The Holocaust
The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

3.4 The mass production of death

Mass shootings by soldiers and Einsatzgruppen and the use of the mobile gas vans took time and energy. There was concern about the effects on the morale of the men involved. Towards the end of 1941, even before the Wannsee Conference, the Nazis had begun building camps in Poland that incorporated large gas chambers for the mass production of death. Belzec was the first to come into operation in February 1942, killing people with carbon monoxide first released from bottles and subsequently produced by a conventional internal-combustion engine. But the bureaucrats responsible for the killing found that the procedures were still not quick enough to cope with the numbers of those who were to be given ‘special treatment’. The problem was exacerbated after Himmler's order of 19 July 1942 that all Jews in the General Government of Poland, with the exception of a few who might be put to work, should be exterminated before the end of the year. The gas chambers were enlarged, but problems began to be experienced as a result of the enormous numbers of corpses that had been buried, and were putrefying in the vicinity of the camps. The bodies were consequently exhumed and burned. From the end of 1942 and through 1943 the first extermination camps were gradually run down. The bulk of the killing was switched to Auschwitz, where people had been killed since September 1941. Four massive buildings known as crematoria (incorporating gas chambers which used the hydrocyanic acid gas Zyklon B, as well as ovens for the incineration of corpses) were completed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1943. Precise records of how many were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau do not exist; roughly two-thirds of the arrivals at the camp were classified as ‘unfit for work’ and were marched straight to the gas chambers. It seems that there were at least 1,334,700 victims: 1,323,000 Jews; 6,430 Gypsies; 1,065 Soviet prisoners of war; 3,655 others, mainly Poles (Kogon et al, Nazi Mass Murder, 1993, p.173 note). One of the crematoria was put out of action by a prisoners' revolt in October 1944. In January 1945 all four were dynamited by the SS, and attempts were made to destroy camp documents in the panic generated by the Russian advance.

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