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    Operation Reinhard Gas Chambers: Gas Chamber Design

    What do we know about the design of the gas chambers in the Operation Reinhard death camps (Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor)?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

    The Germans were excellent builders and engineers. Thus, according to deniers, they would not have built the poorly designed and inefficient gas chambers as described by eyewitnesses. Therefore, these gas chambers never existed at all.[1]

    The facts are:

    Although little physical evidence remains of the gas chambers in the death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, there is a multitude of eyewitness evidence, from both survivors and perpetrators, that describes the design and use of the gas chambers. From this evidence, it is clear that designs changed over time, leading to more and more efficiency.

    Facts about Gas Chamber Design in Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor:

    The design of the gas chamber buildings at the Operation Reinhard camps evolved as the Germans refined the process of mass murder.

    The first gas chambers:

    The first design had a hallway running down one side of the building with three gas chamber rooms off the hallway. Yankiel Wiernik, who survived Treblinka, describes the first gas chamber building in this way:

    When I arrived at the camp, three gas chambers were already in operation . . . A gas chamber measured 5 x 5 meters [16 feet x 16 feet] and was about 1.90 [6 feet] meters high . . . The chamber was equipped with a gas pipe inlet and a baked tile floor slanting towards the platform. The brick building which housed the gas chambers was separated from Camp No. 1 by a wooden wall. This wooden wall and the brick wall of the building together formed a corridor which was 80 centimeters [31.5 inches] taller than the building. The chambers were connected with the corridor by a hermetically fitted iron door leading into each of the chambers . . . The victims were led into the chambers through the doors leading from the corridor, while the remains of the gassed victims were dragged out through the doors facing Camp No. 2.[2]

    This design was not exclusive to Treblinka. Erich Bauer, the Gasmeister (Gas Master) in Sobibor, described a similar building in that camp: “When we arrived . . . [t]he gas chamber was already there, a wooden building on a concrete base, about the same size as this courtroom though much lower, as low as a normal house. There were two or three chambers, in front of which there was a corridor . . .”[3]

    The first gas chamber buildings quickly proved to be too small so they were re-designed to be larger, more efficient, and more deceptive in appearance.

    The design of the second gas chambers:

    The new gas chambers featured a hallway that ran down the middle of a long rectangular building. Gas chamber rooms were connected to this middle hallway. Eyewitness accounts vary as to the total number of gas chamber rooms, but the number of rooms ranged between six and ten rooms. Each room was about five meters by six or eight meters in size (about 16 feet by 20 or 26 feet).

    Rudolf Reder, a survivor of Belzec, described the second gas chamber building in that camp:

    The steps led to a completely empty and unlit corridor: just four cement walls. It was very long, though only about a metre and a half [5 feet] wide. On both sides of it were doors to the gas chambers . . . The gas chambers had no windows . . . All the walls and floors were made of cement. Both the corridor and the gas chambers were not more than 2 metres [6.5 feet] high.[4]

    The importance of deception in the murder process:

    The Germans made every possible effort to quell disorder or rebellion on the part of the Jews by presenting the gas chamber buildings as benign shower facilities.

    Kurt Bolender, an SS guard in Sobibor, testified to this fact: “Before the Jews undressed, Oberscharführer Hermann Michel [deputy commander of the camp] made a speech to them . . . Michel announced to the Jews that they would be sent to work. But before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection so as to prevent the spread of diseases . . .”[5]

    Erich Fuchs, an SS guard in Belzec, said the same: “In the gas chambers I installed shower heads. The nozzles were not connected to any water pipes because they would only serve as camouflage for the gas chamber. For the Jews who were gassed it would seem as if they were being taken to baths for disinfection.”[6]

    In Treblinka, the gas chamber building may not even have had an entry door to the central hallway. Avraham Lindwasser, who testified at the Eichmann trial on June 6, 1961, recalled: “I saw a big curtain at the entrance to the large chambers, a curtain used to cover the Ark containing the Torah scrolls with the Shield of David on it, and on the curtain there was the inscription: ‘This is the gate of the Lord, through which the righteous shall enter . . . it was of quite large dimensions. It measured three by four metres [10 feet x 13 feet] . . .'”[7] Wilhelm Pfannensteil, a German physician and hygienist who visited Belzec and Treblinka, also described the particularly innocuous exterior of the gas chambers in Belzec:

    The whole extermination centre looked just like a normal delousing institution. In front of the building there were pots of geraniums and a sign saying ‘Hackenholt Foundation’, above which there was a Star of David. The building was brightly and pleasantly painted so as not to suggest that people would be killed there. From what I saw, I do not believe that the people who had just arrived had any idea of what would happen to them.[8]

    Wilhelm Pfannenstiel. By U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
    Wilhelm Pfannenstiel. By U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

    Rudolf Reder, the only survivor of Belzec, also described innocent-looking design:

    In the small yard you went up the steps to the entrance door, above which there was a sign saying “Bade und Inhalationsraeume” as well as a large flower basket, which made it look as though it was really the entrance to a health spa.[9]

    Pavel Leleko, a Ukrainian guard in Treblinka, confirmed the deceptive appearance of the gas chambers: “Flowers grew right by in long boxes. There was no door at the entrance. Instead of it there was a heavy hanging made from a rug.”[10]

    Erich Bauer, the Gasmeister (Gas Master) in Sobibor, described the generally successful efforts to disarm the suspicions of the victims: “It was quite amazing how oblivious the Jews were that they were going to die. There was hardly ever any resistance. The Jews became suspicious only after they had already entered the gas chamber. But at that point there was no way back . . . The doors were sealed airtight and the gassing procedure was started immediately.”[11]

    “Denierbud” and “improved” gas chamber design:

    According to a Holocaust denier and YouTube video-maker known as “Denierbud,”  if the gas chamber buildings had existed, the Germans would have created two big rooms for the gas chambers with no central hallway. Each of the big rooms would have been equipped with their own double doors.[12] Denierbud’s speculations are completely theoretical and improbable.

    In fact, Denierbud’s “improvements” would only have made the whole process harder and less efficient. First, having one or two large spaces would have taken a longer time to fill with poisonous exhaust gases, therefore lengthening the time needed to kill victims. It is evident in the historical record that the Nazis actually thought about the drawbacks of larger rooms. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Wladyslaw Girsa, a Polish political prisoner, helped build partition walls in the large gas chambers in Crema 2 and 3. According to his testimony, this was done “in order to reduce the large capacity of the chamber when gassing smaller transports. This technical solution for the gas chambers gave the Germans a chance to save Zyklon.”[13]

    Second, once victims were jammed into the small rooms and the doors were shut, they were basically powerless to resist their fate. With larger rooms, if the deception broke down, the impact of disorder would have been much harder to contain.

    Third, Denierbud claims that the hallway used in the Operation Reinhard camps would have inhibited the flow of people, thus endangering the guards posted along it. The reverse was historically true: an internal hallway permitted just a handful of guards to direct the flow of victims much easier. As rooms farther from the entrance were filled, the doors could be locked and any danger of disorder could be removed. The guards could then move down the hallway to the next set of rooms, repeating this process systematically until all the rooms were full. Chil Rajchman (also known as Henryk Reichman), a survivor of Treblinka who worked in the extermination area, described exactly this systematic process. He stated: “People were stuffed into them in like herrings. When one chamber was full, the second one was opened, and so on.”[14]

    Double doors into big rooms might have looked less friendly than the “bathhouse” design the Germans ended up constructing. It was critical that the victims be deceived until they were locked into the gas chamber rooms.

    Conclusion:

    Realistically, speculations about what the Germans should have done amounts to little. Conjectures are not evidence. On the other hand, from witnesses themselves, one can see that the Nazis spent considerable effort thinking about the design of the death camps.

    NOTES

    [1] See “One Third of the Holocaust” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taIaG8b2u8I at approximately 54:00 to 57:00 to minutes.

    [2] Yankel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka (Chapter 5) at http://www.zchor.org/treblink/wiernik.htm.

    [3] Jules Shelvis, Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp (Berg in associated with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2007), 101.

    [4] Rudolf Reder, “Belzec,” Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, Volume 13: Focusing on the Holocaust and its Aftermath, edited by Antony Polonsky (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000), 268-289 (see page 275).

    [5] 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, 290 citing Belzec-Oberhauser, Band 7, 1320-1321 at http://holocaustcontroversies.blogspot.com/2011/12/belzec-sobibor-treblinka-holocaust.html. Select Google Docs, Rapidshare or Archive.org for PDF version. Also, see: Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Indiana University Press, 1987), 74.

    [6] 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, 282 citing Erich Fuchs, 2.3.1963, BAL 162/208 AR-Z 251/59, Bd. 9, 1782-1783. Also on design, see: “The Interrogation of Pavel Vladimirovich Leleko,” The Soviet Protocols, February 20, 1945 at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/l/leleko-pavel-v/leleko-001.html. Leleko’s precise recorded words are that the height of the gas chambers was “about two to five-three meters high.” This is very confusing. Five meters high would be about 16 feet so it is likely he misspoke, then corrected himself to three meters high resulting in the wording confusion. This writer is using the 2 to 3 meter (about 6.5 to 10 feet) figure as a matter of common sense.

    [7] Testimony of Abraham Lindwasser at the Eichman trial in Jerusalem on June 6, 1961 at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/e/eichmann-adolf/transcripts/Sessions/Session-066-08.html.

    [8] Ernst Klee, Willie Dressen, and Volker Reiss, editors. “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders (Free Press, 1988), 241.

    [9] 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, 292 citing Rudolf Reder, 29.12.45, BAL 162/208 AR-Z 252/59.

    [10] “The Interrogation of Pavel Vladimirovich Leleko,” The Soviet Protocols, February 20, 1945 at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/l/leleko-pavel-v/leleko-001.html.

    [11] Jules Shelvis, Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp (Berg in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2007), 102.

    [12] See “One Third of the Holocaust” at approximately 54:00 to 55:00 minutes.

    [13] Piotr Setkiewicz, The Auschwitz Crematoria and Gas Chambers (Voice of Memory series, No. 6), International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, 2010), 44.

    [14] Chil Rajchman, The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory 1942-1943 (Pegasus Books, 2011), 65.