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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 Rheinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor?

    Holocaust deniers claim:

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

    The facts are:

    Although little physical evidence remains of the gas chambers in the Operation Reinhard death camps of Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, there is a multitude of eyewitness evidence, both survivor and perpetrator, that describes the design and use of the gas chambers.

    The facts about the design of the gas chambers in Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

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

    The first gas chambers.

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

    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]

    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 to the victims.

    The design of the second gas chambers.

    The improved design of the new gas chambers featured a hallway that ran down the middle of the long axis of a rectangular building with gas chamber rooms on each side of it. The eyewitness accounts vary as to the total number (between six and ten) of gas chamber 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: “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: “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 with Kurt Gerstein, described the 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:

    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 and the outcome: “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’s “improved” gas chamber building design.

    Denierbud asserts that 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]

    Two big rooms instead of a series of smaller ones. In fact, Denierbud’s “improvements” would only have made the whole process harder and less efficient. Neither would his new design have afforded the critical element of deception. Let us take a look at each of his supposed “improvements.”

    First, one or two large spaces would have taken a longer time to fill with the poisonous exhaust gases and therefore lengthened the time needed to kill the victims. Further, with smaller transports only the necessary number of smaller rooms could to be used instead of trying to fill one large half-empty space with exhaust fumes, which would take even longer than if it were full of people.

    This concept was also understood at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Wladyslaw Girsa, a Polish political prisoner, helped to build partition walls in the large gas chambers in Crema/Gas chambers 2 and 3 “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 the victims had been jammed into the small rooms and the doors were shut and locked they were powerless to resist their fate. This would not be true with large rooms where, when the deception broke down, the panicky disorder would have been much harder to deal with or contain.

    The removal of the hallway.

    Denierbud claims that the hallway would have inhibited the flow of people and endangered the guards posted along it. However, the reverse is true. As the space constricted from the outside of the building to the narrow hallway the control the Germans could exert on their victims tightened. An internal hallway permitted a handful of guards to direct the flow of victims down to the far end of the hall. When the rooms farthest from the entrance were filled, the doors could be locked and all danger of disorder removed. The guards could then move forward down the hallway to the next set of rooms until all the rooms were full.

    Double doors into each large gas chamber room. Chil Rajchman (also known as Henryk Reichman), a survivor of Treblinka who had worked in the extermination area, describes this process of filling the gas chamber rooms one at a time: “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 would have looked less friendly than the “bathhouse” design the Germans did construct. It was critical that the victims be deceived until they were locked into the gas chamber room. If even a handful of Jews suddenly panicked and started to back out of the hallway or refused to enter the door it would have caused chaos and control problems that could have quickly spread throughout the rest.

    Conclusion

    Despite what Denierbud claims, a series of small gas chambers and a narrow hallway to contain and control the flow of people until they were locked in the gas chambers rooms was a “good” design for a mass murder facility. Denierbud’s “improved” features would only have made the whole process of mass murder more difficult and less efficient.

    Denierbud’s speculations about what the Germans should have done is pointless. His conjectures do not rise remotely to the level of evidence. It does not follow that because the Germans did not build the gas chambers the way Denierbud thinks they should have been built, they did not build them at all.

    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.