrage, 25.10.41, NO-365.
[26] Such devices were noted to not yet have been manufactured, which fits neatly into the gas van development chronology described, with the first prototype being tested in November.
[27] This would explain why the letter was neither formally signed nor sent.
[28] See the section Odilo Globocnik, SS Planning and the Origins of Aktion Reinhard, Chapter 3.
[29] Vernehmung Stanislaw Kozak, 14.10.1945, BAL B162/208 AR-Z 252/59, Bd. 6, pp.1129-30. MGK rely upon Kozak’s testimony in support of their thesis that Belzec was a delousing-transit camp. This argument will be analyzed in the next section.
[30] Erich Fuchs, 2.4.1963, BAL 162/208 AR-Z 251/59, Bd. 9, 1782-1783.
[31] Burleigh, Death and Deliverance, pp.133-34.
[32] Peter Schwarz, ‘Der Gerichtsakt Georg Renno als Quelle für das Projekt Hartheim’, DoeW Jahrbuch, 1999, pp. 80-92.
[33] Testimony of Vinzenz Nohel, 4.9.45, DÖW, E18370/3. The date and location of this testimony, and the national jurisdiction of the Austrian police over their own euthanasia cases, disprove Samuel Crowell’s claim that the euthanasia ‘narrative’ was concocted for the Nuremberg trials. For an English translation of this and other parts of Nohel’s testimony, see Herwig Czech, ‘Nazi Medical Crimes at the Psychiatric Hospital Gugging: Background and Historical Context’, (DÖW), no date, pp.7-8.
[34] Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, pp.234-35, citing Bezirksgericht Ybbs, interrogation of Hermann Merta, 3.12.45 and LG Linz, interrogation of Karl Harrer, 6.3.47. Both located at DÖW E18370/3.
[35] Affidavit of Hans Bodo Gorgass, 23.2.47, NO-3010.
[36] Schelvis, Sobibor, p.27.
[37] Schelvis, Sobibor, p.100, citing Erich Fuchs, Koblenz, 8.4.1963, ZStL-251/51/9-1782/83.
[38] Longerich, Holocaust, p.280.
[39] Cf. Klodzinski, ‘Die erste Vergasung’, also Joachim Neander and Sergey Romanov, ‘Dr. Neander responds to Carlo Mattogno,’ Holocaust Controversies, 13.2.10, http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2010/02/dr-joachim-neander-responds-to-carlo.html. Dr. Neander’s response and Sergey Romanov’s postscript demolish the fallacies and distortions in Mattogno’s account on the first gassing at Auschwitz.
[40] MGK, Sobibór, pp.272-273. 

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