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Extermination camps

Bodies are burned in Auschwitz. In the summer of 1944 more than 440,000 Hungarian Jews arrived in Birkenau. The capacity of the ovens did not suffice - as a result the bodies were burned under open sky. (Source: Sterbenbücher von Auschwitz, vol. 1, p. 192).

In the period of 1941-1945, for the first time in the history of mankind, industrial plants were used to kill people. At the genocide on the Jews, extermination camps were established, where the Nazis in the most terrible way carried out the mass murder of 3 million Jews – half of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.

A total of six extermination camps were established with the ghoulish purpose of killing Jews one after the other. Gypsies and other groups from all over Europe were also sent to the extermination camps.

> Map of the extermination camps in Poland, 1942

More about:
The six extermination camps
Why extermination camps?
Who controlled the camps?
The victims
Killing methods
From arrival to …
List of extermination camps


Chelmno was the first extermination camp to be established as part of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the Nazis’ systematic effort to exterminate the Jews.

This was quickly followed by the establishment of the three extermination camps Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. They were established under the code-name Operation Reinhard – the starting signal to the extermination of the approximately 3 million Jews that lived in the General Government in Poland. In the concentration camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek two further extermination camps were established.

The six extermination camps were all situated in former Poland and had mass murder as their purpose. Outside Poland at least two camps existed that in many ways resembled the six extermination camps in Poland: Jungfernhof (in Latvia) and Maly Trostinets (in Byelorussia).

All of the extermination camps were thoroughly organised and resembled industrial plants to an alarming degree. However, only Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its advanced gassing facilities and crematoria, was marked by real high technology. In crematoria I and II there were elevators from the gas chambers underground, where the Jews were murdered, to the crematoria, where the bodies were burned.

The six extermination camps were established within a very short time. From December 1941 to December 1942 Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek were all became capable of functioning. Their position was chosen primarily from their location in former Poland: they were all situated near railway lines, and they lay undisturbed in rural areas in “far away” Poland. They were all situated far from “core” Germany and outside the spotlight of the German as well as the international public.

The six extermination camps

Chelmno was the first extermination camp to be established with the one cruel purpose of killing people – first of all Jews – in a systematic fashion. In Chelmno, 152,000 were gassed to death using exhaust gas from trucks, in the period of December 1941-March 1943, and again from June-July 1944.

In connection with Operation Reinhard, three extermination camps were established: Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor. The purpose of the Operation was to exterminate all Jews in occupied Poland.

The extermination camp Belzec was established in May 1942 and continued to function until August 1943. 600,000 Jews fell victim to the merciless efficiency of the gas chambers at Belzec.

Sobibor also began its terrible business of mass murder in May 1942. The killings continued through October 1943, when an uprising among the prisoners put and end to the activities of the camp. 250,000 lost their lives in Sobibor’s gas chambers.

The extermination camp Treblinka was working from July 1942 to November 1943. In August 1943 an uprising destroyed many of the facilities. 900,000 Jews lost their lives in the terribly efficient extermination camp at Treblinka.

It is estimated that 1 ¾ million Jews and several thousand gypsies were killed during Operation Reinhard. Only a very few survived or escaped the killings: the vast majority were killed upon arrival.

Crematorium IV in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
J.C. Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas chambers (New York, 1989), p.418.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, which also functioned as a concentration camp and a work camp, became the largest killing centre as far as the number of victims is concerned. It is estimated that between 1 and 2 million were killed in the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau during its day. The first gassing experiments, involving 250 Polish and 600 Soviet POW’s, were carried out as early as September 1941. The extermination camp was started up in March 1942 and ended its ghoulish work in November 1944. 9 out of 10 victims in the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau were Jews. The remaining victims were mainly Poles, gypsies, and Soviet POW’s.

Majdanek began its gassings in October 1942. The camp functioned in the same way as Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also included a concentration- and work camp. In the autumn of 1943 the camp was closed after claiming between 60,000 and 80,000 Jewish victims.

Apart from the six “known” extermination camps in Poland, organised mass murder was carried out in at least two more camps: in Jungfernhof (in Latvia) and in Maly Trostinets (in Byelorussia). Here, mass extermination was carried out in the form of shooting and gassing of Jews and Soviet POW’s.

Why extermination camps?

Why did the Nazis begin to exterminate the Jews in extermination camps? This question has been highly debated all since World War II.

View possible answers at:

> The Final Solution

Who controlled the camps?

The commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, was one of the main men behind the murder of 900,000 Jews in Treblinka.

The SS was responsible for the administration of the extermination camps. Day by day management was taken care of in part by policemen from the Euthanasia Programme (the “mercy killings” of disabled Germans).

In most of the extermination camps the camp guards, especially the leaders, were members of the SS’s notorious Totenkopfverbände – the black-uniformed Death Head’s Unit. These guards were recruited from
Theodor Eicke’s tough school –he was the man who had developed the concentration camp system in Dachau and had trained these men in the former concentration camps.

The ordinary guards were usually Ukrainians or Balts, who in many eyewitness accounts are presented as violent thugs.

The Victims

The shoes of victims in Belzec. (From: H. Kuhnrich, Der KZ-Staat (Berlin 1983), p.144

A total of at least 3 million Jews were murdered in the six extermination camps. The precise figure is impossible to estimate, since the Nazis did not calculate the number as individuals but rather as the number of trainloads that arrived to the extermination facilities.

Around 1 ¾ million Jews died in the Operation Reinhard-extermination camps: 152,000 were killed in Chemno, 60-80,000 Jews were gassed or shot in Majdanek, while more than 1 million Jews were gassed to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau. To this should be added tens of thousands of gypsies and Soviet POW’s, who were also killed in the extermination camps.

> Statistics

Killing methods

A German police officer shoots a Jewish woman who is still alive following a mass execution of Jews from the ghetto in Mizocz, USHMM #17878.

The use of gas chambers was the most common method of mass murdering the Jews in the extermination camps. The Jews were herded into the gas chambers, then the camp personnel closed the doors, and either exhaust gas (in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) or poison gas in the form of Zyclon B or A (in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau) was led into the gas chamber. Another method was the use of gassing trucks. In Chemno gassing trucks were used, where Jews, after being driven into the trucks, were suffocated by the exhaust fumes that were led into them in the truck. A third method was mass shooting of Jews and other groups (Soviet POW’s, Poles, etc.). In Majdanek, on 3-4 November 1943, between 17,000 and 18,000 Jews were killed in one day as part of a mass shooting. The event was called Erntefest (‘harvest feast’) and included similar actions all around the Lublin District. More than 40,000 Jews died as a result.

> Killings methods during the Holocaust

From arrival to …

When the victims arrived to the extermination camps in overcrowded trains, they were herded out onto the arrival ramp. Here, German SS-men and perhaps brutal Ukrainian guards forced them to hand over their belongings and their clothes. Most of the victims had been told that they were merely to be moved to the east for new jobs and living places, and most of them had brought their favourite belongings.

Selection at the arrival ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The deported Jews were either selected for work or for immediate gassing. In the background: a group of people on their way towards gas chamber no. II.

In the “pure” extermination camps, men were separated from women upon arrival. The first to be gassed were the men – the women had their hair cut off before they went to their death.

In the combined concentration- and extermination camps, Majdanek and Auschwitz, the SS chose those able to work for the work camps.

Those unable to work – the old, women and children – were immediately sent to the gas chambers or shot in the "camp hospital". Even those able to work ended up in the gas chamber sooner or later, or they fell victim to random shooting actions within a few months, when they had been worn out by the tough work. That is, if they had not died already. Those able to work for instance helped carry the bodies to the crematoria or search the bodies for valuables.

The bodies were looted of gold (from the teeth), before being thrown into large mass graves. In time, the bodies were burned – either in mass graves or in the crematoria – when, as the Soviet armies advanced through Poland, the Nazis tried to hide their terrible crime.

There are few examples of uprisings in the extermination camps. In Sobibor and Treblinka prisoners tried to rebel in 1943, and the same was tried in Auschwitz in 1944. Only a very few managed to escape.

List of extermination camps

Extermin. camp







8 December 1941 until March 1943
and the summer of 1944

March 1942 until November 1944

March 1942 until December 1943

May-June 1942 , October-December 1942,
March-August 1943

July 1942 until October 1943

October 1942 until October 1943
Jewish victims (est.)


Over 1 million

Over 600,000



60,000 - 80,000


General accounts:

Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indianapolis, 1987).

Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, eds., Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (Bloomington, IN, 1994).

Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews. Revised and definitive edition (New York, 1985).

Eugen Kogon et al., eds., Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the use of Poison Gas (New Haven, 1993).

Eyewitness accounts:

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1976).
Polish resistance fighter, who survived Dachau and Auschwitz I and II. Belonged to the privileged part of the prison hierarchy, one of Poland’s more gifted authors; suicide in 1951. This book includes excerpts from his autobiographies.

Rudolf Höss, Death dealer : the memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, edited by Steven Paskuly (Buffalo, NY, 1992).

Claude Lanzmann, Shoah : an oral history of the Holocaust : the complete text of the film (New York, 1985).
The interviews from the famous documentary film ‘Shoah’.

Primo Levi, If this is a man (London, 1996).
Touching reflections on life as a prisoner in a concentration camp and of the hierarchy in Auschwitz.

"Those were the Days": The Holocaust through the Eyes of the Perpetrators and Bystanders, edited by Ernst Klee et al. (London & New York, 1991).
The book is an anthology of documents, letters, diaries, eyewitness accounts, state and military reports, and photos, all depicting the nazi extermination of the Jews from the point of view of the perpetrators.

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