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    Gas Vans: Witnesses to the Use of Gas Vans

    How do we know the eyewitnesses to the use of gas vans to murder Jews in Chelmno and the East are reliable?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    The eyewitness testimony about the use of gas vans in the death camp of Chelmno and by the Einsatzgruppen units in the East is a “wild conglomeration of conflicting claims” that is of “no evidentiary value.” Therefore, the gas vans never existed.[1]

    The facts are:

    There was a large body of eyewitnesses to the design, construction and use of the gas vans include the drivers of the gas vans, the heads of the Einsatzgruppen units that employed the gas vans, survivors of their use in the East and at the Chelmno death camp, and bystanders. While, as is always the case with eyewitnesses, there are slight variations in their testimony all agree in the major points. Further, their testimony is corroborated by primary German documents.  

    Who were the people who described the gas vans and their use?

    The eyewitnesses include the drivers of the gas vans, the heads of the Einsatzgruppen units that employed the gas vans, survivors of their use in the East and at the Chelmno death camp and bystanders who witnessed the gas vans being used.

    The facts about the eyewitness testimony regarding the existence of gas vans.

    The eyewitnesses agree in their overall descriptions of a gas van. From the outside a gas van looked like a normal dark gray or green-gray delivery van. The doors into the cargo area at the back of the van were hermetically sealed with a rubber lining around the edges. The interior of the cargo area was lined with galvanized iron and the floor was covered by a wooden grid or grate that could be lifted for cleaning. Underneath the wooden grid or grate was an opening that connected to the engine and fed the exhaust gases into the compartment. The smaller vans held 30 to 50 people and the larger vans between 50 and 70 people.

    Where and when did we first learn about the gas vans?

    Evidence about the existence and use of gas vans first surfaced in 1942:

    Shlomo Winer (also known as Jacob Grojanowski) was a member of the Sonderkommando in the Chelmno death camp.[2] He escaped in early 1942 and made his way to the Warsaw ghetto where he gave Hersh Wasser, of the Oneg Shabbat project, a detailed account of what he had seen.[3] In his report Grojanowski said, “We didn’t have to wait long before the next lorry arrived with fresh victims. It was specially constructed. It looked like a normal large lorry, in grey paint, with two hermetically closed rear doors. The inner walls were of steel metal. There weren’t any seats. The floor was covered by a wooden grating, as in public baths, with straw mats on top. Between the driver’s cab and the rear part were two peepholes. With a torch one could observe through these peepholes if the victims were already dead. Under the wooden grating were two tubes about 15 cms [centimeters, or about 6 inches] thick which came out of the cab. The tubes had small openings from which gas poured out . . . There were two such vans.”[4] Grojanowski fled the Warsaw Ghetto for the Zamosc ghetto. He was apparently deported a second time from Zamosc to Belzec where he was murdered.

    The evidence for the existence and use of gas vans in the East in Soviet trials.

    The use of gas vans was recorded in Soviet trials in 1943 and by the Soviet Extraordinary Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes in 1944:

    Mendel Vulfovich, a Jew from Riga, testified on December 9, 1944 before the Soviet Extraordinary Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes: “In February 1942, I saw with my own eyes 2,000 elderly Jews from Germany, men and women, being loaded into special gas vans. These vans were painted gray-green and had a large closed cargo compartment with hermetically sealed doors. All those inside were killed by gas.”[5]

    A man named Kotov actually survived a gas van operation in the Caucasus (a region that borders on Russia and Turkey). “As I entered the courtyard I saw a large truck with a dark-gray body.” Kotov was seized and pushed into the truck, where he struggled to breathe through a wet shirt. He eventually passed out and woke up in a ditch with several dozen corpses. He crawled away and survived the war.[6] (Krasnodar/Kharkov trials in the Soviet Union, 1943)

    A mass grave in the former extermination camp of Chełmno nad Nerem, Poland.
    By Jacques Lahitte (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    The evidence for the existence and use of gas vans in the East in German trials after the war.

    The use of gas vans in the death camp of Chelmno and on the Eastern Front was dealt with in German trials in Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Darmstadt, Hanover, Munich, Koblenz, Essen, Karlsrühe, Wuppertal, Cologne, Giessen and other cities in West Germany throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.

    Willi Friedrich, a guard at a prison in Kharkov in the occupied Soviet territories testified: “From February to May 1942 I was responsible . . . for the cordoning measures necessary for the gas-van operations . . . I don’t know where the van was stationed. But I remember having seen it several times . . . The gas van looked like a large moving van.” [7] (Trial in Darmstadt, West Germany, 1967)

    Wilhelm Findeisen worked for Einsatzgruppe C as a gas van driver in Kiev, Ukraine. Findeisen stated, “My job was just to drive the vehicle . . . About forty people were loaded inside. There were men, women, and children . . . The van door was then bolted shut, and the hose was attached . . . I drove through the town to the antitank ditches. There the doors of the vehicle were opened . . . The bodies were thrown into the antitank ditches.”[8] (Trial in Darmstadt, West Germany, 1967)

    Robert Mohr, the head of Einsatzkommando 6, testified about his activities in Stalino, Ukraine (today: Donetsk): “I saw only the outside of the Sonderkommando’s gas van . . . it was a large gray vehicle that looked like a moving van. It had no windows.”[9] (Trial in Wuppertal, West Germany, 1962)

    Boris Dobin, a Jew from the Minsk Ghetto (Belarus), testified to the use of gas vans in Minsk: “They [the victims] were loaded onto vehicles equipped to kill by means of exhaust fumes. These vehicles had all-metal cargo compartments. The prisoners from the ghetto called these vehicles ‘gas vans.’”[10] (Trial in Essen, West Germany, 1964)

    Hedwig Schönfein, a Swiss woman who had married a Jewish doctor, was interned with her husband and daughter in the Semlin camp in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. On May 8 or 9, 1942 Hedwig’s husband was taken away in a gas van. She was spared because she was not Jewish. She later testified to a Yugoslavian court that “the convoys were taken in a large hermetically sealed van painted dark gray. It could hold a hundred people standing up. There were no seats.” [11] (Trial in Cologne, West Germany, 1952)

    Thus, perpetrators, survivors and bystanders in Kharkov (Soviet Union), Kiev (Crimea), Stalino (Ukraine), Chelmno (Poland), Poltava (southern Ukraine), Baranovichi (Belarus), Minsk (Belarus), the Caucasus (Soviet Union), Belgrade (Yugoslavia), and Riga (Latvia) described similar vehicles, varying only in minor details.

    Conclusion

    The perpetrator, survivor and bystander eyewitness testimony corroborates each other on all major points. The gas vans existed and were used to murder Jews and others in the death camp at Chelmno and in the East. Weckert’s contention that gas vans did not exist because the eyewitness testimony is contradictory and therefore of no evidentiary value is false.

    NOTES

    [1] Ingrid Weckert, “The Gas Vans: A Critical Assessment of the Evidence” (“4.1. Russian ‘Murder vans’”) and (“4.2.2. Description of the ‘Gas vans’”) at http://www.vho.org/GB/Books/dth/fndwagon.html.

    [2] Jacob Grojanowski was a pseudonym. As several men escaped from Chelmno, there has long been speculation about Grojanowski’s real identity. Some say it his real name was Szlamek Bajler. (See “Szlamek Bajler, also known as Yakov Grojanowski: Notes on the Chelmno Waldlager, January 1942” p. 2/8 at http://www.deathcamps.org/occupation/bajler.html.) Others believe that the identity of Grojanowski has been clarified beyond reasonable to be Shlomo (or ‘Szlamek’) Winer. (See discussion in Jonathan Harrison, Robert Muehlenkamp, Jason Myers, Sergey Romanov and Nicholas Terry, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: Holocaust Denial and Operation Reinhard. A Critique of the Falsehoods of Mattogno, Graf and Kues, pp. 46-47 at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html citing Przemyslaw Nowicki in ‘Zanim “przybył z zaświatów,” nazywał się Winer. Krag rodzinny i konspiracyjny Szlamka, uciekiniera z ośrodka zagłady w Chełmnie nad Nerem, Zagłada Zydow, 2009, pp.162-192.)

    [3] Oneg Shabbat (Hebrew) or Oyneg Shabbes (Yiddish) was the code name of a group led by Jewish historian Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum in the Warsaw ghetto. The group included historians, writers, rabbis and social workers. It was dedicated to chronicling life in the ghetto. They collected documents and testimonies, essays, diaries, drawings, posters and other materials describing life in the ghetto. The collection was started in September 1939 and ended in January 1943. Before the ghetto was liquidated the material was buried in three milk cans and ten metal boxes in three separate locations in the ghetto. Two of the milk cans were found in 1946 and the ten boxes in 1950. The third cache has yet to be uncovered. As of the two discoveries, the collection contains about 6,000 documents and is archived at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

    [4] Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985), p. 255. You can read the entire report at pages 252-279.

    [5] 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. 57.

    [6] Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, p. 67.

    [7] Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, pp. 61-62.

    [8] Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, p. 62.

    [9] Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, p. 63.

    [10] Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, pp. 59-60. Also, see: p. 77.

    [11] Eugen Kogon, Hermann Langbein, and Adalbert Rückerl, editors, Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas, p. 71. Also see: pp. 61-62.