The Nazis began constructing special extermination camps in Poland in 1941. Chelmno was the first to be completed and began functioning in December of that year. By 1942 extermination facilities had been installed at the existing camps of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. These six death camps became the Germans’ industrialised killing centres, where they murdered close to 3 million people.


Photo staged at Dachau as evidence of Nazi                   atrocities, dated 20.4.1945

Upon arrival at an extermination camp there was virtually no Selektion. Almost everyone was sent directly to the gas chambers. Often, in order to prevent unrest and therefore a disruption to the killing process, people were told that they had to be deloused in a special steam bath. They were taken to huge rooms or sheds where they were stripped naked and their hair cut or shaved. They were then herded into gas chambers or vans, which were sealed before poison gas was released. Eventually everybody died a horrific death. Afterwards the bodies were removed and either buried in mass graves or burned.

This awful work was performed by Jewish and other slave labourers called Sonderkommando. Occasionally members of the Sonderkommando recognised, knew or were even related to those people whose bodies they had to process after death. Their tasks included extracting any gold teeth or fillings from the corpses, retrieving any valuables hidden inside the body cavities, burning the corpses in the ovens or burying them in mass pits. The Sonderkommandos’ duty was only temporary, as the Nazis killed them within a few months so they would not ‘know too much’.

Chelmno

  • Situated in the Polish village of Chelmno, 70km from Lodz. Functioned from December 7 1941 until March 1943 and again from April 1944 until January 17 1945.
  • The first camp in which mass executions were carried out using gas, in mobile vans. The vans’ exhaust pipes fed straight into their interiors, killing the 50-70 people inside by poisoning and asphixiation.
  • 150 000 Jews and 5000 Gypsies were murdered there.

Majdanek

  • Situated in a suburb of Lublin, Poland. Functioned from 1941 to June 22 1944.
  • Murder there took many forms, from mass shootings to hanging and gassing in its seven chambers, which used either carbon monoxide or Zyklon B.
  • About 120 000 people from 28 countries and representing 54 ethnic groups died at Majdanek. 60% died as a result of conditions in the camp and 40% were gassed or shot.

Sobibor

  • Situated near the village of Sobibor in the Lublin district of Poland.
  • Purpose-built as an extermination centre in March 1942.
  • Functioned until a prisoner revolt on October 14 1943 in which 300 managed to escape. Sobibor’s carbon monoxide gas chambers exterminated 1200 people at a time.
  • About 200 000 Jews were murdered there; less than 50 Sobibor inmates survived the war. (See Regina Zielinski)

Belzec

  • Situated in the town of Belzec, also in the Lublin district. Its carbon monoxide gas chambers functioned from February to December 1942.
  • During this short period approximately 600 000 Jews and several thousand Gypsies were murdered.
  • In 1943 Belzec was dismantled and all visible traces of its victims removed; the mass graves were dug up and all the bodies exhumed and burnt. Only a handful of people survived.

Treblinka

  • Situated outside the village of Treblinka, staffed by 30 SS and 120 Ukranians.
  • In only 14 months from June 1942, these 150 staff managed to kill about 700 000 people. After that, as at Belzec, the mass graves were opened and the bodies of victims exhumed (by hand) and burnt.
  • In July 1943 Treblinka was shut down completely. There were fewer than 100 survivors.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

  • Situated 60km west of Krakow, Poland, the largest and deadliest of all the Nazi extermination camps. It was actually an industrialised killing complex, with three major camps, as well as numerous sub-camps.
  • Auschwitz I was a concentration camp established in 1940; Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, was built in 1941; and Auschwitz III was built in 1942. The Zyklon B gas chambers of Auschwitz II/Birkenau had the potential to kill 6000 persons daily and this potential was usually realised.
  • Approximately one million people were slaughtered there, over 90% of whom were Jews. Tens of thousands of Poles were killed, plus 19 000 Gypsies and 12 000 Soviet Prisoners of War.
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27 1945. Primo Levi, a writer and survivor of Auschwitz wrote of it: “This is Hell. Today, in our times, Hell must be like this.”