Learning Tools

Myth/Fact Sheets

The Gas Vans Did Not Exist

 

Holocaust deniers say:

There are no contemporaneous documents proving the existence of gas vans. Therefore, they did not exist.

Ingrid Weckert, a German Holocaust denier, claims that the existence of the gas vans is "hearsay" for which there is "little documentary evidence."

How did gas vans work? Where were they used?

  • Gas vans were regular trucks specially equipped with an air-tight metal cargo compartment.
  • The exhaust pipe was designed so instead of the exhaust gases flowing out the tailpipe they could be re-directed into the cargo compartment.
  • The modifications that re-directed the engine exhaust gas into the cargo compartment were performed secretly by German mechanics.1
  • When the engine was run, the people who were locked in the back of the truck suffocated from either carbon monoxide or lack of oxygen, or a combination of both, in the exhaust.
  • The gas vans were used in the Chelmno death camp and in the Soviet Union.

What did a gas van look like?

Walter Burmeister, a gas van driver at the Chelmno death camp, recalled the appearance of the gas vans:
  • ". . . The gas-vans were large vans about 4-5 meters long, 2.2 meters wide and 2 meters high [approximately 13-16 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 6.5 feet high] . . . The vans’ cargo compartments had double doors at the rear, like those on a moving van. They were painted. . . gray and looked perfectly harmless from the outside. The interior walls were lined with sheet metal. On the floor there was a wooden grill . . . Inside the compartment was an electric light. When it was turned on it was possible to see into the van from the driver’s cab." 2
Harry Wentritt, the German workshop foreman, testified after the war about special modifications made in his shop:
  • "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." 3

The facts about the surviving documentation on gas vans

Although no credible photographs of or an actual example of a gas van was identified after the war,4 two explicit letters about the construction and use of the gas vans are extant.
  • 1. A letter dated May 16, 1942 from Dr. August Becker to Walther Rauff, who was responsible for the construction and deployment of the gas vans in the field, in Berlin. Becker had been sent by Rauff to inspect the use of the gas vans in the East and report back to him. In the letter, Becker complained that:
  • The larger gas van could not be used a lot of the time because "[i]f it has rained for instance for only one half hour . . . it simply skids away. It can only be used in absolutely dry weather."
  • The problem was that the " place of execution " was usually 10 to 15 kilometers off the regular roads, so that "in damp or wet weather it is not accessible at all."
  • The "rough terrain and indescribable road and highway conditions" in the occupied Soviet territories were causing the caulking and rivets in the air-tight cargo compartment to loosen. As a result of the leaks, the men in the field were complaining of headaches.
  • Becker had ordered that "during the application of gas all the men were to be kept as far away from the vans as possible, so they should not suffer damage to their health by the gas which eventually would escape."
  • He also reported that the men in the field were not following orders. "The application of gas usually is not undertaken correctly. In order to come to an end as fast as possible , the driver presses the accelerator to the fullest extent. By doing that the persons to be executed suffer death from suffocation and not death by dozing off as was planned. My directions now have proved that by correct adjustment of the levers death comes faster and the prisoners fall asleep peacefully. Distorted faces and excretions, such as could be seen before, are no longer noticed."
It would be difficult to get too much plainer about the gas vans and what they were used for--mass murder.
The entire text of this letter is available at http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/gasvan1.htm.
  • 2. The second letter is marked "Top Secret" and is from Willy Just, the German workshop foreman, to Walther Rauff and is dated June 25, 1942.
  • The letter begins with the subject line: "Re: Technical adjustments to special vans at present in service and to those that are in production."
  • Just explains that "[s]ince December 1941 . . . 97,000 have been processed, using three vans . . ."
However, based on "[p]revious experience" Just recommends several design changes:
  • The overall length of the cargo compartment of the larger vans should be shortened by three feet. Although this would decrease the number of " subjects " that could be " treated ," on the plus side, this meant that the space to be filled with carbon monoxide was smaller and the operation would take "considerably less time."
  • Just considered the possibility that shortening the cargo compartment might cause stability problems because the " merchandise aboard displays during the operation a natural tendency to rush to the rear doors , and is mainly found lying there at the end of the operation."
  • Two hinged slots should be added at the top of the rear wall of the cargo compartment to "facilitate the rapid distribution of CO [carbon monoxide]." The slots would also help remove excess air pressure that might build up in the cargo compartment.
  • The lights in the cargo compartment needed to be covered with a steel grid to prevent damage from the " load ." It seems that when the "back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door" where they can see the little light that remains around the edges.
  • The victims soiled the vans’ cargo compartment in their panic and terror before death. To help in the clean up of the vehicle after the operation, the new vans should have a watertight drain about 8 to 12 inches in diameter in the floor. The drain was to be equipped with a "sieve" so that "thin liquids" will drain out but "thicker dirt" will be collected so it can be quickly removed later.
The entire text of this letter and the scanned document is available at http://www.holocaust-history.org/19420605-rauff-spezialwagen/.

Conclusion

Weckert is wrong. The gas vans did exist. The surviving documentations shows that they were designed and constructed in Berlin in late 1941 and early 1942 and sent to the Chelmno death camp and Einsatzgruppen units in the East to assist in the mass murder of Jews and others.

Notes

1. Matthias Beer, "The Development of the Gas-van in the Murder of the Jews" at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/vans.html, p. 6/21.
2. Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 77.
3. Shmuel Spector, "Gas Vans," Holocaust Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1990), p. 542.
4. Although several pictures of alleged gas vans have surfaced, including one that is said to be the interior of the cargo compartment, there is no conclusive evidence that the trucks in the pictures are actually gas vans. For a detailed discussion of this matter see http://weber.ucsd.edu/~lzamosc/chelm00.htm.
Popups by overLIB